At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, NLC developed a website for people to share COVID-19 related ideas and innovations. With over 140 uploaded to the site, we wanted to share the insights we gained from these contributions.
Insight 1: The type of innovation shared followed a distinct timeline, with universities and hospitals getting the ball rolling.
At the start of the crisis, the biggest worries for hospitals were very practical: having access to enough Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), and being able to supply all patients with ventilators if need be. The vast majority of innovations in the first few weeks focused on fulfilling these needs.
After a while, we saw the focus of the inventions shifting to the longer term. Treatment solutions and support, along with testing for the virus or antibodies became the main focus of inventions (apart from the huge search for a vaccine, of course).The inventions also became more technically complex.
A third wave of innovation emerged shortly after the second, reflecting the fact that people were recovering and allowed to return to their homes. This wave saw monitoring devices, apps for tracking health, and also ideas for using AI to determine the damage done to the lungs of affected patients.
Insight 2: Universities were first.
Unsurprisingly, universities and hospitals were first to come up with innovation at the outset of the crisis. Was it because they were closest to the fire to know what was desperately needed? Or did they just have more opportunity to put resources towards these new projects as existing research was temporarily halted? Maybe they just felt less hesitant to openly share their inventions in times of need. In any case, universities delivered the majority of inventions in the first few days of the crisis, along with individual inventors who quickly jumped in to help with the shortage of PPE.
A few weeks later, companies followed with less open source and more complex innovations. Additionally, inventions that improved existing processes emerged.
Now, the origin of the posts around new inventions had distinctly shifted from universities to companies. Presumably, universities had resumed their ongoing research projects, whereas companies continued to focus on long-term solutions, a market with high profit potential.
Insight 3: A crisis of this magnitude breaks barriers.
During the last few months, we have seen innovation in ways that we were hard to imagine before the crisis hit. For example:
1. User driven innovation:
Especially at the start of the crisis, innovation that originated from an urgent user need was prevalent. Healthcare workers were in dire need of equipment to be able to do their job safely and adequately. Hospitals and universities quickly stepped in and developed what was needed. In normal times, inventions emerge out of a combination of both a technology push and a user need. In times of crisis, it seems the accent shifts more towards the latter.
2. Non-medical companies stepping in:
Companies that were not originally supplying the health industry quickly pivoted their existing products, technology or production lines to meet a medical need. Examples of this are with PPE. Auping, a well known mattresses company, added face masks to their portfolio. Dyson used their technology to produce ventilators. Car manufacturers and Formula 1 teams helped with ventilators. Distilleries turned their excess alcohol into hand sanitizer. Even an environmental company joined the COVID-19-related innovation boom, developing a method to concurrently monitor multiple patients’ temperatures during treatment.
3. Companies formed unlikely partnerships, joining forces with competitors or with universities and hospitals:
Companies and institutions that normally would not easily work well together teamed up to tackle a wide variety of issues. Hospitals and AI companies worked together on AI solutions in order to improve diagnostics and treatment of the lungs. Competitors GSK and Sanofi joined forces on finding a vaccine. Medtronic shared it’s IP and specifications of a ventilator to counter the worldwide shortage. Even multiple competing 3D-printing companies committed to working together to mobilise resources to support critical needs.
Insight 4: Inventions often took the form of low-tech innovation.
When it comes to ventilators, but also equipment to facilitate the treatment of patients, we saw innovations that reduced complicated equipment to their most basic form, making them easily replicable and fool-proof.
Another form of this type of innovation is the repurposing of existing products. For example: the use of nicotine plasters to treat COVID-19 patients, the use of Decathlon snorkel masks to help meet the enormous demand for respirators, and the use of leftover alcohol by distilleries to produce hand sanitiser.
This low-tech innovation highlights that inventions don’t need to be extremely complicated or sophisticated in order to meet a demand. Sometimes, a huge difference is made by ‘simply’ optimising the work process, simplifying the product or just repurposing it.
What can we learn from this?
- Universities and hospitals are very good at rising to the occasion, stepping in and diverting resources to where they are needed most to come up with practical solutions—even within days.
- At the start of a crisis, innovations are demand driven, not technology pushed. The need is high where the crisis hits, and this is where innovation centres around.
- A crisis of this scale seems to lead to innovations that are low-tech. Stripping complicated equipment to the bare minimum, making them easily replicable, fool-proof and easy to obtain.
- Most importantly, in a normally fragmented innovation landscape, the healthtech field of business has proven that, in times of crisis, barriers can very quickly be overcome. There has been and still is an enormous dedication to solving the problems that have arisen. This is certainly something to be proud of and should serve as an inspiration for us all!
Jikke de Jong is responsible for Technology Sourcing at NLC – the European health tech venture builder. She is responsible for guarding the inflow of new technologies. Jikke has a background in both Life Sciences and Innovation management and is always keen to spot technologies that are ready for venture building.