By: Katherine Rubino
Throughout the history of the United States, the darkest economic times have given rise to noteworthy inventions that have transformed our way of life. For example, the Great Depression resulted in the fluorescent light bulb, the first car radio, cellophane tape, and the ever-important chocolate chip cookie. Likewise, during the economic downturn during the 1980s, life was changed by the creation of Diet Coke, the artificial heart, and disposable cameras.
These times show that the chaos of economic uncertainty feeds originality and innovation. Here, economic crises fostered innovation and encouraged entrepreneurship by disrupting the status quo and opening the door for new business models and industry.
Presently, economists worldwide predict that the recent outbreak of COVID-19 is accelerating a U.S. recession as evidenced by unemployment claims in the U.S. rising by 3 million in the last week alone[i]. However, this looming recession has spurred a whirlwind of innovation as businesses and researchers create new medical devices and treatments to battle COVID-19.
Several programs are being led by start-up companies, entrepreneurs, educational institutions, scientists, and researchers each racing against the clock to solve the numerous, multi-factorial problems presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these innovators are driven by a desire to use new designs, ideas, and science to solve these complex difficulties. Highlighted below is a summary of some of the very early stages of innovation that are resulting from this public health crisis.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a novel point of care coronavirus test developed by Abbott Labs. This test has been shown to deliver positive results of the novel coronavirus in five minutes.[ii] The test runs on Abbott’s ID NOW platform which is widely available in laboratories, physician offices, and urgent care centers across the country.[iii] Currently, the ID NOW platform tests for other respiratory conditions such as Streptococcal pharyngitis (Strep), influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).[iv]
Other current tests available on the market can take anywhere from days to weeks to determine a result for the novel coronavirus. These delays lead to frustration for patients, as they are left anxiously awaiting their test results. However, testing using Abbott’s new technology can be performed while a patient waits in a clinic setting, allowing for an almost instantaneous diagnosis and making this test a game changer. Further, Abbott’s test uses equipment already available in clinician offices, making it easy to implement at testing sites around the country. Abbott expects to be able to deliver 50,000 tests per day using this novel technology.[v]
3D-Printed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
In recent weeks, healthcare professionals around the country are reporting massive shortages of protective equipment. Many nurses and doctors are being forced to reuse N-95 masks while others have turned to making their own PPE from garbage bags. In response to this, Cornell University has started producing 3D-printed protective gear.[vi] Currently, Cornell University is printing plastic visors and clips that can attach to a plastic shield.[vii] Cornell University expects to produce anywhere from between 500 to 1,000 face shields each day.[viii]
Efforts to 3D print PPE and medical supplies have sparked innovation across the country. In Boston, Markforged, a company that manufactures metal and carbon fiber 3D printers, is producing 3D-printed face shields as well as swabs used by health professionals to collect cells for COVID-19 testing.[ix] Markforged estimates that it can print anywhere from 10,000 to 14,000 of these swabs a day.[x] Current prototypes are being tested in local Boston area hospitals.[xi]
In early January, scientists and researchers in China successfully sequenced the genetic code of COVID-19. Within two days of the genetic sequence being publicly available, scientists from Moderna Therapeutics finalized a vaccine known as “mRNA-1273,” made to protect against COVID-19.[xii] This vaccine utilizes mRNA to transport a spike protein found on the surface of the virus into the human body. Once the vaccine is injected, the body produces an immune response that can subsequently protect the body when exposed to the actual virus.[xiii] On March 16th, Moderna Therapeutics administered its first dose of the vaccine to a human, a mere 63 days after the genome of COVID-19 was sequenced.[xiv] The vaccine is expected to be widely available for use within the next 12–18 months.[xv] However, the company is reporting that the vaccine may be available to healthcare professionals under an emergency-use exception as early as fall 2020.[xvi]
Epidemiological Tracking of the Virus
Being able to follow how COVID-19 is spreading throughout the United States is paramount for flattening the curve and decreasing rates of infection in the U.S. Biobot Analytics, a startup that analyzes sewage to map population health in cities, states, and countries, has started tracking the spread of COVID-19 across the United States.[xvii] Biobot Analytics has worked in conjunction with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital to develop a pro-bono program to test sewage samples for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.[xviii] Mapping the virus in this manner helps provide information to the public about the scope and likely spread of the outbreak as well as track the effectiveness of interventions.[xix] The technology can also determine if there is a second wave or reemergence of the virus at a later point in time.[xx]
Communicating Health Updates to the Public
The current pandemic has placed government officials and health care experts in dire need of ways to communicate to their citizens about new measures and responses to the virus. Soofa, a startup that creates solar-powered digital signs, offers a solution for this need in signage placed in public places that post emergency announcements.[xxi] The Massachusetts based company has installed the signs in several towns across Massachusetts, including Brookline, Somerville, Everett, and Malden.[xxii] Soofa’s signs are being used to communicate public help updates as well as to post information about school closures, canceled events, and transportation disruptions.[xxiii]
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and drastically changed our modern way of living. However, during these times, companies are seeking new and unconventional ways to protect the health, safety, and well-being of their employees while still conducting business. Over the long term, these new and unconventional means will not only alter the very way we do business but will transform our way of life. Companies that can adapt to these changes and continue to acclimate to ever changing societal needs will become leaders in both innovation and business.
[i] The National Bureau of Economic Research defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in production, employment, real income, and other indicators.” https://www.nber.org/cycles.html