“Just gotta push through it” – 7 outcomes from COVID-19Jackie Gill - June 19, 2020
For over two months, we’ve been asking Canadian innovators: how has COVID-19 impacted your business… and how are you dealing with life during a pandemic?
Now it’s time to share what we’ve learned through our survey and conversations we’ve had with founders across the country. We’ve heard from businesses flourishing in the face of adversity. That dropped everything to help a population in need, not for publicity or glory but because it was the right thing to do. That struggled to find footing in a new world. That questioned whether there’s a place for them in the future.
We don’t want to hold back any punches. There’s good along with the bad, and bad along with the good. We thank everyone who shared their stories with us, and hope these insights serve to inspire, acknowledge our collective struggles and highlight the hope we carry forward to a post-pandemic world.
1. Some have made huge pivots.
When Jeremy Hedges founded InkSmith in 2016, his goal was to bring technology into the classroom through 3D printers, laser cutters, robotics and virtual reality – while working with schoolboards on teaching design thinking and computational thinking.
That changed in March, when it became clear that personal protective equipment, or PPE, was in short supply across Canada and the world. In response, the company shifted gears in a big way.
“We have the tools, the 3d printers, the laser cutters, the other automation equipment on hand, and we converted our production as fast as we could,” Hedges says. The Canadian Shield was born. Now, the company is busy pumping out 10 million of the reusable face masks to meet a federal contract.
And, as Hedges looks into the future and as InkSmith returns to their edtech roots, the Canadian Shield will become part of their day-to-day business in a post-COVID world.
2. Some are filling in the gaps.
When InkSmith needed a place to sanitize 3D printed headbands donated from makers around the community, Tridome Structures offered to help.
In the past, Tridome supplied tension-fabric structures for everything from barns to recycling centres and storage. COVID-19 prompted them to add healthcare to the list as their usual pipelines were delaying or cancelling orders.
“We have redesigned specific components of the structures and partnered with other suppliers to be able to provide a building that is rapidly deployable across North America specific to the needs of a fully functioning field hospital,” Mary Thompson, President of Tridome, says in an email.
“We saw the shortcomings of how the medical industry was able to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and wanted to be part of the solution,” Thompson adds. “There are big opportunities for us to have a positive impact on the medical community and be part of the solution while providing specialized buildings.”
“We came to this thinking, this is what we can do for people to help them through this time?”
– Jessé David Thé, CEO and co-founder of Tauria
Similarly, when news landed that video conferencing apps like Zoom weren’t all they’ve cracked up to be with users complaining about unwanted guests in their meetings and experts pointing out worrisome security holes, Tauria knew they could do better. So the team built a fully encrypted, zero-knowledge video conferencing app of their own.
“Zoom is literally compromising companies and people’s privacy right now,” says Tauria CEO and co-founder Jessé David Thé. “Our dedication comes from protecting peoples’ privacy … we came to this thinking, this is what we can do for people to help them through this time?”
The app fits into the company’s other offerings, Thé says, which include messaging, calendars and file-sharing all in one secure collaboration platform. And to help further, they launched a free trial followed by a limited-time discount.
“The best way for us to help is by giving this to as many people as we possibly can,” says Thé.
3. Some have launched early.
For eOceans founder and CEO Dr. Christine Ward-Paige, COVID-19 meant launching her company’s app ahead of schedule. “June is Ocean Month, and so I was planning to do something for that,” she says.
Then, four things happened: COVID-19 lockdowns kept researchers from traveling to their research sites, ocean wildlife patterns shifted as tourism activity changed, protected areas became threatened without the watchful eye of management or tourism, and people started flocking to the beach for a respite from social isolation.
That’s why Ward-Paige pulled the trigger in April and launched eOcean’s Our Ocean in COVID-19 program, which asks anyone living near an ocean to help researchers out by logging their observations.
The decision wasn’t without risk. “As a business owner you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression… and I always wanted it to be as perfect as it could be,” she says. But she knew the need was even greater than the risk. “I didn’t have to launch anything. It was more just because there was a need.”
4. Some are making products more accessible.
What do you do when your landline’s in your office… but you aren’t? When COVID-19 hit, OpenPhone answered the call with an offer to port office phone lines over to their all-digital platform, along with three months of their service, for free.
“Very quickly [businesses] realized that it’s not safe for them to go to work anymore,” says co-founder and CEO Daryna Kulya. “We know that the service we offer is very essential. People need communication more than ever. We are lucky to be providing the type of service that is very much in demand, even in times like this, because we crave to stay connected and to communicate.”
Even as a young startup – they opened their doors in 2018 – OpenPhone knew even a small gesture could help, though it meant balancing their own growth and survival. “For a lot of startups, I know it can be tempting to say, ‘we haven’t really made it yet so we can’t help others,’” Kulya says.
“We are lucky to be providing the type of service that is very much in demand, even in times like this.”
– Dayna Kulya, co-founder and CEO of OpenPhone
“I feel like you can help, start helping people in a small way, even when you’re still startup. As you grow that, it’s like a muscle you develop.”
5. Some are struggling with uncertainty (but still trying to help).
While some companies have introduced new products or made major pivots, others are still figuring things out. (And that’s entirely okay, says Kulya – “A lot of small business owners need time to digest what’s happening.”)
For PolyGone Technologies, a startup that measures microplastics in consumer products, “Most customers also have their businesses closed,” founder Lauren Smith told us in our Draft Canada COVID-19 survey. That’s on top of handling cancelled orders, being locked out of their lab space, and juggling delays in funding and their supply chain.
Although COVID-19’s impact has been significant, that doesn’t mean they’re resting. Smith participated in this year’s AquaHacking challenge for Atlantic Canada, appearing on an Ask Me Anything about microplastics in fishing gear and putting their 3D printers to good use making parts for PPE face masks for manufacturers like InkSmith. “[We] pivoted to producing PPE for those that need it most, with our remaining resources,” she says.
It’s a similar story for Social Venture Partners Waterloo Region, a philanthropic organization that supports the charitable sector through funding, networking, expertise and more, all in the name of supporting social change in their community.
“Now is the time, more than ever, to help the helpers.”
– Taryn Graham, Operations and communications manager for Social Venture Partners Waterloo Region
“We have two client groups: the charities we work with and donors (Partners) who share their time/talent/treasure,” writes Taryn Graham, SVPWR’s operations and communications manager in Draft Canada’s survey. “Charities have expressed deep concerns over funding/potential and real layoffs; Partners have been largely supportive, but some may not be able to renew their investment this year.”
They’re part of a larger local effort to distribute over $800,000 to charities through a COVID-19 Community Response Fund, in partnership with the United Way. “It is vital for us to help corporate and individual donors, and government, understand the importance of maintaining their support of the charitable sector as much as is possible; now is the time, more than ever, to help the helpers,” Graham adds.
6. Some have launched new organizations.
What government COVID-19 programs do you qualify for? It varies depending on where, exactly, you live. And it’s so confusing that Brad Moon, along with three other founders in Ontario’s tech corridor, didn’t know either.
“We started talking to a bunch of people, asking them, ‘What do you know about the government support programs?’” says Moon. “Most of the time it was not much. They had heard of something but they don’t really know where to look.”
So Moon and the team gathered a small group of volunteers and launched Corona Support, a website that serves up the answer – in about three minutes. “We had a bit of spare time. We’re like, I know this is a pretty, tough time for a lot of people. I wonder if there’s anything we can do to help out?”
Today, Corona Support has helped over 21,000 Canadians take the next step to get the help they need. “We think a lot of people can benefit from this, so we’re just trying to get it out to as many people as possible,” says Moon.
7. Some are being held back.
You’re self-funded. You’ve invested your time – and money – into your latest venture. You have a minimum viable product, but haven’t officially launched. You don’t yet have customers. Then… COVID-19 happens. How do you move forward at such an early stage?
For Founder Match App founder Adeel Khan, it’s a tough call. “I don’t qualify for financial assistance and lack any kind of financial support structure,” he told us through our survey. So should he move forward? “I don’t know if I want to build this app.”
For now, Khan’s focus is on his mental health. “I would say that my mental health is pretty good right now. Coronavirus has had some impact… but it’s tolerable,” he shares.
His current plan: “Just gotta push through it.”
Our work isn’t done yet
COVID-19 isn’t leaving anytime soon… and neither is our reporting on innovators facing change and challenge. So keep telling us what your world looks like. We can’t wait to share more of what we learn.
Got a COVID-19 story? Share it with us and help spread good ideas during the crisis.