Beyond COVID-19: A new era for deep tech startups

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc for startups around the world, with unprecedented employee layoffs and steep declines in startup financing. Global lockdowns are disrupting industries and altering consumer behaviour, with many of these changes likely to persist beyond the current crisis.

Singapore’s startups have responded strongly to the crisis, with several medtech startups rising to the occasion to rapidly iterate, manufacture, and scale solutions to fight the global war against COVID-19.

With Singapore being the hub of Asia, six founders of Singapore-based startups share how they are responding to the crisis, and what startups in various industries can do to position themselves for success in a post-coronavirus world.

The ultimate test

For B2B startups focused on corporate or industrial digitalisation, the coronavirus is the ultimate test to prove their solution’s effectiveness in complex real-time scenarios.

This is a window of opportunity for startups, as companies across the world are eager to embrace solutions that can minimise business disruption, improve business resilience, and bolster market leadership.

With governments encouraging workers to telecommute where possible, Partha Ray, founder, and CEO of Industry 4.0 startup dDriven, has been hard at work helping his Fortune 500 process manufacturing customers retain remote monitoring and control of their operations. They do it by creating live digital twins, in order to mitigate potential supply chain risks. “We want to do our part to offer our solutions at a highly discounted price point to industries that are severely hit by this crisis,” he adds.

Similarly, the shift to remote corporate workplaces and fast-evolving regulatory developments arising from COVID-19 has given regtech firm RADICALi an extreme-scenario case to demonstrate the effectiveness of their virtual workflow and collaboration tools for compliance professionals. Hardesh Singh, CEO and co-founder, mentions that “adopting smart compliance solutions can enable companies to easily track and act on regulations, to deliver much-needed business certainty during this time.”

Pivoting to new sectors

Industry disruptions are forcing startups to rethink their business strategy and adapt quickly for survival. For startups that are pivoting to areas that are experiencing a growth surge, business diversification through entering new sectors can yield high returns.

The hospitality industry has been hard hit by COVID-19, and even non-human ‘employees’ are on the chopping block. “We have many robots working in service and hospitality, which have been off-boarded in favour of maintaining human staff,” says Michael Sayre, CEO of Cognicept.

Nonetheless, opportunities have surfaced in other areas for his robotic intervention and teleoperation products, which enable the fast deployment of robots in dynamic and unpredictable environments. “We have received numerous enquiries about supporting UV disinfection robots, cleaning robots, and delivery robots in quarantine zones,” he added. The startup is currently deploying its solution to assist several international firms who are involved in these areas.

Telemedicine in the spotlight

Experts predict that radical changes in healthcare resulting from COVID-19 will finally break down the regulatory and psychological barriers that have impeded the widespread adoption of telemedicine. With physical resources strained and hospitals telling patients to stay away unless necessary, the healthcare industry has a strong urgency to implement remote diagnostic and care solutions.

For TeleMedC CEO Para Segaram, the crisis has reinforced his belief in using telemedicine to solve healthcare problems. TeleMedC, which provides AI-powered diagnostic solutions for point-of-care screening and virtual management of eye diseases, is seizing this opportunity to change people’s thoughts on digital preventive healthcare.

The startup has received interest from clinicians in Singapore, Australia, and the US about implementing their solution in the near future.

Mitigating coronavirus risk also is a key concern for Biorithm, which has developed a wearable device that enables continuous and automated monitoring of fetal and maternal heart rates. According to CEO Amrish Nair, clinicians seeking to reduce patient loads in hospitals are starting to embrace telehealth and its benefits, which may spark a healthcare revolution in the near-term.

“Pregnant women have always been classified as a vulnerable group and it is important to ensure they have continued access to care. Our solution allows clinicians to continue monitoring fetal health at the desired frequency while keeping expecting mothers out of the hospital. We are offering a ‘lite’ version of our solution for free to public healthcare providers during this time,” he says.

Staying home but thinking global

For some startups, the coronavirus has created a renewed urgency to look for new pastures abroad, despite added complexities due to international travel restrictions.

Just before the coronavirus hit, Philipp von Pein, Co-founder and CEO of Attonics Systems, was gearing up to expand his spectrometry startup to Germany and establish a European head office. Now, with a drop in demand from his existing customers, he is going virtual to connect with prospective investors and customers in Europe.

“We joined the Scaler8 market expansion programme in March, which has been immensely helpful in helping us gain industry insights and connecting us to corporations in Germany to pitch our products in virtual meetings,” says von Pein.

With a small domestic market, the Singapore government has enhanced support schemes for startups to enter high-potential overseas markets and promote their innovations on a global level. Singapore firms can tap on the Startup SG Equity scheme and Market Readiness Assistance Grant, as well as participate in market expansion programmes conducted by Enterprise Singapore’s Global Innovation Alliance network, such as Scaler8.

In these uncertain times, the courage and foresight to think global and seize new opportunities can help businesses better position themselves to bounce back and grow fast during the eventual economic recovery.

A whole new world

One thing is undeniable – it will be a different world after the coronavirus. A decade ago, the 2008 – 2009 financial crisis provided fertile ground for the emergence of a generation of unicorn companies. Similarly, the current COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for startups to demonstrate the benefits of disruptive technologies.

Hence, beyond ensuring their startup’s survival, founders need to think big and start taking a leading role to drive global industry transformation now and beyond.

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