As the COVID-19 outbreak scrambles every aspect of economies and businesses worldwide, the only certainty is uncertainty; the future belongs to small, nimble and agile players – a description which is often applied to Hong Kong, as well as start-up nation Israel.The CEO of leading Israeli venture capital firm OurCrowd, Jonathan Medved (main picture), sees East Asian economies, themselves home to ample start-up activity, leading the world out of the crisis. OurCrowd has a strong interest in Asian start-ups, with its Hong Kong success stories including travel booking platform Klook.
“The East Asian economies will be a major source of innovations dealing with the disease and its fallout,” Mr Medved said. “One of the hallmarks of the innovation economy is its ability to draw on broad ranges of experience, culture, language and education. Thinking different is thinking ahead. Everyone has a role to play. As the people closest to the source of the outbreak and the earliest adopters of the techniques used to overcome it, the lessons learned from the East Asian experience of this latest crisis will add to the already inspiring boom in innovation that brought OurCrowd to the region where we find approaches that constantly enrich the global search for new technology.”
The venture capital firm itself has had to think on its feet and adapt quickly to a world of travel restrictions and lockdowns.“This is a different world right now,” Mr Medved said. “Our first responsibility is for the safety of our staff and partners. People can’t go to their jobs, they can’t go to events, so we have to rethink how we approach things. We have reduced our office attendance to a minimum in line with Israel government guidelines, and almost all of our staff are working from home. We are used to video conferencing because our offices and partners are spread globally. “In the past week since Israel went into virtual lockdown, in addition to constant internal office teleconferences, we have held two major webinars with portfolio company CEOs and investors, with hundreds of people participating at very short notice. We are talking to every company in our portfolio to make sure they get the maximum help and guidance from OurCrowd and our network.”OurCrowd had run webinars and live-streaming events such as the Jerusalem Global Investor Summit and Sync gatherings around the world for some time, Mr Medved said, putting the firm a little bit ahead. “We are launching a series of web-based get-togethers and regional webinars so that our worldwide community of 42,000 investors and more than 200 start-ups can continue to engage and inspire each other,” he said.
Mr Medved expected investors to reallocate capital away from commercial real estate, energy, aviation and tourism, noting that the COVID-19 outbreak had heavily impacted these sectors. “We are already getting calls from investors seeking opportunities in this new economic climate,” he said.Being a start-up itself, OurCrowd is always trying something new, he said; people were not coming to in-person events but the firm was adjusting. “We want them to pay attention to the wonderful innovation happening in our portfolio, to get excited about what start-ups can do and how they can change the world. Events, in person or online, are just a means to communicate this excitement.”Everyone missed the personal contact but the available technology for communicating, teleconferencing and sharing documents on the cloud meant they were carrying on pretty much as normal.
“This is a terrible crisis that will cause suffering for many millions of people but start-up ingenuity and technology offer a wide range of solutions,” Mr Medved said. “We have already been approached by investors who realise that new technologies and solutions will emerge from this crisis there, forming the basis of a new economy; just as the Second World War spawned the United States defence and aerospace industry.“Many of our companies are serving remote access, social distancing, automation, and more. Many more companies than you would think have technology relevant to the crisis,” Mr Medved said. “While the environment for funding has become more challenging, investments are getting done, especially for those companies who are relevant and with proven business models and track records “He listed a number of OurCrowd firms that have a key role to play amid the outbreak include Kryon, with a computer vision and AI-powered Robotic Processing Automation (RPA) solution which cuts the time to complete enterprise-level tasks and projects, detecting which tasks should be automated, reducing design, development and overhead costs. This will help provide key process benefits for companies now faced with massive and unexpected distance working. Last week, Kryon responded within 48 hours to a request from a major Israeli health system, Maccabi Healthcare Services, deploying its technology to add COVID-19 test results from the health ministry database to the provider's patient records, enabling swift, automated data transfer between two previously incompatible systems.
Crisis and opportunity
As supply chains realign, anther OurCrowd find Freightos online freight logistics platform will allow dynamic supply chain management and rapid redeployment of supplies. Hiring new staff will become difficult. Codility helps recruit system developers, assessing applicants for programming engineer positions through online coding tests that help predict the real-life skills of candidates at scale.“We are already seeing 3-D printing saving lives by producing scarce ventilator valves in Italy,” Mr Medved said. “We are heading for a new post-pandemic economy where start-ups and technology can provide the urgent solutions required. Our job is to connect those great, fast-moving innovators with the capital and connections they require to produce and deploy their much-needed technology.”In the same way that workplaces seek mobile solutions, educational institutions, students and parents are seeking remote learning tools. MaginLearn’s online personalised educational platform teaches English using natural language processing and computer intelligence to dynamically tailor instruction to each student according to their ability. Mr Medved said OurCrowd is looking for more companies providing distance learning solutions, anticipating this will become more urgent as schools and universities remain shuttered.EdTech company Sense enables teachers to construct free-form testing for code, essays, statistics and more, empowering instructors to provide personalised feedback on many types of free-answer questions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses at large scale.
Small, agile start-ups are not only good at adapting to crises and dealing with the fallout; they can also move quickly to address issues, and Israel has a well-established ecosystem of biotechnology and pharmaceutical enterprises which have moved quickly to counter COVID-19.“Several OurCrowd companies are already deploying their technology to provide frontline medical care for COVID-19 patients,” Mr Medved said. “In the quarantine wards at Israel’s largest hospital, the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv, TytoCare’s technology is being used for remote medical examinations by physicians of COVID-19 patients, enabling vital lung and other examinations with minimal physical contact to protect front-line medical staff. In the same quarantine wards, Sight Diagnostics’ sealed-unit complete blood count testing is deployed to support management of COVID-19 patients while reducing the risk of cross infection. As researchers rush to find a vaccine, treatment and cure, SaNOtize is testing a nasal spray and hand sanitiser for use against COVID-19 with the Institute for Antiviral Research at Utah State University. Sweetch technology helps people stick to health prevention and medical regimes. Its monitoring of at-risk populations could be a key tool in protecting vulnerable people from the virus. MeMed’s technology allows diagnosticians to make the key distinction between viral and bacterial infections before the appearance of symptoms, which could significantly slow down the spread of the virus.”Israel is well-equipped to deal with a wide range of crises since it is frequently under military attack, and its citizens have the discipline of military service, Mr Medved noted. “We are used to helping each other, taking threats seriously, and heeding sensible safety precautions from the authorities. The Israeli business DNA that created the startup nation and OurCrowd is rooted in the kind of resilience and flexibility that enables us to carry on our lives even in a major crisis.”One industry that will certainly be changed going forward is insurance. “OurCrowd’s portfolio includes Lemonade, a fast-growing new-generation insurance company that is revolutionising the insurance market,” Mr Medved said of the American online insurance firm. “We expect Lemonade to lead the charge in the innovations that the insurance industry will need to weather this storm and emerge from it strengthened and ready to serve the community.”