Big Ideas Entrepreneurs Respond to COVID-19

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The SOMO team is providing care packages containing food and health products sourced from local businesses for vulnerable families in Nairobi. (Photo credit: SOMO)

In 2010, when Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora launched Back to the Roots, a company that manufactures indoor gardening kits to connect families to food sourcing and urban gardening, it was the peak of the financial crisis. Velez remembers his mentor, Nicolas Jammet, co-founder of Sweetgreen, told him: 

“Don’t let a crisis go to waste. Take this opportunity to make yourself better and take advantage of what you have in front of you.”

For many entrepreneurs who come out of the University of California’s Big Ideas social innovation contest, the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are motivating them to find creative ways to shift their business strategies to stay busy and afloat — and to help as many people as possible in this difficult time.

For Mike Mitchell, CEO and co-founder of Acarí, a company that transforms the invasive devil fish in Mexico into a sustainably made jerky, this means shifting sales emphasis to online marketing and social media, while accelerating plans to launch their product on Amazon.  

For Christelle Rohaut, CEO of Codi an online platform that connects remote workers  to residents looking to earn additional income to help with housing affordability, the temporary pause in physical operations has allowed her team to focus on new hires and product design.

“Almost the whole world is working from home and this actually gives us a broad pool of people who understand the benefits of Codi firsthand,” said Rohaut, who anticipates a much greater demand on neighborhood co-working spaces after the shelter-in-place orders are lifted. 

“There were a lot of unicorns that were born out of the recession in 2008, so I think a lot of innovations will be born out of this as well,” she added. 

In a blog for GeekWire, Dan Rosen, chair of Seattle-based startup investment group Alliance of Angels, listed eight tips on how startups can survive the economic crisis. He wrote:
“If you have a way to shift some or all of your business to be part of a solution to the COVID-19 problem, stay alert to do so.”

Co-founders of Takataka Plastics, Paige Balcom and Peter Okwoko, are shifting their products from recycled construction goods to face shields for Ugandan doctors treating COVID-19 patients. (Photo credit: Takataka Plastics)

One example of this strategy is Big Ideas winner Takataka Plastics, whose founders, UC Berkeley Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD Student Paige Balcom and Peter Okwoko of Gulu University, are shifting their products from recycled construction goods to face shields for Ugandan doctors treating COVID-19 patients.

 “I think (COVID-19) is going to fuel new innovations and new ideas, even for existing initiatives,” said Balcom. “We thought about how Takataka could help its community in this difficult time.” 

Arushi Wasan, growth and program lead of Dost Education, an EdTech nonprofit that helps parents of any literacy level support their child’s early learning at home in India, said her team has initiated a two-week coronavirus audio education program for its 8,000 families subscribed in India.

Amelia Phillips, executive director of SOMO — an accelerator in Nairobi and Kisumu, Kenya that provides entrepreneurs training, tailored business advising, funding, and assistance with market access — is also pivoting. Her nonprofit has begun providing care packages, which contain food and health products sourced from local businesses for vulnerable families in Nairobi. 

“Entrepreneurs think: What is the world I imagine and how am I going to be a part of creating that world?” said Phillips. “These are the times that entrepreneurs are needed the most.”

For Anna Sadovnikova, co-founder and CEO of LiquidGoldConcept, a company that provides in-person breastfeeding education by manufacturing breastfeeding simulators, shifting in-person education programs to a virtual platform for health professionals has been her priority. 

“Due to COVID-19, breastfeeding mothers are not going to have access to their usual in-person support because mothers are being sent home within 24 hours after delivering,” said Sadovnikova, who noted that an overwhelming majority of new mothers are unable to breastfeed successfully after giving birth. 

In order to prevent unnecessary clinic and ER visits for infants and mothers during COVID-19, Sadovnikova is developing a free virtual platform where healthcare professionals can learn how to provide timely and skilled lactation support remotely for mothers. 

At home with a newborn baby, Ryan Protzko, co-founder of ZestBio, a company that transforms agricultural waste into sustainable chemicals, has gone from testing chemicals in a Berkeley lab, to passing a baby back and forth between himself and his wife as they both navigate working from home. 

Protzko and co-founder, Luke Latimer, are locked out of their UC Berkeley lab, which is putting a pause in their research and development phase. Yet this has not stopped them from enlarging their network. 

“I actually had to pitch a project while holding my baby,” said Protzko, who noted he could not imagine doing that a few months ago. 

Resilience is a common theme among many Big Ideas entrepreneurs–a skill they learn is key to their chosen line of work. 

“There’s a lot of potential to take something bad and turn it around,” said Balcom from Gulu, Uganda. “The world is really ripe for new ideas.”

Kaloum Bankhi Guinea NGO Vice President, Mouminy Toure, showcasing personal protective equipment: a bucket with a tap to dispense diluted bleach, which families can use as hand sanitizer, and a locally made surgical mask.

Responding to COVID-19 with Big Ideas

Here’s how other Big Ideas teams are adapting and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic:
  • Kaloum Bankhi, 2018 Big Ideas winner, is building durable and culturally appropriate houses for residents in Kaloum, Guinea. In response to COVID 19, this project has begun distributing personal protective equipment including buckets with taps that hold dilute bleach which families will use as hand sanitizer (via Twitter).
  • Marhub, 2018 Big Ideas winner, is a digital platform that enables refugees to navigate bureaucracy and connect with assistance. In response to COVID-19, they are now making accurate coronavirus information accessible to refugees through their digital platform, while aiming to counteract misinformation and empower refugees to protect themselves and stop the spread of the virus.  
  • Copia, 2012 Big Ideas winner, makes healthy food more accessible to people in the community by helping businesses redistribute high-quality excess food to those in need. In response to COVID-19, Copia has launched the initiative #DeliveringwithDignity, which has provided 5,000 meals to individuals and families, while also providing jobs to restaurant workers (via FSR Magazine Article).