True innovations solve real problems…

and the elephant in the room is keeping the world in lockdown mode.

Over 2.6 billion people around the world, or one third of the world’s population are in some kind of lockdown. More people are in lockdown now than there were alive during World War II. Whether it’s mandatory full quarantine,  non-mandatory recommendations halting businesses and events, or call for people to stay home.

Urgency to combat COVID-19

Currently, the pressing needs of almost every country are to fight the virus at the front line. An effective virus combat strategy requires the whole of government collaboration to identify, track, suppress and contain COVID-19.

Wide deployment of trained public health force, implementing a system to find every suspected case, and ramping up testing capacity are of utmost importance. Following that, isolation, social distancing and lockdowns are all key levers to curb acceleration of infection rate.

Times of significant disruption

However, confined movements and travel bans are inflicting high and rising human costs worldwide. These necessary measures are severely impacting economic activities.

As a result, the global economy is projected to contract sharply a level that is much worse than during the 2008/2009 financial crisis. This major external shock to the macro outlook, is akin to a large-scale natural disaster.

The potential for transformative changes presents new problems and opportunities for innovation amid times of significant disruption.

Here are some changing market needs and consumer behaviors that may inspire new innovations and business transformation:

Changing media and space consumption

As consumers stay at home, they spend more time on TV and online medium, for news and pandemic updates. The level of social media engagement has also peaked and the buzz about COVID-19 far overshadows most other topics. Netizens are using social media less for discussion and more for news.

Digitally savvy consumers are looking to apps to meet their needs for entertainment, online shopping and services for home delivery of goods and services, food delivery.  Online education and fitness programs are also gaining popularity as people adjust to an indoor lifestyle.

I believe that forced experiments for home-based learning may drive wider acceptance for hybrid (online–offline) education. It is highly possible that remote work and learning may outlive the crisis.

As such, we would need more sophisticated tools to deliver interactive and high-quality education, as well as work collaboration, at a lower cost.

With more businesses adopting remote working and an accelerated growth of e-commerce, we can expect to see the demand for commercial leases shift from office to industrial spaces.

Healthcare and mental health

There are already several mobile health, e-health, remote health, and diagnostics start-ups and companies that are able to respond during a real epidemic.

Currently, pandemic-driven anxiety and stress are side effects of prolonged social isolation. We should expect to see more new technology-driven solutions to help doctors, nurses, other health workers, and the larger public. Amongst them are health tech products such as wellness assessment, stress management, pain and anxiety relief.

Technology like chatbot, virtual reality, bio feedback and artificial intelligence (AI) will be the key enablers.

There is even an AI-based mental and emotional wellness apps that connect users with personal therapists.

Essential services and products

More than half the world’s population lives in a city. And they rely on the global food supply chain to ensure everyday essentials are in stock at the market. Imagine what happens when the people picking our fresh produce and the packers and delivery personnel can’t perform their jobs.

This pandemic will put strain on major industrial nations with urban populations, whose the food supply chains are longer, more complex, and, possibly, more vulnerable. Here is where bio-tech start-ups come into play to build new homegrown food eco-system.

Are there opportunities for smaller, self-owned food suppliers to deliver shorter and less complex supply chain?

Mass surveillance and personal privacy

Technology powered by AI is helping track the outbreak, clean hospitals, deliver supplies and develop vaccines. For example, China are using robots to disinfect hospitals and deliver medical supplies and AI is being used to sort scans to spot the infection.

In Singapore, where open government data has enabled detailed mapping of the outbreak, robots are delivering meals and medication to patients. Some can also talk. While in South Korea, authorities are tracking potential carriers using cell phone and satellite technology.

Questions have been raised as to how this innovative use of data may affect privacy.

There are Southeast Asian countries using personal data without protecting people’s privacy. For example, Vietnam can track their locals and foreigners through mobile apps; Thai immigration authorities are monitoring  location data of those arriving in the country. There is a risk that some of these measures will remain even after the situation eases.

Omnichannel enablers and retail innovations

Supermarkets and grocery chains are under immense pressure to evolve and modify their business models. Retailers must look to provide alternative access to their products for consumers.

The rise in popularity of fresh-produce vending machines and the introduction of innovative logistics and delivery methods, including drones are all signs of change.

Start-ups with self-service innovations can be enablers of new retail innovation operation models, following the footsteps of unmanned grocery store by Alibaba and self-service takeout pick-up lockers.

Cash and digital payments

Under the shadow of the pandemic outbreak, the risk posed by handling a polymer notes is no greater than touching any other common surfaces. China and South Korea took steps to disinfect their money or even burn it.

The fears about transmissions through physical notes and the rise in e-commerce may just fuel the needed shift from cash to digital currency and contactless payments.

Leap into digital experience

Physical distancing and the lockdown have magnified the importance of digitization.

In the real estate sector, virtual open houses and showings; augmented and virtual reality; and omni channel, targeted, and personalized sales come into play.

As residential amenity spaces close for months, differentiated experience involving a suite of digital-first products and experiences would be necessary. For example  telehealth,  it is an on-demand delivery and concierge services, virtual communities, contactless access for residents, guests, and maintenance staff, and much more.

Over time, users’ expectations will be raised, and players that provide a differentiated post-crisis experience will stay ahead of the curve.

Stage call for change makers

Since 2019, I have been serving as a mentor to start-ups at Singapore Management University’s Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship (SMU IIE). A number of the start-ups under incubation have new innovations that are ready for the post-COVID economy. Some of them are already delivering social impact in response the COVID19 situation. For example,

  • Turtletree Lab created the world’s first human breast milk with cellular technology. It’s set to disrupt the multi-billion dollars infant nutrition industry while reducing carbon footprint on this planet.
  • Protenga develops intensive insect farming systems that produce sustainable, high-protein, safe and cost-effective animal nutrition and organic fertilizer. Their responsible and innovative approach focuses on driving necessary change in the global food supply chain.
  • UglyGood founders developed their line of cleaning tablets branded as SimplyGood last year. Their latest product launch included a food-grade eco-friendly hand sanitizers.  They were able to formulate, test and scale the product in two weeks, for distribution to social service agencies in Singapore during the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Novocall developed conversational sales & marketing automation software set up a US$100,000 ‘Call for Care’ Initiative to support frontline healthcare service providers from countries affected by Novel Coronavirus COVID-19.

The start-up space continues to fascinate me with new ideas and innovations, as well as people who are visionary, creative and resilient. These are just a fraction of what I came across in my work with the start-ups.

With many legacy businesses hitting their curtain calls, there is never a better time than now to usher in an era of change makers, who can enable and rewrite the rules of business. 

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