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As Covid-19 has thrown the global economy into disarray, startups, particularly those with a social bent, have felt its impact uniquely. Any crisis would amplify pre-existing financial or organizational stressors, which puts startups at a disadvantage as they’re often “flying the plane while they build it”. But at Solve, we’ve seen innovators find their ways through this pandemic in unexpected ways, showing resourcefulness and grit—particularly when addressing the most pressing needs of their communities. In a survey of 66 Solver teams—innovators across industries and based all around the world—these key trends stood out:
All In It Together
Since the outbreak began, venture-backed startups have laid off thousands of workers. And while layoffs are primarily concentrated in a few industries, like restaurants and travel, nearly all early-stage ventures are in cash-preservation mode.
Similarly among our surveyed Solver teams, the impact was felt right away, with 32 percent reporting negative impacts three weeks into the shutdown, such as delayed partnerships, disrupted supply chains, and reduced capital investment. Reports abound of shifts to online learning and remote operation, as do mentions of supply chain disruptions, delayed growth, and lost funding.
While the wider startup world is seeing similar patterns, for social entrepreneurs, the stakes are high. It’s not just the bottom line that’s at stake, but the very social mission that’s in jeopardy. And social entrepreneurs report the same kind of impact, indiscriminately of their status as non or for-profit.
Riding the Growth Wave
Perhaps not surprisingly, innovators in healthcare and edtech have seen a surge in demand. Indeed, many Solver teams from our Health and Learning Challenges report growth in their business during the pandemic. This presents its own challenges, requiring founders to scale operations at unprecedented speeds to meet critical needs in a tepid investment climate.
Among these is Solver Ruangguru, a digital bootcamp that enables dropped-out youth in Indonesia to pass exams and access jobs in the formal economy. Ruangguru raised its Series C at the end of 2019 and has continued to scale up as quarantined or unemployed students tune in. “On the first day of the online school, over 1.5 million students tuned in,” said Iman Usman, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Ruangguru. “For the past two weeks since we started the initiative, over 5 million students participated. Over 300,000 college students and workers took our free online training in two weeks.”
Similarly, Solver Poket’s supply chain platform has become a tool for increasing access to healthcare and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE). Others focused on digital learning and upskilling, like OneSky Caregiver Training and Century Tech, have seen surges in demand, too.
Pivoting to Serve New Needs
For innovators with core capabilities or products that didn’t immediately meet the changing demands of customers in lockdown, a quick pivot may be the only road to survival. And for social entrepreneurs in particular—especially those coming from, or serving, the most impacted communities, the margin for error has only gotten narrower.
Indeed, the vast majority of the Solver teams we surveyed, had already pivoted in April to provide solutions in response to the crisis. These innovators are working to address the pandemic’s devastating effects on human health, the economy, and education.
Solver LifeBank, which combines data, smart logistics, and technology to deliver life-saving medical supplies, had already been delivering blood donations and oxygen throughout Nigeria. But when the pandemic began, “LifeBank partnered with Nigeria Institute of Medical Research, a medical research institute established by [Nigeria] to build a drive-through mass testing center in Lagos, Nigeria,” said Temie Giwa-Tuboson, LifeBank’s Founder and CEO. “So far, we have tested nearly 6,000 people in Lagos and Ibadan and we are gearing up to test more.” Other Solver teams offer mental health resources, medical devices and equipment, supplies and modeling, or even direct frontline services—all more in demand than ever.
On the educating front, Solver teams created or expanded digital supports for teachers and students, are running public awareness campaigns, and more. Solver Khushi Baby, a durable and affordable amulet that stores the health data of children in last-mile settings, even found a new way to facilitate health helpline communication: “We have developed and are managing a WhatsApp chatbot that runs on the Rajasthan State's Helpline,” said Strategy and Innovation Lead Saachi Dalal. “We have already used this system to follow up with over 5,000 recent travelers over a 14-day home isolation period.”
Supporting Innovators on the Front Lines
Whether to sustain themselves in the face of low demand, pivot to providing new offerings, or aggressively grow to capture an increased need for their services, many Solver teams have expressed a need for emergency funds. And we’re proud to have seen several Solve Members rally in support of these startups.
Someone Else’s Child Foundation and the Morgridge Family Foundation contributed a total of $65,000 in Covid-19 emergency grant funding to Solver teams Access Afya, Dost Education, Khushi Baby, LifeBank, Open Learning Exchange, and Wanji Games.
"The Covid-19 crisis has unleashed a new set of challenges around the world,” said Carrie Morgridge, Chief Disruptor at the Morgridge Family Foundation. “At the Morgridge Family Foundation, we are investing in MIT Solve because of its entrepreneurial spirit backed by unwavering leadership. We are excited that our funding will go toward Solver teams who are working on immediate Covid-related solutions."
Mike Christian, Managing Director of Someone Else’s Child Foundation, echoed these sentiments. “While the mission of Someone Else’s Child is typically focused solely on underserved children, we wanted to respond to the unprecedented consequences created by the Covid-19 crisis. Through Solve’s introductions to Open Learning Exchange, LifeBank, and Access Afya, we were able to quickly provide support to these African-based organizations that are addressing emerging health needs due to the virus. Their ability to step up and provide needed relief is inspiring and we are honored to help.”
Many of the trends and new norms that the pandemic has engendered are here to stay—and we want to ensure that our Solver teams are, too. If your organization has the resources, please join us in sustaining, evolving, and expanding their solutions to help realize their lasting impact to solve world challenges.
Join Solve’s Member community and find out how you can support Solver teams as they tackle pressing global problems
LifeBank has been rapidly delivering oxygen and testing thousands of patients for Covid-19 in Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Solver LifeBank.