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Coronavirus Updated: 03 Apr 2020

The innovation ecosystem, united against coronavirus

In the last few weeks the international community has called on the innovation ecosystem to band together in a coordinated fight against the coronavirus pandemic. A large number of initiatives have risen to the occasion, encompassing schemes that support startups, developers that propose technical solutions, and requests for institutions to share their data with the scientific community. These projects share a single goal: to combine forces, creativity, and resources in the fight against the virus and its far-reaching effects.

Open innovation is a method of innovation that encourages organizations to join forces and collaborate in the pursuit of a solution to a common problem. It is an approach that has gained renewed traction during the coronavirus health crisis. The past few weeks have seen a rise of initiatives including finance for solution-seeking startups, accelerators galvanizing the search for new treatments, and appeals for data-sharing among scientific communities.

Below are some examples of the collaborative initiatives that have emerged.

Virtual hackathons develop solutions

Recent weeks have seen a rising number of sprint-like competitions that consist of presenting multidisciplinary teams a challenge and giving them a time limit to solve it. One such competition is the virtual hackathon, #VenceAlVirus (‘Beat the Virus’), organized by Madrid’s regional government with the goal of fostering technology-based solutions related to health, the community, employment, and business during the COVID-19 crisis.

Through its Ninja Program, a program designed to nurture and showcase technology talent within the Group, BBVA has encouraged its employees to participate in this initiative, putting their technological expertise to use for the cause. Participants will have two days (April 4th and 5th) to propose and develop their ideas during the online event. Afterwards, the organizers will select 15 projects as finalists. Participants will work with mentors over the course of a week to prepare a prototype and present their pitch to a panel of experts who will assess the best way to get the projects off the ground as quickly as possible.

On the international stage, HackCorona was an event in which 300 people worked in concert for 48 hours in the pursuit of digital solutions to the pandemic crisis. The outcome of these hackers’ efforts took the form of 23 proposals, which included ideas such as a grassroots digital currency to compensate volunteers for time spent helping the elderly and an artificial intelligence tool that would be used to scale-up vaccine production more quickly than normal.

An appeal for data-sharing

The analysis of aggregated, anonymized data from sources such as telecommunication networks, social networks, and satellite imaging has proven useful when monitoring the spread of past outbreaks, as was the case for Ebola and Zika. Consequently, the GovLab, a laboratory of data-driven ideas in affiliation with the University of New York, has launched an appeal urging big data professionals worldwide to share both resources and data related to the coronavirus pandemic. In Spain, the State Ministry for Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence joined a similar appeal, which would accelerate the analysis of geolocation data — aggregated, anonymized, and to be provided by telecommunication providers — in order to monitor the effectiveness of containment measures. Various members of the BBVA Data Strategy and Client Solutions teams have added their voices to calling for these initiatives. The goal is to foster data-driven activities in responding to the pandemic and encourage public and private sector institutions to organize a collaborative approach to sharing data that could prove effective in fighting the virus.

"These resources can help deliver greater insight into the dynamics behind the COVID-19 crisis, thus helping to successfully overcome it"

The White House is doing its part by joining a coalition of research groups, including the Allen Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and Georgetown University in making a free dataset available via the Kaggle platform. The dataset contains more than 44,000 scholarly articles on the coronavirus. The aim is to provide the global community of artificial Intelligence (AI) experts a dataset on which they can apply the latest technical advances in natural language processing (NLP) to generate new tools that will help the medical community find a response to the infectious disease.

In short, and as recently analyzed by an expert group appointed by the European Commission, the private sector collects huge amounts of granular data that could be used to deliver insights to the public sector for the public good, as long as the use of said data is in compliance with privacy laws, the public bodies ask the right questions, and the conditions are such that the information is available and fit for purpose. These resources can help deliver greater insight into the dynamics behind the COVID-19 crisis, thus helping to successfully overcome it.

An accelerator in the search of treatments

Mastercard, the Gates Foundation, and Wellcome have teamed up to launch the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator in response to the lack of existing therapies and to remove barriers to vaccine development. This initiative comes with $125 million in funding to support the fast-tracking of the evaluation of drugs and therapies that can be used to treat patients suffering from the illness. The trio also believe it is fundamental to join forces to accelerate research; they will therefore work together with the World Health Organization (WHO), governmental organizations, regulators, and the private sector to pool resources, share research, and coordinate investments.

"The accelerator ensures equitable access to treatment, even for those with limited resources."

The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries will also play a key role in lending their expertise in identifying and developing possible treatments. The accelerator's ability to pool these resources and experience reduces the financial and technical risks for the industry players involved and thus ensures equitable access to treatment, even for those with limited resources.

Funding for startups

The European Commission has called on startups and SMEs with innovative solutions that could be useful in tackling different aspects of the coronavirus pandemic to urgently apply for the next round of funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC). The EC has made it clear that this call for applications, with a budget of €164 million, does not have “predefined thematic priorities and applicants with coronavirus relevant innovations will be evaluated in the same way as other applicants.” Notwithstanding, the Commission will try to fast track the delivery of grants to those projects related to the coronavirus. The EIC already currently supports some initiatives that had previously received funding and that are now contributing to the fight against the virus. For example, the Norwegian project EpiShuttle is working on creating specialized individual isolation units. BBVA has collaborated with EC startup support initiatives in the past and is supporting their current call for applications by spreading the word with the companies and entrepreneurs within their ecosystem.

Startups solving corporate problems

27 Pilots is company that helps large companies leverage startup expertise and IP. Together with big-name firms that include Airbus, BMW, Bosch, Siemens and Bayer, it has set up the ‘Startups against Corona’ website, where large companies publish problems they face during the pandemic, and startups can suggest innovative, fast-to-implement solutions in response. The website is completely free of charge and participation is open to all. Companies submit issues they have and they are matched with startups that have a relevant solution. To be included in the platform, startup solutions have to be mature enough that they can be purchased and immediately adopted.

Thanks to this initiative, solutions are being found to address issues like the difficulty many businesses are having in preventing the spread of the disease because of the shortage of masks and disinfecting hand gels. Products like LED lighting designed to disinfect an interior space with the flip of a switch or intelligent air purifiers to control and clean personal air space are examples of such solutions.