Perspectives in the time of COVID-19
by Katie Rae, CEO & Managing Partner
When we set out to build The Engine a few years ago, we said that we were going to solve the world’s greatest problems with breakthrough technologies.
For a venture fund, that’s a lofty statement and one that can easily fall prey to many questions and labels. For example, are we choosing impact over profit? And will all of our investments take longer to be realized – putting us into what some might call the “patient capital” category? Solving the world’s biggest challenges is so daunting that it becomes something we can all be complacent about – having to force yourself to empathize with future generations in order to feel the urgency to act now.
But over the past few weeks, we have all been faced with the reality of what will undoubtedly be one of the biggest collective challenges of our lives. COVID-19 has not only threatened total economic upset, but how our global supply chains work, whether the healthcare systems and technologies we trust to save ourselves and our families will be able to do so under such duress, and whether the isolation and travel bans we are under will allow for an entire planet to be mentally and physically healthy as well as our industries to thrive again.
It’s hard to think of a crisis more systematically disruptive across all sectors and economies – and it’s happening to us now.
What is driving me forward is knowing that the Tough Tech community – a group at the forefront of science and technology – was able to deploy their expertise and resources quickly, many pivoting their work entirely and already working around the clock to find the solutions that will slow this pandemic to a halt, get businesses back up and running, and people back on their feet. This is why we must invest in Tough Tech.
In our portfolio alone, E25Bio, an early-stage startup with a novel rapid testing platform, has directed its entire team’s effort to create a fast and accurate COVID-19 test. The team is conducting human trials at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel. If these trials are successful, the startup will be able to rapidly manufacture and deliver hundreds of thousands of tests to the market, redefining how we fight coronavirus.
Another one of our portfolio companies, Biobot Analytics, is developing a platform to help us understand the health of our communities through their wastewater. The team has been working with local governments and public health officials to address the opioid crisis. With the rapid march of the virus around the globe, the team took action and launched a COVID-19 campaign that is convening 100 wastewater facilities across the nation and is deploying their capabilities to understand the presence of COVID-19 infections at the community level.
I am also humbled and impressed by the work of our friends:
MIT is uniting scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, as well as those who can help fund research and startups related to the coronavirus, through the COVID-19 Rapid Innovation Dashboard. The University also recently completed the COVID-19 Challenge, a three-day hackathon designed to forge solutions to some of the pandemic’s most difficult questions.
The gift to The Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard by Nancy Zimmerman, co-founder and managing partner of Bracebridge Capital, will help fund development of an early response COVID-19 diagnostic.
The Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School continues to provide digital resources for those interested in supporting response efforts with digital technologies or other platforms.
Elsewhere, companies like Moderna, J&J, Sanofi, CanSino Biologicals, and Inovio Pharmaceuticals are relentlessly pursuing a vaccine. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, state and federal agencies, and others are coordinating a significant Tough Tech startup response to the diagnostics challenge by partnering with companies like Cue Health, DiaSorin Molecular, Qiagen, Nanomix, and others.
We are seeing automobile and clothing manufacturers step up by reinventing their production lines to send much needed PPE and sanitizers to hospitals and public servants. Domestic factories are producing units in the tens of thousands a day, but I can’t help but wonder how much more would be possible if we had directed more funding towards advanced manufacturing capabilities here in the States.
These are all Tough Tech solutions. They may have all been years in the making when you think back to all of the educational training and trial and R&D work that came before but it was the collective investment and steadfast support for these technologies, people and programs that allowed each to respond so rapidly. A response that offers us some semblance of hope that we will get through to the other side.
And when we are on the other side we must stop asking the question of impact vs. returns or imagining the world’s problems as generations away. We must prioritize and invest in Tough Tech now. From government to academia to the private sector. It’s the breakthrough technologies, scientists and engineers, and founders willing to take a leap that will build back our economy and keep us afloat. They will also be the most exciting and prosperous to watch. Let’s do everything we can to support them and emerge from this crisis ready to tackle what is thrown at us next. Because we can no longer patiently wait for the world’s problems to arrive.