Out of Crisis, Opportunity: Innovation in a time of chaos

Monday August 24, 2020 0 comments Tags: Isabel Yang

By Isabel Yang

Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President

Advanced Energy

More than half a century ago, political economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that crises were the seedbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship, heralding in the cycle of creative disruptions that sparks new ideas, skills, technologies and processes that evolve entire industries and give birth to new ones that set in motion economic growth.yang-mug.fixed  

Since then, many leading economists have examined the historical timing of innovations, with some arguing that the pace is relatively constant and others suggesting innovations que up during crises and burst forth when economic conditions are restored. Steady state innovations also tend to accelerate during times of crisis. 

Either way, what we are seeing today in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic offers compelling evidence that we are on the cusp of a new dawn, with those that can innovate and evolve quickly poised to thrive. And it’s not solely through mergers and acquisitions—as is often the case—but rather research and development and the flow of investments.

Today’s news is filled with stories from around the world highlighting R&D innovation in response to the pandemic. Both public and private laboratories are ramping up efforts to discover new medical treatments and vaccines.

Startups are developing apps for contact tracing, and established enterprises are stepping outside of their respective industries, shifting production to meet the demand for personal protective equipment and medical devices.

Venturing into the unknown

To paraphrase author Martha Beck: “Any deep crisis is an opportunity to make your [business] extraordinary in some way.”

That seems to be the sentiment of investors funding new startups and projects despite the fact they are facing an unprecedented era of uncertainty and fear stemming from a global pandemic, unpredictable stock market and escalating geo-political and racial tensions.

According to research firm Mercom Capital Group, venture capital (VC) funding in digital health companies alone hit a record $3.6 billion in the first quarter of 2020.

The top funded categories were: telemedicine ($788M), data analytics ($573M), healthcare booking ($306M) and wearable sensors ($286M). The top VC deals included $250M raised by digital pharmacy Alto Pharmacy, a full-service pharmacy enabling consumers to schedule same-day medication delivery to their home or office.

Intellizence, which monitors the latest startup fundraising, VC and private equity (PE) deals, reports that DoorDash topped the list for the most capital raised in the week ending June 22, 2020, with $400M in Series H round funding.

And it’s not surprising considering how take out and online grocery shopping skyrocketed during the pandemic. The week prior, Instacart raised an additional $225M, almost three years to the date when industry insiders speculated whether Instacart was on its way out after Amazon acquired Whole Foods, which was at that time one of its biggest partners.

The pandemic, however, flipped the value equation from the perception of nice to have grocery delivery to essential service provider especially in serving the more vulnerable of the population

Reinventing the way we work and live

The workplace is one of the hardest hit areas, with scores of companies still keeping as many staff as possible working remotely.

As a global company with thousands of employees serving industries where power conversion is essential to business continuity, we had the advantage of seeing the effects of COVID-19 weeks before it hit our North American shores.

With many of our thousands of team members concentrated in Asia, we had boots on the ground sharing information in real time with executive leaders back in the U.S. as early as mid-January.

By the end of January, our rapid response teams were up and running, shifting some to remote work and protecting others on site with safety gear and guidelines firmly in place.

While we felt a sense of pride in our ability to pivot as an organization, we witnessed some truly amazing creative problem-solving approaches, even as the world buckled to its knees.

And as we shifted into the next phase, the prepare to return, we were again delighted by the level of thought and contributions from folks committed to forging a new path.

Some of the best ideas, in fact, came from staff who offered suggestions for potential challenges in organizing conference rooms and other shared spaces.

Embracing the “Intrapreneurs”

At the company level, embracing entrepreneurial spirit in times of crisis and uncertainty is even more prudent. “intrapreneurship, a term introduced in a 1976 paper written by Gifford Pinchot III and Elizabeth Pinchot, the word intrapreneurship was used to describe a system that removes the bureaucracy stifling new ideas in a large corporation to enable it to behave like an entrepreneur and a nimble, agile startup.

I have written about it previously, but feel it is worth revisiting, if only briefly, considering the remarkable experiences of the past few months within our organization. Since Pinchot introduced intrapreneurship into the business vernacular, countless books have been written and keynotes delivered expressing why businesses should embrace intrapreneurship, and how it can be done.

Pinchot himself developed his own guidelines, entitling them The Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments, which I am happy to share again:

  1. Come to work each day willing to be fired.
  2. Circumvent any orders aimed at stopping your dream.
  3. Do any job needed to make your project work, regardless of your job description.
  4. Find people to help you.
  5. Follow your intuition about the people you choose and work only with the best.
  6. Work underground as long as you can--publicity triggers the corporate immune mechanism.
  7. Never bet on a race unless you are running in it.
  8. Remember it is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.
  9. Be true to your goals, but realistic about the ways to achieve them.
  10. Honor your sponsors.

As chief technology officer responsible for innovation at AE, in order to support those who embodies these intrapreneurial spirits via the commandments, I have added the following:

  1. Democratize the ideation process.
  2. Give everyone permission to be bold and risk failure without the fear of penalty
  3. Collaborate with others who share your interest and passion, and who can bring fresh perspective, including people and organizations outside your own company.
  4. Celebrate milestones and successes along the way.

Particularly as consumers favor products and services that make staying at home easier or help them cope with the crisis, the pandemic has undeniably been an impetus for continued innovation, with a shift in investment themes and strategies that favor digital technologies designed for a world where COVID19 may be long-lasting.

Even in the wake of cancellations of some of the most important global tech events such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Mobile World Congress, startups, established organizations and investors are finding ways to keep moving forward.

As we step out into the unknown, it will be more important than ever to see the world with fresh eyes and a sense of wonder not only for what is present but what is possible.