Over the course of this last year we’ve engaged with many folks on projects I would term “Pandemic-Tech”: products inspired by the direct and indirect consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. These concepts cover things like PPE, disinfection, and in-hospital equipment, to work-from-home related products.
I think it’s easy to see how the pandemic has led to focus around hardware and physical products. As far as recent global crises go, the effects of the pandemic have been uniquely tactile – masks on faces, toilet paper and flour missing from shelves, ships queuing at ports. And with an increase in at home time, it’s clear how many people would turn their attention to improving the world around them.
So perhaps the billion-dollar question: which of these products will succeed in the market? No offense to anyone trying to innovate right now, but it seems clear that most of these efforts will not lead to massive success. Many will be stopped by the usual challenges of technology development, fundraising, manufacturing, etc. And for those that do make it to market, many will find upon arrival that their moment is gone.
I recently read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. In it there is a compelling discussion of the cleantech investment and development boom of the 2000s. Thiel makes the point that, despite the initial focus on traditional wind and solar technology players, in hindsight the real winner of the period was Tesla, with an innovative product connected to the moment and the potential to be relevant well into the future, but perhaps not squarely in the center of where many investors’ and entrepreneurs’ attention was focused at the time.
This pandemic-tech moment may be similar to scenario Thiel describes. It will have its differences of course – my sense is these hardware innovations will not lend themselves as easily to the venture-backed, Silicon Valley model. So we may see many pandemic millionaires as opposed to a single cleantech multi-billionaire. But back to the original question, what will succeed? Similar to Thiel’s analysis of Tesla, my sense is the successful products that will emerge from the pandemic may be inspired by and harness the current moment, but will be relevant to long term trends and desires, not just present anomalies.
So what might those trends be? A few clear hot topics right now in hardware are PPE and other health related equipment, improving in-home experiences, and warehouse and logistics automation. But from Peter Thiel’s cleantech example, if those are where everyone is focused, perhaps best to stay away, or at least think more creatively.
It will be interesting to look back on this period to see what the long term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are on our global society, as well as any innovations that emerge. My sense is we will see both hardware and non-hardware related innovations inspired by the pandemic, but perhaps not in the areas that current conventional wisdom would have us think. However, if your goal is to profit from these changes rather than just experience them, it may be worth considering long term trajectories rather than just solving present challenges. Easier said than done, of course.