Innovation Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

'As technologies such as AI and machine learning continue to make an impact on the healthcare space, startups will play an increasing role in such transformation.'

Since early 2020, governments, businesses, individuals, and communities have had to adapt to the challenges and threats of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the hardships, the past year has seen vast innovation and the breaking of barriers in entrepreneurship, especially in the biotechnology and healthcare spaces. AI LA’s Life Summit, held in October 2020, brought together researchers, entrepreneurs, industry professionals, and academics for an exciting three days of engaging discussions. Among the conversation topics was a focus on research and entrepreneurship in the biotech and healthcare sectors and how the pandemic has shaped such innovation, and vice versa. The conversations highlight how significant of a role the relationship between emerging technologies and entrepreneurship will play in healthcare moving forward.

Three panels at Life Summit centered on entrepreneurship in particular: Hackers without Borders, The Entrepreneurial Scientist, and Reimagining Research and Development in Labs. A theme that arose throughout such conversations was the importance of collaboration in innovation, from the building of a new company focused on addressing PPE shortages to the development of a vaccine.

Moderated by Dr. Wen Dombrowski, Chief Convergence Officer CATALAIZE, the panel Hackers without Borders featured a thoughtful discussion on how people have come together to develop solutions to issues posed by the coronavirus pandemic and within the broader health and life sciences. Dr. Freddy Nguyen, Co-Director of MIT Hacking Medicine, introduces the MIT COVID-19 Challenge that launched last March. By welcoming participants from around the world to convene using an open-source platform, the hackathons encouraged global collaboration, accelerating the development of ideas. Similarly, Benjamin Treuhaft, CEO of the technology innovation nonprofit Helpful Engineering, born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, describes how their platform has transformed into an international community of innovators eager to tackle social impact issues, both with regard to the pandemic and beyond.

Crucial to such work also comes access to data and information that provides collaborators with the resources they need to move forward in developing a solution. Artur Kiulian, founder of CoronaWhy, explains how the nonprofit organization applies machine learning to help researchers better understand the context of a problem and work toward a solution by more efficiently processing the relevant scholarly literature. Kiulian emphasizes how the organization formed by volunteers has grown over the course of the pandemic, another example of the centrality of collaboration in such a challenging time.

In another conversation on The Entrepreneurial Scientist, Dr. Jennifer McCaney, Executive Director of UCLA Biodesign, and Dr. Achuta Kadambi, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at UCLA and co-founder of Akasha Imaging, discuss the intersection between entrepreneurship and technological development, particularly shedding light on the role played by an academic setting. They focus the conversation around the cross-campus collaboration that takes place at a university, where two main benefits are found in the technology and in the team, both essential to innovation. With the combination of the resources at an academic institution and creative minds eager to make an impact, ideas can rapidly take off.

Such resource and community advantages, however, are not limited to an academic setting. Dr. Kadambi emphasizes that, outside the university ecosystem, one way to go about forming a team for a company in the healthcare space involves reaching out to residents and fellows to identify clinical partners. When building something new, leveraging one’s network provides a significant advantage and helps pave the way to greater collaboration.

Over the course of the pandemic, research laboratories also saw significant changes that have largely shaped the process of research in biotech and healthcare. On the panel Reimagining Research and Development in Labs, moderated by Adhirath Sikand, Co-Founder at Nucleate Bio’s Los Angeles Chapter, the speakers discuss the impacts COVID-19 has had on digital tools, innovation, and work itself. Charles Fracchia, CEO of BioBright and Vice President of Data at Dotmatics, points out that the pandemic served as the driver behind many traditional companies having to implement digital tools, including AI and emerging technologies, into their operations when previously they had delayed on such transitioning. Similarly, Dr. Timothy Gardner, Founder and CEO of Riffyn, a cloud-based platform which further streamlines access to data, emphasizes that such technology has made an impact on how people work together, with more efficient communication and distribution of information to accelerate productivity.

Even with the challenges and drastic effects on communities brought on by the pandemic, such adaptations in research and development have shown that collaboration across a wide range of perspectives goes a long way. In terms of the more rapid advancement of the COVID-19 vaccine compared to previous beliefs about requiring 10 to 15 years for drug development, for instance, Dr. Gardner notes that “it’s not the biology that’s limiting us; it’s ourselves” (26:32). With stronger partnership and increased access to data, healthcare drugs can be delivered to market much more quickly. Such improvements also apply to other issues across the healthcare industry and beyond.

In addition to the technology, greater eagerness among the public to contribute to a cause has significantly accelerated the development of solutions. Jessica Grondin, Lab Manager at BioLabs at the Lundquist Institute, emphasized how such growing participation has sped up the timeline of conducting clinical trials, furthering research in biotech and healthcare. As Dr. Nguyen points out in Hackers without Borders, “For once in our society, we had a single unifying goal and cause that all of us gravitated toward, and to be able to provide that channel for people who wanted to do something toward COVID-19… [accelerated] that innovation process” (58:33). Such a process highlights the importance of collaboration along with each individual’s willingness to contribute in advancing new technologies and solutions during such a critical time.

As the Reimagining Research & Development in Labs panel discusses, as people go back to work, teams will see many differences in how they operate. While we have yet to see how exactly offices and workplaces will look with full reopening, one thing is certain: that is the role AI and other emerging technologies, combined with collaboration and the entrepreneurial mindset, will have in accelerating greater scientific development toward solutions in times of such health crises and in the larger biotech and healthcare ecosystem.

Now, nearly a year coming out of Life Summit 2020, such changes will play an increasingly important role in examining the future of healthcare and innovation. The evolution and ongoing questions will continue to be explored at Life Summit 2021, where there will be much to look forward to in the discussions taking place.

About THE author

Emy Li

Emy Li is a student at the University of Southern California studying Applied and Computational Mathematics. She is passionate about green innovation and hopes to combine her interests in technology, entrepreneurship, and sustainability to create positive environmental and social impact.

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