BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – A group of professors has initiated a worldwide movement to help social entrepreneurs develop ideas to address the COVID-19 crisis and launch rapidly.
“This virus is unprecedented and has left millions of people around the world out of work and feeling helpless”, said Regan Stevenson, a Professor of Entrepreneurship at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
“We all know there are great ideas out there related to this crisis. We wanted to find a way to quickly bring entrepreneurs, medical professionals, and technologists from around the world together to work intensively on solutions. In order to do this, we knew we needed to move fast and step outside the institutional structure to get this movement off the ground immediately.”
The initiative (covid19ideas.org) was organized in just three days and led to the development of several new social initiatives addressing issues related to the COVID-19 crisis. “We were at home, communicating on Zoom like everyone else, and began to think about what more we could do. With our experience helping people come up with ideas and launch social ventures, we thought we might be able to create a movement to take on the COVID-19 crisis on a bigger scale than each of us could do individually,” said Stevenson.
The next day, Stevenson and several colleagues put up a quick webpage and announced an urgent open call for ideas and participants on social media, titling the event an “Idea Sprint Weekend against COVID-19” and scheduled it to start two days later. The sign-up page was quickly inundated by entrepreneurs, coders, engineers, medical doctors, nurses, venture capitalists and other business professionals from around the world who wanted to be part of a community-led by a common cause. A short highlight video of the initiative can be viewed here.
“More than 200 incredibly skilled people responded to the open call and signed up to participate in the free virtual program in less than 24 hours” Stevenson said. “We called on people with ideas but also on people from the broader community who wanted to join the program and help bring the ideas to life. What resulted was an intensive effort that has now jumpstarted several social ventures that directly take on this crisis. Proposed venture concepts ranged from surgical masks, grocery stock out solutions, ventilator related solutions, social distancing campaigns, small business matchmaking apps, displaced worker apps, and novel online education solutions.”
“As the ideas came in, we recognized that people were sending them from all over the world,” said Matthew Josefy, assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship. Some participants voiced their excitement about being mobilized in this way to pass their time in quarantine after returning from affected countries, with one saying “I haven’t been able to leave my house in a week. I’ve been here on the sidelines, wishing there was some way I could plug in and do something.” Ultimately, to the surprise of the organizers people joined the program from the United States and Canada and from four other continents --Australia, Europe, Asia and South America.
One participant, Dr. Amani Jambhekar, a Houston-based cancer surgeon, ended up developing and launching a social venture focused on getting much needed masks to health care workers. Dr. Jambhekar was not sure if she would join the program at first because she was scheduled to be in and out of surgery all week, but after receiving several direct messages from Stevenson (her former professor) encouraging her to get involved, she decided it was something she needed to do. The social initiative, known as #RealHeroesNeedMaskshas since launched and already has received more than 20,000 masks for hospitals in multiple states.
“We combined the concept of a design sprint with a startup weekend, which a is an event in which individuals form teams to develop an entrepreneurial idea as much as they can within a single weekend,” said Greg Fisher, the Larry and Barbara Sharpf Professor and an associate professor of entrepreneurship. “By combining these two concepts we created an ‘idea sprint’ weekend with the goal of surfacing and ultimately implementing -- if viable – ideas with the highest potential for helping the community navigate this virus.” While intense weekend experiences for entrepreneurs have become more common in the past several years, one of the key challenges was creating the same level of community and focus in a virtual environment. In virtual meetings each day, the organizers and participants quickly sought to build structures for sharing information and collaborating across locations and time zones, communicating via Zoom. The teams quickly evolved into communities with shared interests and complementary expertise. Several experts from Kelley shared their expertise on organizing in times of crises, creating social value and pitching ideas during the virtual workshops.
Originally there were 11 teams, but people kept pouring in, wanting to be part of the project. By the next morning, there were 21 teams, who worked late into the night during the sprint, barely stopping for meal breaks. On Sunday, teams posted video pitches to the sprint web site.
To celebrate their progress, the participants closed the weekend with a “virtual closing reception”, allowing everyone to reflect together on the weekend with the beverage of their choice. Participants spoke about how they’ve been personally affected by the current crisis, shared how easily they were able to build community with their teammates over the course of weekend, and even began to play guitar and sing together, including a spur of the moment group rendition of Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” led by a former Grammy winner who was part of the program.
Though the event itself ended Sunday night, teams kept working and several social initiatives officially launched in the days that followed. One group has shared its ideas for delivering food to the elderly and needy with a major grocery chain in Canada. Another team of anesthesiologists, pulmonary specialists and tech entrepreneurs launched a non-profit TeleMed ventilator training service for the medical ecosystem. Since the weekend, several other groups have launched social campaigns and early versions of their products.
In addition to these outcomes, the initial idea sprint also did two other critical things. First, it harnessed the nervous energy felt by many and redirected their time and energy into a positive, constructive outlet. Participants received an entrepreneurial learning experience and also compared the weekend to a form of positive group therapy. Second, the event organizers posted a white paper guide online describing how to execute a COVID-19 idea sprint, encouraging other institutions from around the world to replicate their program and launch in their own regions.
Since then several prominent institutions have announced plans to launch similar programs (includes Tech Stars, other incubators, and several institutions from around the world). “Usually when you’re thinking about strategy, you’re saying what can we do better than anybody else. In this case, if we broadcast an idea and somebody else can do it better than our team, then that’s sufficient,” Josefy said. “All of humanity is united in this fight.”