The Necessities of Innovation in Crises

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. However, it isn’t said how the process of conception to birthing invention thanks to necessity, occurs.

Therein lies the rub.

It takes a special kind of person, or a team to ensure the successful execution of this process.

Consider this: for many decades, travelers huffed and puffed as they lugged their heavy bags around. Bernard Sadow, a VP at a company that made coats and luggage, thought to put wheels on a suitcase, attach a strap and pull it. It worked. It was 1970 and travel wasn’t the same anymore.

In 1987, a Northwest airlines pilot Robert Plath invented the ubiquitous Rollaboard that affixed 2 wheels and a long handle to suitcases that rolled upright compared to Sadow’s 4 wheeled luggage that were towed flat.

All around us there are innumerable such examples of incredible inventions.

There are other kinds of inventions and innovations too. Ones that save lives and that emerge out of severe humanity-impacting crises.

The second World War from 1939–45 saw the perhaps the greatest explosion in inventions and innovations with necessity and crisis playing the roles of midwives.

From pressurized cabins in airplanes to radar technology to V2 rockets that led to the creation of space rockets to missile technology to synthetic rubber to jet engines to helicopters to cryptography to computers to the famous jerry cans to nuclear power and atom bombs to manufacturing to material sciences.

War then, was a crisis faced by humanity that led to the creation of an astounding range of inventions and innovations that the world had not seen. The post war scenario saw the use of all these inventions and innovations to better lives for humanity, to further explore the frontiers of science and deliver incredible material well-being to the post war generation of the victors.

Humankind has dealt with all kinds of crises over millennia and has survived.

Every crisis offers an opportunity. An opportunity to overcome the crisis through human ingenuity and resolve.

The polio epidemics of the past, that even paralyzed US President FD Roosevelt, have been overcome thanks to the vaccine developed by Dr Jonas Salk in 1953.

The treatment of polio led to the creation of the so-called very heavy and cumbersome “iron lungs” that enabled patients to breathe. Modern ventilators, much in the news now with regard to the treatment of COVID-19, owe their existence to the invention of these “iron lungs”.

The COVID-19 crisis offers unprecedented opportunity, especially to countries like India, to completely rethink existing systems and models of delivering healthcare, education and indeed, new ways of working in partnerships between government, public and private sectors.

The opportunity to re-architect these associations into collaborative associations is immense. Given the state of our healthcare and education, what are some of these possibilities at innovation?

  • Remote consultations and diagnostics
    Thanks to the smartphone and increased data bandwidth, it is possible to get video and pictures of patients across to doctors for speedy consultations.
    With the shortage of doctors and beds, quick diagnoses and treatments for a vast majority of patients can be enabled. Only those requiring specialized care can then come to clinics and hospitals.
  • Remote learning and classrooms can become the means for delivering quality education to millions.
    Again, technology becomes a critical enabler of getting education to students rather than the other way around.
    Quality content delivered well, can make this a very powerful and scalable method for educating various sections of our population.
  • A terrific opportunity is to design and manufacture low cost medical devices and equipment, most of which are imported today.
    Working in partnership with the public and private sectors including startups, innovative designs, rapid prototyping and manufacturing can be enabled. 3D Printing can also come of age in India. New materials for design of clothing for example, can be produced.
  • Usage of fintech for payments and for lending can become ubiquitous.
    Reduce transaction costs, costs of acquisition and costs of fulfilment through digital means.
  • Expanding the usage of technology in deploying a healthcare architecture like Ayushman Bharat that is based on data, on collaboration between insurers, providers and patients and government, that ensures better monitoring, delivery and management of health outcomes.
  • Deploying digital governance to make sure that data is collected, maintained, managed and analysed in a consistent manner, decisions taken based on data analysis and workflows enabled through technology for higher efficiency and productivity.
  • Companies can take a strong look at their existing business models to consider converting fixed costs to variable.
    They can use video conferences and webinars to engage with prospects and other digital tools to collaborate and ramp up internal efficiencies.
    They can use social media for customer outreach, look at work-from-home as an option for the workforce, and learn to manage costs. They need to relentlessly execute to constantly meet, if not exceed, customer expectations in times of uncertainty, keep employees motivated and inspired, and develop new pricing models.

Ultimately, it boils down to the leadership to demonstrate their skin in the game by walking the talk. The ones who do will be the ones who emerge on the other side as the models worth emulating.

There are many more possibilities. They sound like a tall order. But then, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by crises to invent and innovative, requires an entrepreneurial mindset. One that is fueled by a can-do, must-do, will-do attitude to re-imagine the status quo.

That, is the only way to create something fundamentally new and better.

This article was written by Sanjay Anandaram, an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture capitalist, angel investor, teacher, advisor and mentor with over 30 years of experience.

He is an advisor to early stage funds and a social fund, and has been involved with companies like redBus and Instahealth.

An early-stage VC fund investing in technology product companies in India.