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For inventive startup projects, COVID-19 has provided inspiration to innovate. Startups are creating new technology and enterprise designed to serve the post COVID world. These startups have seized the opportunities the Pandemic has thrown at them and turned ashes into diamonds. 

How the Pandemic has changed the innovation landscape 

Incubator programs are designed to take entrepreneurial ideas and help the founders accelerate them towards becoming successful ventures. They also provide the startup team with support along the way.

INCUBATE is one such incubator program operating out of the University of Sydney. 

For startups that could adapt and innovate, the Pandemic was more of an opportunity than a hindrance. Benjamin Lindsay, Program Manager of INCUBATE said that teaching adaptability and ingenuity was already a part of INCUBATE’s program. However, during the Pandemic, it became the key to success. 

“One of the key things I teach founders in the INCUBATE program at The University of Sydney is adaptability. Imagine you’re at the edge of a cliff, and your Apple Maps is telling you to continue straight for 300m – what do you do?’ said, Mr Lindsay. 

He continued: “The Pandemic changed the landscape. All the plans we had, had to change. Startups who adapted quickly have done well.” 

The Founders program, which operates out of UNSW, is another excellent example of an incubator program that helped startups make the most of the Pandemic.  

David Burt, Director of Entrepreneurship at UNSW’s Founders program, said that the Pandemic had afforded startups opportunities that would not have existed pre-COVID-19.

He said, “The beauty of a startup is its size and ability to adapt quickly, allowing them to tap into unlocked opportunities that large corporates simply can’t do at the same rate. This will future-proof these startups for post-pandemic life too.

“Most of the pandemic opportunities for startups are a function of the startup’s ability to make fast decisions. A great example of this is how quickly we saw startups effectively implement remote working. Most startups had made and implemented their decisions about moving to remote work before large legacy corporations had gotten out of bed to schedule their first committee meeting about it.”

Finding utility in tragedy 

UNSW’s Founders program saw an uptick in applications since the start of the Pandemic, particularly amongst women.

“The infrastructure needed to start a company has never been easier. At UNSW Founders, we’ve had more applications than ever before since moving our support programs entirely online,” says Mr Burt “This is particularly true of our dedicated women-led program for female entrepreneurs – New Wave. With women losing jobs at a disproportionate rate, there’s been more demand than ever with participation in New Wave up by over 200%”.

Because of mass job losses and increased spare time, Mr Burt says many entrepreneurs saw COVID as a chance to turn their ideas into reality. The Pandemic made this more accessible than ever.  

 “This is true across the board – there are more budding entrepreneurs wanting to turn their side hustles or startups dreams into growing businesses. Whether that be due to job losses, more time on their hands or access to programs such as UNSW Founders where they can readily acquire the skills, knowledge and networks they need to make these businesses a reality. COVID has accelerated the startup journey for many.”

Startups got creative within the restrictions that COVID brought about. New working structures was one of the ways successful startups utilised the Pandemic. The rise of working from home arrangements allowed small startups to streamline their business model and benefit from reduced fixed costs.

Mr Lindsay said “In one regard, COVID has been a blessing for managing overheads – no rent and their cofounders are working from home. We’ve also seen startups in INCUBATE at the University of Sydney take advantage of the quick adoption of Zoom calls to get their ideas in front of more customers from their own homes.” 

The Pandemic has helped startups reduce their costs by working from home, but has also created a need for technology that allows people to work remotely.

“One trend we are looking out for at INCUBATE is the focus on improving accessibility from home. There is the potential for innovations to make a significant shift and improve access to goods and services from the comfort of their own home,” aid Mr Lindsay. 

COVID success stories 

Both incubator programs have seen dedicated startup founders find success on account of COVID-19.  

Mr Lindsay said, “A great success story out of the INCUBATE program is the team at Refundid, who has raised $3M from Afterpay Ventures. After the considerable growth in e-commerce sales throughout the Pandemic, Refundid solves the pain point of long, arduous returns. Why wait for 6-weeks to get your money back on a returned item when you can get it in under 30-seconds?” 

He continued: ”We’ve seen startups pivot to capture opportunities; for example, DetectED-X pivoted their breast cancer diagnostic tool to improve COVID-19 diagnostics with the new CovED tool. For this, DetectED-X won $250,000 from the NSW Government’sGovernment’s R&D Innovation Districts Challenge. Additionally, we have seen an influx in solving problems exacerbated by the Pandemic, for example, recyclable face masks.” 

At UNSW, a focus on technological solutions to COVID age problems was the foundation for success. 

Mr Burt said, “With a strong focus on technology, the UNSW Founders program has seen the development of some of Australia’s most promising startups. This includes education technology startup, Forage, which has received $48 million to date via two funding rounds in the past 18 months. Forage provides free, open-source, virtual work experience programs to simulate real work that employees would undertake, allowing students to build the skills and the confidence to land their first job.”

Feeling amongst startups

Startups appear to be the winners of the business world during the Pandemic. A strong startup and entrepreneurial sector will provide the base for the development of new technologies that will help all businesses of all sizes to thrive again in the post-Pandemic world. 

Mr Burt said, “There is certainly a feeling of optimism amongst innovators and startups right now. The Pandemic has created a new batch of valuable problems to solve, and startups are well-positioned to capture these opportunities.

“An example of this is the opportunity for startups to take advantage of the dividend of long term ex-pats coming back to Australia. 

“People who have had stellar careers overseas are now finding it hard to get jobs in Australia in large companies because international experience isn’t highly valued here. This is a once in a generation opportunity for startups to tap into these hugely talented individuals who had great careers in the U.S and Europe but are struggling to find senior roles in large corporates that don’t appropriately value their skills.

“Australia’s post-COVID recovery depends on supporting our next generation of entrepreneurs.” 

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