Start Up Bright Spots in a Time of Global Meltdown

Denis Barrier
7 min readApr 7, 2020

Most if not all countries today are under some form of quarantine, isolation or are “sheltering in place,” and people everywhere are feeling the stress and anxiety that comes along with a global crisis that’s unlike anything we’ve experienced thus far. Yet, it’s during the most difficult and challenging times that you often see the world come together and innovate like never before.

For example, some of the world’s best inventions came out of “bad times” such as the computer and WWII, Calculus during an outbreak of the plague, Amazon and Netflix from the last tech crash and of course Scrabble during the Great Depression. For startups, at a time when the entire business landscape may be focused on cutting costs, now is a critical time to look inward, push creativity and innovation even further to provide relevant and long-lasting value.

I conceive my role as an investor to also support others with some optimism. So, I’d like to highlight some bright spots within the Cathay Innovation portfolio that demonstrates how startups can use this time to not only help their communities and persevere, but future-proof and accelerate their businesses for the new post-pandemic world.

Owkin Utilizes Machine Learning for the Battle & the War Against Coronaviruses

Many in the health and biotech industry have joined the race to find a cure for COVID-19 and it’s during this critical time that we’re seeing the true power of technologies such as AI and machine learning. We were early investors in Owkin, an AI startup that uses machine learning to develop better drugs for patients, particularly in oncology. The company integrates biomedical images, genomics and clinical data to discover biomarkers and mechanisms associated with diseases and treatment outcomes.

While French Owkin is naturally positioned to aid the fight against COVID-19, they have moved to embark on various projects to help in the short, medium and long-term. These include:

  • Biomarkers for Critical Cases: In the short term, Owkin is finding the biomarkers for people who have critical cases of COVID-19. This enables hospitals and health care providers to better diagnose patients and in turn can help develop a vaccine.
  • Cardiovascular Diseases: COVID-19 is specifically having a huge impact on people with cardiovascular diseases. In order to drive value for the “medium term,” Owkin is preparing for the post virus era by specializing in this area and will help this highly impacted group of people for future outbreaks.
  • Biomarkers for (All) Coronaviruses: To drive long term value, Owkin is finding the common biomarkers to coronaviruses (beyond COVID-19) that will help the development of drugs and vaccines against all types of future similar outbreaks and prevent another global crisis like we’re seeing today.

The Future is Distributed: Terminal Alleviates the Remote Shift

Already a pioneer in distributed work, Terminal is masterfully acquainted with the art of remote work — but this is not the case for the majority of businesses. Terminal, a distributed-teams-as-a-service startup, offers a vertical talent marketplace for engineers along with managed office space and a slew of benefits within the community. Today, as the world is perhaps conducting its biggest ever experiment with remote work, it’s companies like Terminal which have the opportunity to demonstrate that the future is in fact distributed.

They offer a real-life glimpse into the future of work, one that isn’t confined to any one location, but utilizes a diverse talent base with increased productivity, independence, flexibility and long-term benefits for the workforce of the 21st century. Terminal is at the forefront of helping companies build remote cultures by sharing best practices guides and articles to help with the transition along with bringing the tech community together to collaborate and develop working solutions to fight COVID-19. These initiatives include:

During the crisis, the Terminal platform also has a powerful impact for those either looking for new positions due to lay-offs or for companies who need to quickly scale. They recently released a new option for companies who are experiencing high-demand due to COVID-19, such as healthcare and education, with tools to scale their teams with fair economics.

IfChange Sees Fast Growth With Growing Demand for Digital Enterprise HR

While many startups are re-evaluating sales forecasts, this time can also be an opportunity to reach new customers. For example, IfChange is China’s leading platform for hiring, managing and digitizing human capital for the enterprise and has experienced significant growth in corporate customers, some of which are for the first-time experiencing the benefits of digital HR.

The company adapted their suite of SaaS tools, that helps companies recruit, evaluate, retain and empower human resources, to better fit the needs of companies who are now forced to manage their workforce remotely (beyond your basic video check-ins). This includes:

  • Refined Digital Offering: Moving their AI interview toolkit, based on WeChat, online to facilitate candidate interviews.
  • Ease-of Use: Made it easier to integrate for outside developers and parties to provide online training modules, within the IfChange platform.

In addition, Ifchange has provided a free set of SaaS-based AI interview and recruitment tools to help city, county and national governments organize online recruitment campaigns for companies looking to hire workers affected by the pandemic.

Glovo Takes On-Demand Delivery to the Next Level with Dark Stores & Dark Kitchens

The on-demand delivery industry has unexpectedly found themselves playing a critical role during the pandemic as more and more people are relying on these courier services to deliver any and everything while confined at home. However, the industry is a crowded space with big players constantly thinking about new types of transportation or technology that can cut delivery times and provide the best customer service to stay competitive. It’s also an industry with thin margins, so while these services are incredibly useful during a pandemic, startups still need to be able to think bigger for the long-term.

Barcelona’s “deliver anything” startup Glovo is doing exactly this by evolving its business model towards profitability by expanding into dark delivery (or stores) with limited SKUs and dark kitchens to relieve the pressure when online order volumes overwhelm capacity. Glovo has already seen a surge of demand and customer adoption for these new services which will only accelerate in the increasingly digital world.

In addition, Glovo is continuing to carry-out it’s on-demand delivery services and has forged new partnerships to make its logistics network available to public and private entities to receive and deliver food and health products. Through these initiatives, Glovo is enabling free delivery of critical items to help the most vulnerable groups during the pandemic including:

  • Healthcare Materials: Glovo offers free home delivery service for parapharmacy orders in 80 cities. Specifically, their partnership with Qida allows for distributing healthcare materials for free to its network of home caregivers in Spain. In addition, a partnership with Covid Makers is helping distribute 3D-printed visors to regional hospitals.
  • Necessities for the Elderly: Glovo’s partnership with Cáritas allows for sending everyday items and necessities to the elderly throughout Spain. While their partnership with Kaufland offers free delivery and cash payment options for elderly people in 14 cities in Romania.
  • The Fight Against Hunger: In collaboration with organizations such as Villaverde School and T Islo Splai Foundation, the company is delivering food to homes that need it most and the elderly. In addition, Glovo is providing logistical support to food banks such as the NGO Social Fooding and Fesbal.

FollowAnalytics Rapidly Brings Customers Up to Digital Speed

The concept of digital transformation has been disrupting business for years — yet industries such as retail, restaurant, fitness, and services have been slower to adopt and are being hit hard by the pandemic. FollowAnalytics, a mobile app development platform provider, has launched a campaign to help its current and prospective customers continue doing business.

The company has shifted its offerings to specifically make it easier to rapidly move offline businesses to any mobile device. In addition, they’ve enabled an ubiquitous interaction between the company, its customers and the right support team to ease the process of digital transformation at a time when remote work is the only option. These include:

  • FollowAnalytics Mobile App Builder: By helping customers launch an app in minutes, compliant with the existing website and IT, FollowAnalytics ensures customers can offer a fully digital experience.
  • Remote & Digital Teams: Provides a platform for remote & digital teams to continue connecting with their consumers.
  • FollowAnalytics Video Conferencing: Helps companies stay connected with their customers, keeping indispensable human interactions.

Building Startups to Last and Succeed

While businesses everywhere are now operating in uncertain territory, we’ve seen companies of all types and sizes quickly adapt to this “new normal” and roll out new products or services to help those most affected. Another example from our portfolio includes Chime, the leading challenger bank in the US, which is piloting a way for US customers to receive their $1,200 stimulus checks instantly (before the government starts disbursing payments) to provide immediate aid to the ones who need it the most.

It’s refreshing to see the tech community come together to provide aid to the wider world, but it’s equally important during this time for businesses to take this opportunity to re-evaluate and level up their core offerings. Startups in particular are constantly innovating and iterating on business models to build successful companies. But now is the time to ensure startups are building relevant products and services that will not only persevere through this current period, but allow them to accelerate even further in the post-pandemic market.

The 2000 crisis corresponded to a moment where the promises made were disconnected from reality, the 2008 crisis a financial one, in 2020 it is a health and economic crisis where the transition to digital and AI will be accelerated for the businesses who will provide lasting usefulness and sense.