Lea Simpson
May 17, 2020 · 5 min read

COVIDaction: building a technology and innovation pipeline to support the pandemic response

What role could technology play in the overall response to COVID-19?

Are there specific sectors or thematic areas that could most benefit from technology?

Where are the pockets of innovative action and ingenuity ready to be captured and scaled for greater, more far reaching benefit?

How might we best support the best thinking to scale and integrate with systems leaving them stronger in the long run?

COVIDaction is a partnership between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Frontier Technology Hub, Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub), UCL’s Institute of Healthcare Engineering along with other collaborators, designed to explore these questions.

The partnership is working with a range of partners to build a technology and innovation pipeline to support action related to the COVID pandemic across key thematic areas. Together we plan to scan the globe for promising ideas, evaluate and make sense of what we find, support the very best ideas with grant funding and venture support and share what we learn along the way.

This explainer unpacks a bit about the thinking behind the partnership and initiative, you can learn more about the specific thematic areas by navigating from our homepage.

Emerging thematic areas:

The partnership has set out areas of thematic interest. These areas emerged through consultation with FCDO country offices, investors, entrepreneurs and networks across Africa and South Asia.

These areas represent our best current thinking about where we believe technology has the potential for outsized positive impact. They have been ‘launched’ in order of urgency of need, with the most urgent, short term requirements already done or ongoing e.g. oxygen packages and data.

The partnership will turn attention to those areas where the medium and longer term impact is likely to be felt most intensely. For these we will also be surfacing signals which might offer some clues about a global next normal e.g. has digital health finally arrived at its catalytic moment? Will policies shorten supply chains in order to mitigate global vulnerabilities in the long run? We’ll be horizon scanning as we go.

  1. Oxygen Package: search for frugal innovation in ventilators and the ‘oxygen package’. Closed.
  2. Local Production & Solution: crowdsourcing and mapping innovative responses to dealing with demand for unavailable goods. How have pivots in local production and novel approaches met local needs?
  3. Data: sources, collection tools, and analysis to inform the response. What are the best tools for using data to inform decision-making?
  4. Resilient health systems: technologies that extend the reach, coordination and/or continuity of medical support between hospitals, clinics, communities and households.
  5. Potential future themes include:
  • Resilient food systems: technologies that aide food security, agricultural inputs, commerce last mile distribution and delivery
  • Technology-enabled distribution: novel technology approaches to maintaining the cold-chain and supporting the delivery of crucial goods and supplies
  • Digital financial support: technologies that provide financial safety nets and innovative disbursements of funds

The SETS process

For each pipeline area, we will conduct the SETS process. Like any good process, ours will be held loosely. It will allow us to sensibly work together, iterating between themes based on what works best.

The process is a guide, not dogma, with space to dial elements up or down depending on what experts believe is best suited to each (vastly different) theme.

  • SCAN for technology innovation mobilised on the ground in FCDO countries to surface innovation, shape our thinking and deepen our understanding of each theme
  • EVALUATE and make sense of what we discover in order to prioritise our focus and funding
  • TEAM with relevant experts to guide the evaluation. Broker connections connect with innovations and with us and matchmake innovations with relevant FCDO hubs, COs or other agency initiatives
  • SHARE and continuously lift the lid on what we discover as an open public good

The spirit of this process is to be expansive (opening up to opportunities), emergent (not presupposing too much) and energetic (we don’t have time to waste).

Our interests and goals…

We are a very small part of the collective action. Our goal is to build a pipeline of technology innovation for the entire sector. Our specific interests and offer to the sector is to..

  • Surface technologies offering a replicable and effective solution to on-the-ground needs, across FCDO focus countries, in the COVID context
  • Uncover grassroots innovations, and COVID pivots to existing business models, are available that might be overlooked by other programmes and fundings
  • Maintain a global vantage point in order to break down silos of action taking place at an individual country level

Intellectual property and innovationaction.org/covid-19

InnovationAction.org is a central innovation hub that will source global solutions to global challenges. The platform will support the COVID-19 response by providing access to proven, viable designs for medical devices and personal, protective equipment (PPE) and other ideas that will support those responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The site will share vetted innovations, enabling access to designs and development stories to local manufacturers around the world. Fully accessible and optimised for mobile, InnovationAction.org has been designed for use globally, ensuring functionality in areas of low bandwidth, including in low and middle income countries.

The partners

Frontier Technologies Hub

COVIDaction is led by FCDO’s Frontier Technologies Hub. The Hub was launched in 2016 to explore the application of frontier technologies like drones, Internet of Things, electric vehicles, additive manufacturing and more to the biggest challenges in development. The Hub is delivered by a consortium of partners including Results for Development, IMC Worldwide and Brink.

Global Disability Innovation Hub

UCL’s Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub) who will draw on networks and knowledge, as well as experience of leading the FCDO-funded AT2030 programme testing what works to get Assistive Technology to the people that need it around the world.

Institute of Healthcare Engineering (IHE)

UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering (IHE) brings together a network of leading engineers and clinicians across UCL and its partner hospitals, including direct links with intensive care specialists at University College London Hospital, the Whittington and Great Ormond Street Hospital and will also support this work.

Theme-related sector partnerships have also been established to work directly on each pipeline area.

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COVIDaction, a partnership between UKAid, UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Global Disability Innovation Hub, alongside others, is building a tech and innovation pipeline to support action related to the COVID-19 pandemic across different thematic areas

Lea Simpson

Written by

Founder of Brink, Team Leader of the Frontier Technologies Hub. Tech optimist and lifelong nerd.


COVIDaction, a partnership between UKAid, UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Global Disability Innovation Hub, alongside others, is building a tech and innovation pipeline to support action related to the COVID-19 pandemic across different thematic areas