The constant barrage of Covid news, information, analysis, and opinion has us all fatigued and ready to turn the page. Rightfully so, but the optimist in me believes we might be overlooking some of the key takeaways of the pandemic. Specifically, I think startup founders can look to the development and rollout of the Covid vaccine as a once-in-a-generation use case for ambitious, innovative thinking as well as an allegory for the work we do every day.
We’re still in the throes of the struggle, but as we continue we can take a little comfort from the lessons that Covid can teach us — if we know where to look. These are the three big ones that I see.
3 Lessons Startup CEOs Can Learn from the Covid Vaccine Rollout
- The quicker the product gets out there, the sooner it can start changing lives.
- Innovation does not require reinvention.
- Build with versatility in mind in order to give new life to old ideas.
1. The Quicker the Product Gets Out There, the Sooner It Can Start Changing Lives
The Covid vaccine story is amazing. For anyone working in tech, it should be an inspiration for years to come. Prior to the Covid vaccine, the most quickly developed vaccine, for mumps, took four years to develop before premiering in 1967. Smallpox and polio vaccines took decades. The initial recipe for the Covid vaccine was developed in two days. The first emergency use authorization for it came on December 11, 2020 — only nine months after the pandemic was declared in March. Nine months from first test to rollout! Since then more than 6 billion doses have been administered in 184 countries.
In less distracted, less demanding times, we’d stand in collective amazement at the speed and efficiency of this modern miracle. We’d celebrate the exponential shortening of the process, the lives saved and the new techniques pioneered. We'd maybe even feel good about our prospects as a species. And we really should.
Let’s take a moment to pause and appreciate the incredible ingenuity behind this unprecedented rollout. Because in doing so, we embrace our collective ability to overcome any obstacle. We remember the joy of building and shipping a product that will change the world.
With startups, especially VC-funded startups, speed is not a nice-to-have, it’s everything. You need to get your product to the customer as soon as possible. Start the trials, put needles in arms, control the controllables, so to speak. And that tendency toward action goes a long way in driving any successful endeavor, including your startup.
2. Innovation Does Not Require Reinvention
As the pandemic made abundantly clear, every minute counts. Crisis demands that R&D take place 24/7, with iteration and optimization ongoing, lest more lives be lost. One of the major reasons the vaccines were brought to market so quickly is because their core technology, mRNA, had been in development for a decade. When the need arose, it was ready and available for trials.
Think about this: YouTube initially started as a video dating site, Pinterest as a catalog on your phone and Twitter was a side project of a podcasting discovery service. All of these wildly popular apps began as completely different products than the ones we know today. Their developers changed their original contours early on to align with the way customers actually used them. As a funded startup, your R&D is certainly crucial, but so is administering that first clinical trial as soon as possible so you can closely monitor the results. Beta users may have a completely different idea of what your product is for than you do, and early adopters may find yet another use. No matter how solid your business plan is at the start, be ready to react and adapt to customer demands.
To get there you don’t need to start from scratch. For the sake of efficiency, use as many off-the-shelf components as are available. Don’t be one of those people so enthralled with their own genius or so driven by ✨innovation✨ that they feel compelled to reinvent the wheel or ignore marketability.
Case in point: Red Bull Racing is one of the most competitive Formula 1 teams in the world. Red Bull makes energy drinks; they do not make racing engines. They probably could, but the odds that their engine is dramatically better than one made by, say, Honda are extremely low. That’s why Red Bull’s car is powered by Honda.
In the early days of iPhone dev, Apple used plastic for the phone’s touchscreen. When Steve Jobs discovered how easily his prototype phone’s screen scratched in his pocket, he knew he needed a different material. He challenged legacy glassmaker Corning to develop something appropriate, and in a matter of months Corning refined the lightweight, scratch-resistant glass that had been “sitting on the R&D shelf.” The iPhone debuted with that material (which later became Gorilla Glass) and Apple contracts with Corning to this day.
The lesson here for CEOs is to ruthlessly prioritize: Take on only those challenges that you must. Know your capabilities and your weaknesses and take every opportunity to utilize pre-existing efficiencies to expedite product development.
3. Build With Versatility in Mind in Order to Give New Life to Old Ideas
The Covid vaccine’s mRNA tech is a foundational component built to accommodate a host of different purposes. Now that it’s been proven to work, mRNA is being applied in vaccines for malaria, HIV and tuberculosis. It’s even being considered as an immune-system trigger for conditions like cancer and addiction.
Oftentimes innovative solutions come from stitching together preexisting components that haven’t been combined before. Look beyond your direct line of sight — your industry, your competitors — to find building blocks from other disciplines, then stack them in unexpected ways to yield new results.
For example, checklists are useful, but they aren’t novel. Applying them in different fields is. To reduce errors and increase efficiency in his operating room, Dr. Atul Gawande borrowed the checklist methodology that Boeing developed for pilot safety. When applied at eight different hospitals, his two-minute “bedside aide” checklist resulted in surgeries with far fewer complications and deaths.
Oftentimes this kind of cross-application/cross-pollination doesn’t dawn on us until we go out of our comfort zones or someone else suggests it. Which brings up an important question: In a given week, how often do you meet with someone outside of your universe? How often do you converse with a lawyer, an artist, a teacher? It pays to know people who can shift your perspective by sharing theirs. Accessing a diversity of perspectives requires careful cultivation.
The common theme among these lessons is the importance of breaking out of default mode. Patterns of behavior and proven routines can be useful efficiencies, but they can also be a shackle to old ways of thinking. The pandemic has been awful in more ways than we can count, but it can also teach us how to do better next time.