The Pandemic Pivot

Published
22 min read

THE IDEA DIDN’T start with any one team member in particular.

“It was a few weeks before quarantine started, around when we were all realizing that coronavirus was really going to be a major crisis,” recalls Milton Lopez, the head of SparkCognition Labs. “So then a bunch of us on the team started independently thinking, what do we have at our disposal that we can leverage?”

What they had was AI algorithms, drones—and 3D printers.

Normally, Lopez leads a team of seven engineers who create physical prototypes for his company’s digital software. “SparkCognition is an AI software company, but to truly appreciate what software can do, you need to show it running,” he explains. “So we make some hardware—drones, robotics, and so on—that you can use the software on. It lets us test our software and also demo it and show what it looks like running, instead of just showing people a PowerPoint.”

They used to work in their own secluded room under the main staircase at SparkCognition’s Austin, Texas office building. Surrounded by the constant hum of robotics equipment, their work was punctuated by frequent group excursions to send drones on test flights. Now, like most of the world, they work from separate living rooms and garages connected only by Zoom screens.

Even so, the 3D printers Lopez and the team carted home are running night and day, as they iterate new ways to apply the technology and materials they have to the problems at hand: namely, COVID-19. So far, SparkCognition Labs’ easiest and most successful venture has been 3D printing personal protective equipment (PPE) to provide to local healthcare workers, who continue fighting on the front lines against the pandemic with rapidly diminishing supplies of face masks and shields.

“We went at this not from the angle of ‘let’s design the best face shield possible,’ but instead focused on what’s available now that we can start producing a lot of, and if we find out this isn’t as useful later on, that’s OK, but let’s not waste time,” says Lopez. “In the meantime, we were iterating on the design to see if we could solve some of the problems we identified while wearing the shield.”

According to Lopez, SparkCognition Labs’ current design was created to produce quickly and with as little material as possible. Right now, two shields can be printed in two hours and 41 minutes. The team’s goal is to produce 80 to 90 shields per day across their ten printers. Each mask requires 33.72 grams of filament; and since they’re designed to be disposable, any type of filament will do. As word of the Labs team’s efforts has spread, they’ve gotten some donations of more filament, and they have more on order as well. Still, materials continue to be a matter of uncertainty. Lopez estimates that there’s enough filament for three more weeks. “We’ll just have to figure out what supplies we need then,” he says.

Face shields aren’t the only COVID project the Labs team has in the works. They’ve also been prototyping a ventilator of their own design, making use of all the tools at their disposal. Sometimes this means designing intelligent sensors for the ventilator using their parent company’s AI analytics software. Other times, it’s building physical parts out of skateboard wheels and windshield wipers scrounged from team members’ garages.

The team has been toying with uses for their drone technology as well, be it delivering needed supplies or monitoring areas for fevers. Beyond Labs, other departments are also joining the effort; some are working on using natural language processing to help sort through and analyze medical documents, or even information being shared on social media. The IT team has donated compute resources to Folding@Home to help crowdsource research into COVID-19.

“Each organization is focusing on what their specialty is and how they can leverage that,” says Lopez.

coronavirus pandemic

A UNIVERSAL EFFORT

None of this is unique to SparkCognition, of course. COVID-19 is a global problem, and it has prompted an equally global response. Organizations and individuals everywhere have been stepping up to contribute, from medical professionals fighting directly against the pandemic to individuals using their time while housebound to hand-sew face masks for others trapped inside homes scattered across the world. This work happens under wildly different circumstances from people with wildly different tools and abilities, but one thing seems to unite us all: We want to help.

The tech industry is no exception. Almost all of the world’s major tech companies have found a way—or even multiple ways—to contribute beyond monetary donations (though many have chipped in with hefty amounts of cash as well). Apple has donated 10 million masks to healthcare workers in the U.S. Google is working with the U.S. government to develop better education and resources on COVID-19, as well as using its DeepMind AI to contribute to research on the structure of the virus. Honeywell has pivoted to manufacturing N95 face masks.

But you don’t need to be a Fortune 500 company, or have pockets deeper than the Marianas Trench, to help out. Tech startups across the world, of all sizes and from all different subsectors of the industry, are already proving that, by coming up with innovative ways to provide aid with the capabilities they already have. Across the pond, for instance, UK-based startup Zoe previously offered a customizable nutrition app. Now it’s branched out, partnering with King’s College in London to develop an app that tracks the spread of COVID-19 symptoms based on user self-reports. Taken together, this data is helping researchers track the spread of coronavirus and identify potential upcoming hot spots.

In some ways, it could be argued that smaller startups like this have an advantage over titans like Google or Apple: speed. Small, agile tech companies can ideate, iterate, and implement creative new ideas in a fraction of the time it would take at a larger business—even if it sometimes involves skateboard wheels.

SMALL TECH, BIG IMPACT

In Austin a few miles from SparkCognition, fellow AI company Athena Security has also thrown itself into finding new ways to contribute during this crisis. Founded in 2017, Athena Security aims to prevent mass shootings and other violent crime by using artificial intelligence and thermal imaging to detect and flag concealed guns in public spaces. Now the company is repurposing this technology to identify coronavirus symptoms.

Many businesses and doctor’s offices are trying to help protect their workers and clients by screening customers before they enter. Right now, that generally takes the form of an employee sitting at the door all day long to ask anyone who approaches if they’ve experienced any symptoms or been in contact with anyone who has—a somewhat risky strategy. By using the AI technology it already had, Athena Security has developed a new thermal camera for remote detection of fever temperatures, making it easier to keep workers out of harm’s way. The camera is accurate within half a degree, and it will flag anyone with a temperature over 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

In an interview with local Austin, Texas TV station KVUE, Athena’s co-founder Christopher Ciabarra explained that he wanted to help put people’s minds at ease. “A lot of people are going to be afraid to go outside after all of this, but having a system that will be able to tell if someone has a fever or not will help them go back into society and be comfortable sitting at restaurants again.”

Mutual Mobile, another Austin-based company, hasn’t been sitting idle either. A technology and innovation consultancy, the company brings its tech expertise and its network of like-minded clients to the table. It’s been putting both to good use: In late March, Mutual Mobile put out the call to tech and medical professionals to join its newly founded Corona Coalition, which aims to pool talents within and across these industries and find new ways to fight back against COVID-19. In a press release, Mutual Mobile’s chairman John Arrow stated: “We are calling on developers, product managers, designers, QA and medical professionals passionate about creating a technology solution to come together to support this effort. We are in critical need of backend support for scaling and medical/infectious disease experts that can help us build the most effective solution for the largest number of people.”

So far, the Corona Coalition’s main project has been CoronaTrace, an open-source app designed to notify users if they’ve been in proximity with someone who’s been diagnosed with COVID-19. They’re far from the only ones with this ambition, but their approach has been a bit different. “We are taking a GPS-based approach with a central spatio-temporal database that balances privacy, user experience, and time-to-market,” says Mutual Mobile’s founder, Tarun Nimmagadda. “We are freely sharing resources with other groups but think it is important for parallel efforts to take place that can possibly merge down the road once it becomes clear which approach is best for which scenario.”

A HELPING HAND FOR THE HARDEST HIT

There’s certainly no shortage of tech companies working to find new ways to help track or prevent the spread of coronavirus. But the tech industry is nothing if not creative. COVID-19 has generated widespread economic unrest, and startups from all over are finding ways to pitch in on that front as well.

Zira was launched in San Francisco just last Decem- ber, but that hasn’t stopped the brand-new company from getting in on the action. Alongside its workforce automation platform, which helps streamline team scheduling and communication, Zira has now rolled out a free service called Bounce Back, an app designed to help the unemployed navigate coverage, healthcare, and job hunting.

Meanwhile, My Menu, a startup that helps restaurants create digital tablet menus, has decided to offer up its underlying technology on a silver platter. In a time when many restaurants are struggling to survive, they can now freely use My Menu’s tech to build better digital menus and improve their online footprint, making it easier to stay afloat during quarantine.

Virtually no one has been unaffected by this pandemic—which also means nearly everyone wants to find a way to help, whether they have a medical degree or not. For tech companies of all sizes and all prior focus- es, the key to joining the fight against COVID-19 seems to be simple: just figure out how to apply the tools at hand.

“Working remotely has been different, but work like this is a matter of life or death. We’re contributing in a small way, but it makes a life-saving difference, and that’s what motivates us,” says SparkCognition Labs’ Lopez. “We’re not doctors; we’re doing the best we can and trying to be as efficient and fast as possible, because that’s what we can contribute.

“We’re all looking at what problems we can solve with the technology we have.”

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