Incubators Overcome Challenges, Point To Bright Future

If there’s one thing that incubators know how to do, it’s innovate. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that while the global pandemic provided challenges for everyone in every industry, incubators were able to find creative ways to survive and thrive.

A recent panel presentation brought together a number of speakers associated with all aspects of the incubator ecosystem, including some of the large incubators from both coasts and those housed within corporations and universities, along with the interim president and CEO of the International Business Innovation Association, a global association supporting more than 2,000 incubators, accelerators and related programs.

The presentation, which took place in late August, was called “Innovation Incubators: Going Through Global Health Challenges and Moving Forward Toward a Stronger Future.”

It was hosted by Mostafa Analoui, executive director of Venture Development at the University of Connecticut. In addition to Fogarty’s own Andrew Cleeland, panelists included Stephen Pitt, Ph.D. of Johnson & Johnson’s JLABS; Celina Chang of LabCentral; Mark Long, Ph.D. of University of Florida and Charles Ross of the International Business Innovation Association.

Andrew pointed out that Fogarty’s mandate has expanded beyond that of a traditional “incubator.” As he explained, “We are not only focused on getting new technologies and new therapies to market, but on developing the next generation of innovators and strengthening the early-stage innovation ecosystem.” And more importantly, he added, “Our role is to be collaborative and support those who are invested in the advancement of healthcare.”

It was in that collaborative spirit that participants shared their own journeys through the pandemic and advice on how they were able to meet the necessary health mandates while staying solvent.

Overcoming challenges with creative strategies

Here are some of the tactics the incubators shared, which may provide ideas to other startups or companies considering their pandemic response:

  1. Prioritize health first.

Collectively they agreed that their first allegiance was keeping the teams and their families safe. That meant moving to virtual work immediately and only resuming in-house work when it was deemed safe by their communities—and the incubator participants. For example, one was able to stagger benches and spread people out to allow occupancy.

  1. Get creative with rent.

One of the incubators’ main sources of revenue is rent, but while companies had contractual obligations to the space, they weren’t generating revenue. Fortunately, the incubators knew they had to develop solutions and offered ways to help the companies. For example, one cited an overall “emergency rent payment policy” where they offered levels that allowed companies to postpone their payment and split it in the future or add the commensurate months onto the end of the rent agreement.

  1. Support stakeholders in new and different ways.

Once people realized that remote work was going to persist for a while and accepted it was a “new reality,” they understood they had to find creative ways to continue on. That led to webinars, virtual office hours, or other ways that people could still connect.

  1. Develop new methods for the way things have always been done.

The pandemic fueled a collective goal of looking at old problems in new ways. For example, clinical trials haven’t really changed in hundreds of years, and yet now the industry is seeing the need to decentralize them. The challenge will be to find a way to build a bridge between the people who want access to clinical trials around the country and the doctors who want to be part of them.

  1. Focus on camaraderie.

Most of us saw this in our communities and workplaces—the desire to help one another. The incubators similarly reported an increased spirit of collaboration as teams helped each other. And, when you get right down to it, that is the spirit that the start-up world should strive for every day.

A bright future

Charles reported that his organization had conducted a survey to gauge the pandemic’s impact, and they were pleasantly surprised to find that only 40% of the respondents characterized it as a “major impact.” Certainly, part of that optimism could be attributed to the fact that the industry is, by its nature, open to innovation.

“The best innovation starts with the problem and works its way backwards,” said Nick Donofrio, an attendee and former IBM executive vice president of Innovation and Technology. “And that’s exactly what we have in front of us. If we do this inclusively, openly and collaboratively, I think we all come out stronger.”

That means there are continued challenges ahead and everyone has a role to play in addressing them.

As Mark concluded, “We can certainly be optimistic about the future, but we all have to grab a shovel and pitch in right now.”

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