Apr 10, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

If you haven't seen this ad from the Ohio Department of Health explaining social distancing, it's a powerful one. And, if that got you hooked, here's a little bit more on how it was made.

Today's Login is 1,533 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Pandemic forces startups to shift gears

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Spaces CEO Brad Herman had an early warning about the coronavirus because his startup supplies VR attractions to a number of theme parks in China. Realizing that the business he spent the last few years building was going to evaporate, Herman quickly found a new way to apply his team's know-how: helping companies host Zoom teleconferences in VR.

Why it matters: Many startups are rethinking the viability of their core businesses in the wake of the coronavirus. Spaces' move is one of many such pivots likely to crop up in the coming months.

There's a variety of reasons companies are now pivoting (credit to Bloomberg Beta's Roy Bahat for much of this list):

  • The previous business was never going to work.
  • The idea could have worked before, but won't work now given the economic environment.
  • The industry the company was looking to transform has itself been demolished.

Pandemic-era pivots have so far taken a couple different approaches:

  • Trying to do a different version of the same thing that doesn't require in-person meetings.
  • Augmenting what the company was doing before with additional offerings that are more relevant in this moment.

Here are a few companies that have already managed to shift gears:

Allset initially was focused on enabling a quick "dine-in" experience by letting customers make a reservation, order ahead and then pay directly through the app.

  • Given social distancing, they quickly shifted with their restaurants to offer contactless take-out, and have seen strong usage for the new service. 

Hoovie is a Vancouver-based startup that lets people host movie screenings in all sorts of venues including homes and restaurants.

  • In an era of social distancing, the company quickly added a way to virtually host screenings, including a post-film discussion over Zoom.

Augmented writing startup Textio got its start helping companies remove bias from job listings and other corporate communications, but it is adding services around writing even for companies not doing a lot of hiring at the moment.

  • "Reputations are going to be won and lost at this time," CEO Kieran Snyder told Axios.

Enrich is designed to give up-and-coming executives a peer group. It had been focused on in-person gatherings, starting in the San Francisco Bay Area, but realized a need to go all-digital once the coronavirus hit.

  • "At first I was like, 'Oh no,'" CEO Jordan Stein told Axios. "Then I realized people are hungry for these connections. That exists whether we are virtual or in person. We just have to be creative on how we deliver that."

Spaces, as mentioned above, is now focused on its VR workspace, which has been downloaded more than 3,000 times, Herman said.

  • With only 13 employees, the firm has had to move lots of people into new roles. For example, two who had been installing VR systems at theme parks are now running the Discord server and support.

Our thought bubble: Pivots can pay off, and some great products and companies were born from them.

2. Virus prompts spontaneous entrepreneurship

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the coronavirus pandemic has quickly upended the U.S. economy and everyday life, it has also prompted entrepreneurs to devise clever solutions to new problems, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

What's happening: Founders have quickly spun up projects like Frontline Foods and StopCOVID-19 to tackle urgent needs like generating revenue for restaurants and keeping essential service workers informed of fast-changing health guidelines.

"We attracted probably the best team I’ve ever seen at a startup," San Francisco-based entrepreneur Frank Barbieri tells Axios of the volunteers helping Frontline Foods, an organization delivering meals to healthcare workers that he helped launch less than a month ago.

  • The project was inspired by an emergency room nurse friend. Funded by donations, it keeps restaurant workers paid and employed while feeding people fighting the pandemic.
  • More than 300 volunteers across the country have set up local chapters, and Frontline Foods has graduated from a set of spreadsheets to a full-fledged website, organized working groups via chat app Slack, and even a national partnership with chef Jose Andres' nonprofit, World Central Kitchen.

The big picture: Entrepreneurs, seasoned executives and professionals have been jumping at the challenges created by the coronavirus crisis to offer ideas, time and skills to projects like these examples and many others.

  • "I haven't felt this engaged as a human being in a long time," said Dan Teran, an entrepreneur who recently left WeWork after selling his company, and has been helping with StopCOVID-19, a project that sends health and safety information to frontline workers via text messages.
  • Teran had been advising ESL Works, a startup that provides English language training to food service workers, when founder and CEO Rachael Nemeth asked him to help in applying the company’s tech to the current needs of the crisis. The service is now used by delivery drivers for Delivery.com, supply chain workers for Blackstone's RGIS, and several other companies.
  • Greg Isenberg, another entrepreneur who sold his startup to WeWork, recently created a website that lets users pay for a live video tutorial from a barber. While hair salons and barber shops remain closed, men can get much-needed guidance on cutting their hair while barbers get paid.

Between the lines: While these efforts are driven by the immediate problems and needs that the coronavirus pandemic has created, the solutions will likely outlast the current situation.

Be smart: Creativity often springs out of crisis, and it couldn't be more true for entrepreneurs amid the current pandemic.

Go deeper: Coronavirus brings out Silicon Valley's inner problem-solver

3. Trump administration seeks to bar China Telecom

Photo: Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Justice Department led a group of executive branch agencies in calling on federal regulators Thursday to revoke a Chinese state-owned telecom company's permission to provide service in the U.S., citing national security concerns, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: It's the latest crackdown from the federal government on China-based communications companies amid tensions between Washington and Beijing over a range of issues.

What's happening: Administration officials found "substantial and unacceptable national security and law enforcement risks" in reviewing China Telecom's operations in the U.S.

  • They want the Federal Communications Commission to revoke a 2007 authorization letting the company provide service. China Telecom's U.S. offerings include a wireless service aimed at Chinese Americans and Chinese tourists and lines for privately transferring data internationally, according to a filing from the agencies.
  • The agencies said the U.S. wing of China Telecom has failed to comply with the requirements related to the 2007 authorization. They also raised concerns about its status as a subsidiary of a state-owned enterprise.
  • The company's U.S. operations offer opportunities for state actors to engage in malicious cyber activity, the Justice Department warned.

Yes, but: China Telecom denied the U.S. agencies' allegations, calling them "procedurally unprecedented" in a statement.

  • "The company has always been extremely cooperative and transparent with regulators. In many instances, we have gone beyond what has been requested to demonstrate how our business operates and serves our customers following the highest international standards."

Flashback: The FCC last year voted to deny a request from China Mobile, another state-owned telecom company, to provide service in the U.S.

4. Coronavirus treatment trial taps AI

The first hospital network in the U.S. has joined an international clinical trial using artificial intelligence to help determine which treatments for patients with the novel coronavirus are most effective, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: Scientists face dueling needs: to find treatments quickly and to ensure they are safe and effective. By using this new type of adaptive platform, doctors hope to collect clinical data that will help more quickly determine what actually works.

State of play: No treatments have been approved for COVID-19 yet. Researchers have made headway in mapping how the virus attaches and infects human cells — helping "guide drug developers, atom by atom, in devising safe and effective ways to treat COVID-19," National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins writes.

  • But new drugs take a long time to develop, partly because they must first be tested for safety before broadening to test for safety and efficacy.
  • While many companies are working on new treatments, others have focused on testing drugs for other conditions that have already met safety requirements.

How it works: Starting Thursday, UPMC's system of 40 hospitals began offering the trial to patients who have moderate to severe complications from COVID-19, Angus said.

  • The platform, based on an existing one called REMAP-CAP, is integrated with UPMC's electronic health records and the data collected via a worldwide machine-learning system that continuously determines what combination of therapies is performing best.
  • As more data is collected, more patients will be steered toward the therapies doing well, Angus said.
  • The adaptive trial format, published Thursday in the journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society, can allow new treatments to be rolled into the trial.
5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • AT&T hired former Republican National Committee chair and veteran public affairs executive Ed Gillespie as executive vice president of external and legislative affairs. He replaces Jim Cicconi, who returned to AT&T last fall to temporarily lead those teams and is now retiring.
  • Peter Naylor is joining Snap as VP for the Americas, starting in early May and based in New York. Naylor has been senior VP and head of ad sales for Hulu.

ICYMI

  • With everyone online all the time, Facebook has added a "quiet mode" with silenced notifications to allow for digital downtime. (VentureBeat)
  • Google has renamed one of its chat apps — Hangouts Meet — as Google Meet. (Google)
  • Google made a portal to help New York management unemployment applications and may roll it out in other states. (CNBC)
6. After you Login

Missing your office? No, you can't go back yet. But, in the meantime, here's an office noise generator to make your home sound a little bit more like your workplace.

Ina Fried