BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Among the millions of Americans working from home, a group of Indiana University Kelley School of Business professors created a worldwide movement to seek solutions for problems arising from the novel coronavirus.
Their “Idea Sprint Weekend Against COVID-19” initiative was organized in just three days and led to the development of several new social initiatives addressing issues related to the COVID-19 crisis, including a shortage of surgical masks, grocery stockouts, displaced workers and online educational challenges that students are facing across the country.
About 200 people participated from around the world starting March 20, and by the evening of March 22, 19 teams had posted video pitches to the project web site, covid19ideas.org. Professors have continued to hear from teams working on launching their social ventures.
“We were at home, communicating on Zoom like everyone else, and began to think about what more we could do,” said Regan Stevenson, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and management and the John and Donna Shoemaker Faculty Fellow, who initiated the project. “With our experience helping people come up with ideas and launch social ventures, we thought we might be able create a movement to bring the entrepreneurship, tech and medical communities together to take on the COVID-19 crisis on a bigger scale than each of us could do individually.”
Stevenson and several colleagues announced an urgent open call for ideas and participants on social media March 18. While their original focus was on engaging students who had been dispersed from campus, the sign-up page was quickly inundated by a diverse group of entrepreneurs, coders, engineers, medical doctors, nurses, venture capitalists and other business professionals from the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia and South America who wanted to be part of a community led by a common cause.
“As the ideas came in, we recognized that people were sending them from all over the world,” said Matthew Josefy, assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship. One participant said, “I haven’t been able to leave my house in a week. I’ve been here on the sidelines, wishing there was some way I could plug in and do something.”
In virtual meetings each day, the organizers sought to increase awareness of pain points associated with the COVID-19 virus and response while providing workshops on entrepreneurial processes that could accelerate the ideas of each team. Teams, communicating mostly via Zoom, quickly evolved into communities with shared interests and complementary expertise.
About a dozen mentors with venture capital and angel investment backgrounds and more than 20 faculty members from across the university advised teams. Teams were pushed to rapidly move ideas forward to prototype stage and to record video pitches that could be disseminated to seek further funding and development.
Dr. Amani Jambhekar, a Houston-based cancer surgeon and a student in the Kelley Direct online MBA program, contributed a project idea that was the focus of one team’s efforts: centralizing donations of N95 masks from the public, including those from veterinary clinics, construction companies and dental offices.
“Right now, there’s not a centralized way for hospitals to get masks that are outside the medical system,” she said, adding that donors put themselves at risk when they take masks to hospitals. “More people would be encouraged to donate their masks from home if there was a simple drop-off at a grocery store or a fire station.”
Jambhekar’s team is using the hashtag #RealHeroesNeedMasks to raise awareness. Efforts are now underway to locate retail sponsors to develop collection sites outside stores and public buildings, so new and cleaned masks can be distributed to hospital networks, beginning with her hometown of Houston. Another group has shared its ideas for delivering food to the elderly and needy with a major grocery chain in Canada.
Other groups are working with beta customers to further refine the concepts or are in the process of securing additional resources.
The full effects of the initiative will only be clear with time, as the teams continue to pursue their ideas and attract greater attention from potential investors and partners. However, forming a venture isn’t necessarily the only goal the organizers have in mind.
“We combined the concept of a design sprint with a startup weekend, which is an event in which individuals form teams to develop an entrepreneurial idea as much as they can within a single weekend,” said Greg Fisher, the Larry and Barbara Sharpf Professor and an associate professor of entrepreneurship in the Kelley School. “By combining these two concepts, we created an ‘idea sprint’ weekend with the goal of surfacing and ultimately implementing – if viable – ideas with the highest potential for helping the community navigate this virus.”
“Usually when you’re thinking about strategy, you’re saying, ‘What can we do better than anybody else,’” Josefy said. “All of humanity is united in this fight. Our purpose was to dedicate all the time and resources we could to develop ideas that may add value for those affected. Success is if even one of these teams is able to move forward and alleviate one or more current problems for members of our communities.”
For more information regarding IU’s research and expertise in the fight against COVID-19, visit research.impact.iu.edu.