How Student Startups Are Adapting to (and Fighting) COVID-19

What does it take to lead a startup through the uncertainty of a global health emergency? 

Since February, Dorm Room Fund has been working closely with our community as we all look to navigate the volatility caused by COVID-19.

We urge everyone to put the health and safety of themselves, their teammates, their families and their communities first, and to follow the prevention guidelines of the CDC, WHO, and ISOS. No meeting or business opportunity is worth endangering your health or that of others. 

At the same time, every team has the ability to adapt, stay positive, and remain resilient in the face of external adversity. That’s why we’ll be sharing tips and best practices gathered from the DRF community and from our experience running teams across four cities that are designed to help founders keep their companies moving forward in the weeks to come. 

If there’s one thing student startups know, it’s how to adapt 

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts lives, health systems and the global economy, startups and corporate giants alike have been forced to change at lightning speed, in some cases to meet spiking demand and in others simply to stay afloat. 

Our founders have inspired the Dorm Room Fund team each day with the adaptability, creativity, fortitude, and resilience they’ve shown in the face of adversity. These teams don’t quit, and the strategies and tactics they’re using hold critical lessons for founders and business operators of all types. 

We’ve identified six key ways student startups have adapted to meet this generational challenge:

  1. Letting mission guide a new direction
  2. Finding new ways to empathize with customers
  3. Scaling rapidly to meet increased demand
  4. Uncovering new digital opportunities
  5. Building digital communities and listening to consumers, stuck at home or not
  6. Adapting proactively and supporting the fight against COVID-19

Let’s take a closer look. 

Letting mission guide a new direction

External circumstances have pressured the core business of some startups in our community. These companies are using their broader mission to determine a new direction while continuing to serve their core constituency. 

Ladder is committed to enabling upward mobility in America. Pre-COVID-19, the company focused on helping job seekers attend 3–14 week classes to become certified nursing assistants (CNAs), financing their tuition and placing them with employers immediately upon completion. While the company continues to operate its core business of training and placing CNAs with nursing homes and hospitals, they saw an opportunity to build additional products and services to further their mission. After putting in hundreds of hours of additional work, the Ladder team launched a new portal that enables users to understand the government benefits they may be entitled to and to learn about ways to save money during tough economic times. By letting the company’s mission guide it in a new direction, Ladder continues to provide value for its target demographic and build its brand.

Kiki Air, a drone food delivery startup aiming to provide <5 minute delivery on campuses, has faced nationwide closures of college and university physical plants. As campuses shut down one by one, the company had to figure out how to continue operations with students at home. Realizing the growing need for contactless delivery, the team has retooled to use drones to deliver basic goods while practicing social distancing. The company just launched drone delivery in New Haven, delivering food and other essential items, all sourced from local businesses. Any revenue generated above cost is donated back to local charities responding to COVID-19. Kiki Air is actively seeking new cities to bring drone delivery to. Reach out to if you’d like to get involved!

Lovepop, which creates 3D pop-up paper art for every occasion that unfolds like a miniature surprise, was inspired to leverage the company’s core competencies to take an active role in fighting COVID-19. To produce their cards, Lovepop cuts paper on state-of-the-art laser cutters and crafts the cards by hand with some clever engineering and a tiny bit of glue. The team is now leveraging the same skills to produce lifesaving PPE for frontline healthcare staff. 

Lovepop’s sourcing team, which usually sources a complex range of craft papers, has applied its skills to find high-quality materials and idle garment manufacturers that can convert materials into usable articles of PPE. The company’s prototyping team, which normally assembles cards, now makes prototypes of gowns and head covers. Lovepop’s face shields sell in boxes of 160 (order here) and are decorated with colorful labels that read “I’m here for you.” Despite operating well outside the company’s normal scope, the team is leveraging their skills to further Lovepop’s mission of creating one billion magical moments in an entirely new way. 

Finding new ways to empathize with customers 

Recognizing that their customers were suffering, these companies added new functionality to help them more effectively weather the storm. 

RotoMaire, a software company that works with retailers to make the most of their point-of-sale data, found many of its customers struggling due to shelter-in-place orders. Keeping with its core mission of helping retailers more effectively utilize data, the RotoMaire team launched a tool on top of its core product that notifies customers of store closures and highlights when certain locations will run out of specific products. RotoMaire has chosen to offer these products for free to all its customers for the next three months. 

Ocular Technologies is improving patient access to eye care through a combination of innovative hardware, software and new care models. Ocular founder and CEO, Brett Sternfield, was concerned about protecting the ophthalmologists he works so closely with (traditional eye exams require slit lamps, which can be conducive to virus spread) and set out to find a way to produce protective shields for these lamps. As recently highlighted by the Boston Globe, the team’s search for PPE manufacturers resulted in them connecting plastic distributor Polymershapes and MIT mechanical engineering professor Martin Culpepper, spurring a combined effort to produce up to 1 million face shields per week for frontline workers (purchasing info here.) Empathizing with the company’s core customers and health care workers at large has allowed Ocular to establish and build genuine relationships with hospitals and industry experts. Meanwhile, the company had to execute a large operational pivot, running remote ophthalmology clinics out of vans instead of urgent care facilities, and launching clinical pilots running remote care from within ophthalmology offices to remote doctors. As a result of the team’s ingenuity, Ocular has been able to continue providing access to ophthalmology for even the most isolated patients in a time of crisis.  

Pilota which monitors and predicts flight disruptions and automatically rebooks flights during delays or cancellations, is positioned within one of the hardest hit industries: travel tech. As the company recently explained at the 500 Startups demo day, however, the relevance of the Pilota’s core mission to predict and mitigate flight disruptions has only increased as a result of widespread COVID-related travel restrictions. The company launched a COVID-19 dashboard to track flight changes and disruptions, notifying travelers of the number of flights that have been canceled and average delay times, by airline and airport. A list of all alternative flights on that route are provided for immediate rebooking. By leveraging the data they collect for their core product, Pilota plans to launch an additional tool on their platform to assess the health and safety risk on any given flight, giving those who have to travel an extra layer of safety.

Scaling rapidly to meet increased demand 

Companies whose products are well-positioned for COVID-related trends have moved rapidly to accommodate a sudden influx in demand.

Betterbank, a pre-launch digital bank account that provides a safety net for medical debt, has always focused on alleviating the burden of unexpected medical emergencies. Now, their mission is more timely than ever as millions of Americans find themselves faced with both COVID-related medical bills and economic uncertainty. Forbes recently highlighted the team’s quick move to expand its product offerings to include an option for users to pay $1 per day in exchange for health insurance coverage for all illnesses. As the risk of medical debt grows, the company is working to accommodate spiking inbound interest with more than 7,000 people and counting already on its waitlist.

Thrive Education facilitates easily accessible, online assessments for learning differences evaluated by psychologists and enabled by machine learning. Following DRF’s investment, demand for the company’s online learning assessment platform has increased significantly due to COVID-related precautions that prohibit traditional in-person assessments. The value proposition of online assessments has been amplified as a result, causing the team to rapidly accelerate its launch to meet enhanced demand for remote evaluations.

Clara Health, a health-tech company whose HIPAA and GDPR compliant platform connects people of every medical profile to clinical trials, has recently launched a COVID-19 registry to accelerate COVID-19 clinical trial recruitment. It has successfully accelerated recruitment for previous studies by 200–400%. The team quickly recognized that its platform could be used to aid the response to the global pandemic and launched, a public health initiative in partnership with Silicon Valley tech leaders Raj Kapoor and Vijay Chattha, among others. Through this initiative, Clara Health has expanded the functionality of its core product to help people participate in COVID-19 clinical trials of testing, treatments, and vaccines (e.g. urgent antibody testing), connect donors with blood transfusion centers to help those in need, and identify people who may be immune. 

Vested, which enables $0 commission U.S. investing for Indian retail investors, has similarly seen a strong influx of demand. Vested saw their largest month-over-month increase in new accounts in March and passed a key milestone in terms of deposits under management. Vested’s product has proven to be countercyclical as decreased market valuations driven by the global economic downtown have attracted Indian investors looking to gain exposure to U.S. stocks at lower prices. 

Uncovering new digital opportunities

Businesses that traditionally rely on in-person interaction don’t have to stall out. Many of the founders in our community have found that embracing new digital formats has made their products central to the lives of COVID-era customers. 

Motivote, which uses research-proven behavioral nudges to increase voter turnout, has worked overtime to transition all voter engagement activities online. The challenges associated with in-person voting during a pandemic are well understood and it’s clear that voter engagement and turnout methods need to adapt. Motivote has focused on enabling digital organizing, getting the word out to strategic non-profits who work with low-propensity voting communities through the Motivote Impact Fund. Motivote views digital organizing as a way to introduce their product to politics & advocacy organizations ​that are ​looking for creative solutions to engage voters while social distancing measures are in place. Through discounts and grants that reduce barriers for mission-driven organizations to adopt these tools, Motivote is accelerating their partnership rollouts, forming relationships that should persist when traditional modes of organizing, like events and door-knocking, start back up. 

Flo Recruit, which helps companies hire the best talent and improve recruiting event return on investment, has embraced the shift to digital-first recruiting strategies. With in-person recruiting events put on hold, the company has shifted to a digital event-based strategy, quickly rolling out and improving upon virtual recruiting events. As most of Flo Recruit’s clients are not set up to offer digital experiences or virtual internships, this shift in strategy has resulted in multiple net new conversations with potential clients. The team had not otherwise planned to pursue virtual recruiting events within the next three years, but rapidly pivoted as conditions changed. The team is eager to pitch a completely new product to new users and prove they can move faster than any of them previously imagined. 

Building digital communities and listening to consumers, stuck at home or not

Companies that are still pre-product are focusing on building a strong community around their brand and listening to consumer’s evolving needs to ultimately launch stronger products. 

Topicals, a medicated skincare company for chronic skin conditions, had planned to launch at the end of March but faced delays in production due to severely disrupted supply chains. The company adapted quickly, using this opportunity to strengthen its brand and digital community. While Topicals has always focused on creating engaging digital experiences on a limited budget, they’ve found that this strategy resonates even more strongly with a stuck at home audience looking for engagement. The company recently sponsored a digital beauty conference, for example, with 15 industry speakers teaching attendees about beauty product development. The conference welcomed 1,000 attendees after only 48 hrs of promotion. While the company had to delay its product launch, an initial run of samples offered to their digital community sold out in under three days. See their recent feature in the Wall Street Journal to learn more about how they’re “thriving during lockdown.”

Sequin Financial, which is building a suite of credit products for the modern, empowered woman, is using this opportunity to position its brand and cultivate a topic-based digital community. With women losing jobs at a greater rate than men during this pandemic, Sequin is working to create an online community where women can post their responses to the challenges presented by the crisis and share the financial tools they wish they had to help them navigate the economic upheaval. By continuing to listen to women and better understand their experiences, Sequin believes that the company will ultimately be able to launch a stronger, more intuitive product.

Adapting proactively and supporting the fight against COVID-19 

The ability to foresee potential disruptions and opportunities resulting from the early COVID-19 outbreak allowed some founders to re-organize operations swiftly. With operations under control, these companies are giving back to their communities and building brand affinity in the process. 

Aavia, a femtech company focused on hormone health, anticipated COVID-related disruption early on. The team’s connections to Asia gave Aavia unique insight into the scope and severity of the early outbreak, enabling them to proactively ramp up production while working to secure U.S.-based supply chain partners before large scale disruptions hit. Demand for the company’s first product, a smart birth control case, has spiked as customers look for new ways to maintain their health while stuck at home. Aavia saw a significant growth in organic demand in March and April, compared to February. 

Aavia isn’t standing still and has instead focused on using this opportunity to contribute to the COVID-19 fight. All proceeds from sales of Aavia’s branded pop sockets will be donated to COVID-19 response, and the company has paused all subscription fees for front line responders during the month of April. 

Similarly, Verb, which produces daily energy essentials, is supporting healthcare staff working around the clock by donating their signature energy bars. While Verb and Aavia’s motivations are entirely altruistic, both teams recognize something critical: customers will remember which brands stepped up (and which ones didn’t) long after the COVID-19 crisis ends. 

We are so impressed by the ways in which our founders have responded to COVID-related change, and we can’t wait to see what else talented student founders across the country are building to help the world cope with COVID-19 and its challenges. Working on something awesome? Apply here to be considered for an investment by Dorm Room Fund.

Written by Justine Humenansky, DRF Partner (Bay Area). Follow her on Medium and Twitter. Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash.

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