WRITTEN BY Stephanie Marrus Managing Director, Entrepreneurship at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), member of F50 Global Committee
The entrepreneurial ecosystem around the world is sequestered. In Madrid, an investor and entrepreneurship program director at the prestigious IE Business School has been locked in her apartment except for food acquisition trips, until now prohibited from walking around the block. The rules loosened this week; she is now able to venture outside twice a day at assigned times with government permission. In Rabat Morocco, the CEO of a renowned think tank must ask the government for a QR code to leave his house. He is admitted to a store only when the code is verified. In Paris, the startup manager for Institut Pasteur uses a computer-based permission system to go grocery shopping or ride the Metro. The same is true in Moscow for the dean of a major bank’s corporate university. Conferences are postponed or cancelled, trips to Silicon Valley to absorb the startup culture unimaginable and in person pitches to investors cancelled.
What’s happening to entrepreneurship in an environment where we are consumed with finding and acquiring food for 21 meals a week, worrying about the virus and adjusting to working at home with family distractions?
Entrepreneurship persists. Conferences are still happening, online. Entrepreneurs are pitching, online. Venture capitalists are actively seeking new investments to put their existing funds to work. Some investors are keeping “dry powder” for their existing portfolio companies that are more likely than ever to need it. Entrepreneurs are working hard to get traction before their “cash out” date, uncertain where the next funding infusion will come from. For many the cadence has picked up, not slowed.
While life is different, it hasn’t stopped. As head of a life sciences/healthcare entrepreneurship program in Silicon Valley, I need to be connected to all things startup as well as to stay on top of the Covid situation; some of my startups are directly addressing the crisis. So consider last Thursday’s schedule. I watched the final competition from UC Berkeley’s engineering entrepreneurship program; viewed a talk by the CEO of a therapeutic antibody company; judged startups for an angel group; monitored Covid news through UCSF’s School of Medicine Grand Rounds and attended an internal meeting to assess projects for translational funding. These four meetings would have normally required a trip to Berkeley followed by a trip to San Francisco, a total of three driving hours. Instead, I sat in my home office avoiding traffic, parking and bridge tolls. I make more time for online meetings and webinars. Research documents that we are spending extra hours working from home rather than in the office.
But here’s the downside. We are missing the intangible benefits of face-to-face human interaction. Would we have made better decisions judging scientific projects if we sat together in a room rather than connecting on video? Would we have learned more by interacting in person with the therapeutics company CEO than by submitting a question through a webinar chat box? Would an entrepreneur be more effective pitching in a conference room at an investor’s office than online, better able to read body language and establish rapport? Yes to all of the above. The richness of an in-person meeting cannot be completely replaced by technology. Networking and relationships are the currency of business.
The urgency of Covid has changed the entrepreneurial imperative. In the words of StartUp Health CEO, Managing Partner and Co- founder Steven Krein, “Companies are made in this time. There’s been a black and white shift in global entrepreneurship to operate in the Covid world. Companies are reimaging solutions in days and weeks.”
Entrepreneurs are by nature flexible and imaginative. We will survive global lockdown and continue to innovate.