While the world is struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, one Austin-based virtual incubator is amping up efforts to use technology to confront infectious disease threats.
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Dr. Andrew Nerlinger and his wife, Dr. Lisa McDonald, launched PandemicTech in 2016. Its main goal has been to explore how the private sector and innovation community can take a different approach to preventing pandemics, instead of relying only on the government.
Little did they know how timely and useful their efforts would be as the spread of COVID-19 has officially reached pandemic levels.
Nerlinger is also a venture partner with Bill Wood Ventures, which was founded by prominent venture capitalist Bill Wood. Wood was a founding partner at the now defunct Austin Ventures and also founded Silverton Partners. McDonald is also director of health care at Austin Technology Incubator (ATI), the startup incubator of the The University of Texas at Austin.
Wood got involved with PandemicTech in April 2018, and is now one of its primary funders along with the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold’s family office, Centaurus Advisors.
“When Andrew told me about PandemicTech, it just looked really interesting as a way for me to apply some of my background in technology and entrepreneurship to help solve some really big global problems such as infectious diseases,” Wood told Crunchbase News.
Since its inception, PandemicTech has issued grants and made investments in projects in Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Australia and Mexico. It recently launched “The PandemicTech Innovation Fellowship 2020” – a $100,000 innovation challenge focused on global health security. It’s also formed a partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO).
Dr. Moredreck Chibi, regional adviser on innovation for WHO’s Regional Office of Africa, said he engaged PandemicTech and the Austin community to support the inaugural WHO Innovation Challenge that was launched in October 2018.
PandemicTech offered the WHO “amazing support” on the evaluation of more than 2,400 applications, Chibi wrote via email.
“We continue to work with PandemicTech on supporting the selected innovators to further develop their innovations for transition to scale,” he said. “This has been one of the most productive and fulfilling partnerships WHO AFRO had in complementing its effort towards scaling appropriate innovations fit for the African context.”
Lack of investment and innovation
Wood believes organizations that traditionally attack infectious disease threats are not really “built for innovation, and the use of technology.”
“When you get plugged into global health, you realize the profound needs that are not being met,” Wood added. “You start to realize how dramatically unprepared we are. And now, when something like this [COVID-19] happens, the evidence is really clear that there has been an enormous lack of investment and innovation in this space.”
The fundamental push behind PandemicTech was about preparing in advance for situations such as the Coraonavirus pandemic.
“It’s very interesting to see that sort of reaction in the moment or retrospectively,” she told Crunchbase News. “And that supports the fundamental thesis behind what we’ve done.”
From a humanitarian perspective, the WHO has launched its COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, according to Nerlinger.
But he said it will also be critical for the private sector to support local economies, particularly those left without a source of income, while still following public health guidelines.
“The private sector can also drive the uptake of technologies like telemedicine that can both improve access to medical care and support the call for social distancing,” Nerlinger said.
PandemicTech is also observing that many companies, even early-stage startups, are working on technologies that could be used to support our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We encourage these companies to seek partnerships that help adapt technologies to fighting COVID-19, particularly with promising technologies like telemedicine, and for investors to support these innovative efforts,” Nerlinger said.
Beyond its goal of identifying promising applicants for its fellowship program, PandemicTech is looking for experienced mentors across sectors to join its advisory network. It’s also interested in partnering with investors or other funding organizations to support early-stage innovation in the fight against pandemics.
Blog Roll Illustration: Li-Anne Dias