As the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down businesses and stranding workers at home in March, Andy Beck, managing partner of Birmingham’s Viper Imaging, realized most of its business had dried up until at least mid-summer.
“I thought, this is going to be fairly traumatic,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to weather that storm.”
But in the six weeks since, Viper Imaging has doubled its workforce and sales team and is producing non-contact temperature detection devices for utilities and industrial clients.
It’s a similar story for many of Birmingham’s startups – light, nimble companies with the ability to quickly change direction and find creative ways to respond to the needs of the pandemic.
“It’s stressful and hard – a terrible time for the world as a whole,” said Ross Wesson, co-founder of Deft Dynamics. “But it’s forced us to get creative and do some things that move us faster toward our goals.”
Viper Imaging, before the pandemic, manufactured thermal imaging systems for monitoring temperature abnormalities in industrial processes, like ladles of molten steel or electrical transformer. The systems use FLIR thermal imaging technology. As the lockdown began, the people at Viper began exploring the idea of producing a system that detects elevated body temperatures using a FLIR thermal imaging camera.
It was the company’s ability to pivot quickly that was the key.
“We were able to take our standard components and modify them slightly,” he said. “We had to have a quick call with our software and engineering team to be able to meet our specific application needs, and we had to be able to make all of those decisions really quick.”
And they had to do all of that remotely. Within about a week of 12- to 14-hour days, they had a prototype. Three weeks later, they were building the first 40 systems for customers.
While not medical devices, the automated scanners can be used to give an early indication of fever when evaluating a large group of people. The person to be screened steps in front of the thermal imaging camera with their face filling the screen. The FLIR thermal data is analyzed by the integrated ViperVision software and will alert on temperatures over a preset threshold.
For other companies, the shift was more radical. For still others, the developing situation seemed perfectly suited for their products.
‘A perfect test case’
Leadhr (pronounced leader) is one of the companies chosen for the Velocity Accelerator program at Innovation Depot. Leadhr uses software to allow organizations to improve employee engagement, retention and performance.
The company was supposed to be spending this time making connections, raising capital, and gaining confidence toward their pitch at Demo Day. When the pandemic hit, all of that changed, said Ross Blankenship, the company’s co-founder.
“We got into Velocity with a different idea, but we pivoted in February and were just getting to building our prototype when this hit,” he said. “Something like this pretty much evaporates fundraising opportunities.”
But the lockdown created another situation – companies using software, Internet conferencing and other tools to keep work going while employees were stranded at home.
“In a couple of conversations, we sparked up the idea of using part of our tool to do virtual team building,” he said. “Our belief is that there are a lot of different applications for the tool we’ve been building, which is about understanding how people work together. This is almost like a perfect test case.”
Blankenship and co-founder Howard Glenn added a coaching and consulting component to the software to bring work teams together, help managers better understand the people on their teams and how to coach them during the crisis. An external threat, he said, can change the culture of an organization. How they adapt will determine how they endure.
“If you don’t think about how that changes your culture, how to lead people in a crisis, you’re going to come up short in a time like this,” he said.
‘Take a foot off the gas’
Matt Pierce is the founder and CEO of Immediate, a Birmingham-based startup headquartered in Innovation Depot, which offers early access to pay for hourly wage workers, breaking the bi-monthly pay cycle that leaves employees tight for cash and easy prey for high-interest loans.
February was Immediate’s best month in terms of sales, Pierce said, and the company looked to be picking up speed. Then came the pandemic. A lot of Immediate’s customers were in senior living and home health, two area impacted by the crisis, with workers pulling longer hours with more stress.
So Immediate began waiving its fees as a way of taking another level of stress off its customers.
“We didn’t look at it as a chance to put our foot on the brakes, as much as take a foot off the gas,” he said. “Let’s take this as an opportunity to firm up our foundation. And how can we improve our user experience.”
The drive worked. Transactions went up about 40 percent, Pierce said, and the company finds itself ahead of its schedule for April and has made two new hires, with two more possible.
‘Our goal is to keep you out of the hospital’
Packhealth has been in the healthcare industry since 2013, providing digital health coaching for people managing chronic illnesses- including those most vulnerable to COVID-19. In mid-March, they had 65 employees. They’re now up to 89, CEO Mazi Rasulnia said. Demand and enrollments are surging since the pandemic started, as clients receive calls and text messages dealing with needs.
“Our goal is to keep you out of the hospital,” Rasulnia said. “There’s been a lot of stress, anxiety, depression, some of it related to the obvious financial fallout, but also from people who are separated from their families by social distancing needs. Our philosophy when we started this company was that chronic conditions can be managed virtually. So when COVID-19 happened, on March 13 we went virtual.”
One area the company stepped into was providing food for patients who were stuck at home. Using partnerships with retailers, Packhealth found itself dealing with food insecurity issues by facilitating orders and deliveries of food. Since the pandemic started, the company has filled more than 2,000 food orders, and is contracted for 35,000 more through the end of July.
“I didn’t think I’d be in that business when we started,” Rasulnia said, laughing.
Being nimble and adaptive is part of the ethos at DEFT Dynamics’ Venture Studio, a startup that breeds other startups to market products it creates. CEO Ross Wesson and CETO Austin Gurley have worked on everything from IoT (Internet of Things) applications to the APEX Pro, a tiny computer for a vehicle dashboard performing real-time data analysis for professional racers.
“We were actually in a unique position,” Wesson said. “Everything we do, even though it involves apps and programming and coding, relates to physical items. We make stuff.”
What they came up with was an app – MOXIE – to allow healthcare workers in hospitals to check multiple patients on ventilators without the time intensive work of getting into personal protective equipment.
Medical staff have to don a mask, sanitize outside the patient door, sanitize inside the patient door, manually check the patient ventilator, record that data, and make determinations on how soon to check again. The time spent doing this – and the risk – spurred their team to create wireless sensor-to-app monitoring technology, allowing a caregiver to remain outside the patient’s room and customize readings to each patient’s needs, or monitor several at a time.
Wesson said MOXIE probably won’t make it to hospitals in time to deal with the pandemic’s demands, as it will require FDA approval. But it has raised some interest among healthcare professionals for other applications. At the same time, DEFT Dynamics has found some success raising capital for other projects.
The shape of the future
State Rep. Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa) serves in the Alabama House of Representatives and as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Education Budget Committee. He said the impact of the coronavirus has made a significant negative impact on Alabama’s economy, but startups may have found their moment in navigating the crisis. Small, easily adaptable companies, with remote workers, heavily engaged in technology, will be able to quickly navigate a shifting economic landscape.
“I think it’s a significant growth opportunity for Alabama’s economy,” Poole said. “This pandemic is going to reshape many industry sectors. Recognizing the potential role of technology and knowledge-based industry is critical to Alabama’s competitiveness in the future.”
The pandemic has changed the way many companies work, and has made many anxious about how long the economic fallout will last. But some have also managed to find out a lot about themselves and how they do business.
“Our strategy has been to extend our runway as long as possible,” Blankenship said.
Pierce said companies may find in the near future, even if they didn’t find much success during the last six weeks, that just surviving the economic effects of the shutdown will be a source of strength going forward for many.
“We may look back in three months, six months, 24 months, and say, ‘If we were that resilient and made things work in that time, what can we do when times are back to normal?” he said.