Stanford startups stay strong during COVID-19 crisis

April 28, 2020, 11:23 p.m.

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted business and entrepreneurship across the world. Venture capitalists, while still tweeting that they were making investments, were in fact busy dealing with portfolio companies floundering. Many shut down completely. However, several Stanford entrepreneurs are launching their business ventures in the face of adversity. 

Coughing for a cure

Through a common connection, David Song ’22 was introduced to the team at Cough for the Cure and began assisting with their operations. Backed by Atomic, a venture studio in the Bay Area, Cough for the Cure is attempting to “build a digital diagnostic tool for coronavirus based on the sound of a patient’s cough.” 

Currently, they are collecting soundbites of coughs from COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients to begin building their tool. The team ultimately hopes to release a mobile app that can detect coronavirus worldwide. 

“I’m not sure how high of a probability it’s going to work out,” Song said, “but there’s a decent chance that it will and be useful for people, especially in countries where testing isn’t as readily available.”

Adjusting the tempo 

Greta Meyer ’19 and Amanda Calabrese ’19 took ENGR 145: “Technology Entrepreneurship” together in the fall of 2018. While their classmates obsessed over everything that had tech as a suffix, Meyer and Calabrese focused their attention on a different topic: menstruation.

In over 200 user interviews, Meyer and Calabrese listened to a myriad of tampon horror stories. Two-thirds of their interviewees would wear a tampon but still used backups like pads or liners. 

Meyer and Calabrese spent two years reengineering the tampon, finally settling on a design that extended flow path and absorption. They called their business Tempo. After graduating from Stanford, they went full-time and are working on a pilot and launch.

“We’re really lucky that we are in this interesting space where we’re pre-product and pre-entering the market,” Meyer said. “We’re diving in and doing a lot of customer segmentation work.”

Meyer found that many people were more willing to sit down for customer interviews now that they had more flexibility and free time. To Meyer’s surprise, they were discovering new groups of users that also wanted their product, such as users going through postpartum or with significantly heavier periods.

“Our initial consumer understanding was quite skewed to the people we had access to while at Stanford,” Meyer said. “We’re taking this time to get in touch with [more users].”

Ready to launch

Maurice Chiang M.S. ’20 founded Prairie Health in September of 2018 to implement telemedicine for mental healthcare. Prairie provides personalized medication, psychiatrists and a 24/7 available care partner that checks in with patients.

Chiang had scheduled a launch for later this year. However, due to lockdowns and social distancing orders, Chiang found that consumers now more than ever need remote health services.

“We’ve really decided to hit the gas pedal,” Chiang said. “The whole team is working 24/7 right now to try and get this out the door and serve patients as soon as possible. We’re actually planning on starting to see patients in about a month and a half.”

Chiang is about to wrap up his first round of fundraising. 

“We want to do our part in this crisis,” Chiang said. “And I think we’re well-positioned to be able to offer value right away.”

Pareto optimal

Phoebe Yao ’20 founded Pareto in fall 2019 after realizing that entrepreneurs needed their own productivity tools as well. Building a company produces repetitive paperwork and network maintenance. Entrepreneurs could be re-channeling their time elsewhere. 

“This situation is a really exciting, in a way, shift for us,” Yao said. “A lot of entrepreneurs are now focused on being very efficient with their time. Pareto basically helps entrepreneurs save time on busywork.”

Now, Yao manages a team of eight employees in the Philippines while servicing around 30 customers. While classes moved online, Yao saw an opportunity and decided to take a leave of absence. 

“Everything is changing and a lot of the current industries are being disrupted,” Yao said. “It’s a really great time to build a company if your company is in the right space.”

However, Yao believes that companies shouldn’t immediately pivot away from what they were targeting pre-crisis. 

“I wouldn’t change the initial value prop if you’d already refined it in your go-to market,” Yao said. “I would strategize where to focus in the short term, so that you can be ready to hit the ground running once this is all over.”

Markets disrupted 

Each student reflected on the disruptions coronavirus has caused to markets. Chiang, co-founder of Prairie Health, noted that it can be beneficial.

“The ecosystem gets very crowded in times of when the economy is booming,” he pointed out. “There’s tons of capital, tons of liquidity, and tons of money that ultimately allows some of these startups that probably should fail to continue raising future rounds.”

Song provided a similar perspective.

“A lot of these companies are not really solving real problems and are just burning investor money,” Song said. 

However, Tempo co-founder Greta Meyer offered a more critical view, citing how changes in consumption are only temporary.

“It’s unfair to have a blanket statement that the fittest will survive,” she said. “There’s validity in saying this will drill down what is really needed for people, but it’s creating a really skewed market … It’s just the nature of things — people are literally trapped in their homes.”

Despite differing perspectives on how the crisis has disrupted markets, all of the founders we interviewed agreed on one thing: Students should continue building and innovating.

“Ultimately, entrepreneurship flourishes in times of crisis,” Chiang said. 

Contact Enya Lu at enyalu ‘at’

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