While the spread of COVID-19 and subsequent economic downturn have severely stressed the capacity for businesses to operate, a group of local industry leaders have not shied away from the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
To discuss the local effects of the pandemic and to share ideas, officials from the Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group brought a collection of local business leaders together earlier this month, where organizers say the group discussed how innovation and entrepreneurship often runs counter to economic downturns.
"This is a time when people collaborate at high levels, build new companies, and pivot to reinvent success in ways never imagined before," said John Sensiba, past chair of Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group and managing partner in the accounting firm, Sensiba San Filippo.
The Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group is a collaboration of business leaders, educational institutions, research labs and government leaders driving the innovation economy in the Tri-Valley, according to group officials.
A collection of local businesses and organizations that included Stanford Health Care-ValleyCare, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Ellie Mae, Tri-Valley Ventures and Colliers International, to name a few, took some time to speak about how they have been operating throughout the ongoing health crisis.
Starting off with activities in the health field, Rick Shumway, CEO of Stanford-ValleyCare, noted that his hospital had been using its collaborations with LLNL and Sandia National Laboratories to prioritize the development of COVID-19 related testing and treatment.
Shumway added that ValleyCare is one of the only hospitals in the world chosen by the National Institutes of Health to participate in clinical trials on Remdesivir, a virus medication that he says shows some early promise.
"And, we have just successfully increased our overall hospital capacity by 70% in the event we ever need that to serve our region in a future pandemic surge," Shumway said. "The Tri-Valley has also benefited from new connectivity in our work with the cities of Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore, establishing an early testing site at the Alameda County Fairgrounds."
Over in Livermore, Rich Rankin, who serves as director of the LLNL Innovation and Partnership Office, said that the lab had dedicated the full capacity of their supercomputers to advance scientific research for treatments and a vaccine through a public-private computing Consortium. He further noted that this work will go a long way toward shortening the total amount of time needed for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals.
LLNL has also dedicated itself to assisting in a national shortage of nasopharyngeal swabs -- a preferred tool used by clinicians to collect samples for COVID diagnose -- and has formed an ad hoc, rapid response team that has tested more than a dozen novel, 3D-printed nasal swab designs
“We were looking at where we could contribute,” said LLNL engineer Angela Tooker, who led the swab testing effort. “We have expertise across the board in terms of design, materials, testing and manufacturing capabilities, but this needed to move so quickly that we looked at where the gaps were with the group we were working with. You could spend years working on this to find the most perfect design -- we didn’t have that kind of time. It had to be good enough to get out the door now.”
Pleasanton-based software company Ellie Mae has been working hard to keep its business moving, and according to senior vice president Jonas Moe, has actually been performing well under the circumstances.
"Our company is performing well because of our strong online capacity. Success with people working from home means that the tech sector is now thinking differently about the need for corporate travel, major conferences and big events," Moe said. "In the future, if people can work from anywhere, it makes it even more attractive to live in a region with great schools, safety, and quality of life."
Continuing in the tech world, Les Schmidt, founder of the artificial intelligence accelerator BRIIA added that crises such as this often bring out the best in entrepreneurial spirit.
"For every start-up that stumbles in this crisis I believe there will be another new company that emerges even stronger. The life blood of entrepreneurs is solving problems. Our innovators have many problems to solve right now, including how to be most successful in this dynamic environment. BRIIA continues to be a big believer and investor in artificial intelligence, technology and Innovation."
Brandon Cardwell, executive director of the Livermore-based iGATE, gave some advice for local businesses, saying that now is the time for local businesses to work and create "upward mobility" for everyone.
"While economic downturns are often when people take the time to create and build new companies, we need to be sure we have all it takes to support everyone equally in our Tri-Valley communities -- entrepreneurs and employees alike," Cardwell said. "The high concentration of talent we have in this region helps with our resiliency."
Greg Hitchan, co-founder and managing partner of Tri-Valley Ventures, added that an "acceleration" of entrepreneurs had been reported moving to the Tri-Valley in the first quarter of 2020.
"In an environment like this, we see that people are largely going to invest with people who they already have a relationship with. That means it is a great benefit to be integrally connected with our Tri-Valley innovation network," he said.
On the real estate front, executive vice president of Colliers International, Mark Triska, said that while business has taken a hit in the short-term, collaborations between public and private sector groups have shown promise for long-term optimism,
"Helping lenders who are working with businesses to keep them going, supporting key sectors like manufacturing and distribution operations that are doing well, and crafting regional approaches to economic development are all helpful strategies right now," Triska said.