OPERATING IN A PANDEMIC
PERSPECTIVES FROM NINA'S STARTUPS
JUNE 29 2020
Aline Noizet, Adriano Fontanari, Marta-Gaia Zanchi
Startups are used to dealing with a high level of uncertainty and adaptability. Even in the midst of major events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the most resilient and resourceful startups can apply their talents and make the most of the situation. We interviewed four nina capital’s portfolio companies (contextflow, Leuko, MindPeak, and Teiacare) to understand how they lived these unsettling times and what they took away.
working during lockdown
From one day to the next, many companies had to go into lockdown and reorganize their team remotely. New for some, already an option for others: everybody had to adjust to this new normal. Nina’s portfolio companies rapidly switched to smart working without major issues. It was certainly easier for developers but management reportedly also saw the advantages: the leaders of these companies could work more efficiently as they didn’t have to commute to their physical offices.
This new set up had an impact on teams’ organizations. Companies continued to run their daily stand-ups or (bi)weekly team building events, remotely, and put in place communication rules to ensure people were on time and meetings were prepared. Some companies started implementing new processes for managing team dynamics. For Leuko, for instance, it was a good opportunity to put in place the Lean Startup methodology.
Across the board, everybody agreed that in-person relationships and opportunities to keep a cohesive team are what they missed the most during the lockdown period. To mitigate the loss, teams got creative: contextflow had virtual coffees in the ‘contextflow Kitchen’ or remote Indian cooking lessons; Mindpeak held online pub quiz nights.
In a way, by virtue of dealing with the common challenge to stick together through shared experiences, this situation brought the teams closer: it helped them reach a better alignment of goals as well as improve communication within the team.
There will certainly be some long term consequences of this lockdown and learnings for the teams. Some already decided that they will keep working partly remotely: team meetings at the office will be set up one day of the week. The rest of the days, employees will decide if they want to come to the office or work from home. contextflow already decided to move to a smaller office in the coming months.
Another consequence of this lockdown is the geographical scope for new hirings. Since smart working was a success, companies like contextflow are ready to hire people not physically based where the headquarters are, increasing the choice and profile of potential candidates. Mindpeak already onboarded new people fully remotely during the lockdown.
impact on business
When it comes to the business itself, business development, clinical studies, and hardware developments have been the most challenging areas to run these past months. Business development has been requiring a lot more work to reach out to people and schedule introductory meetings, due partly to the uncertainty of the situation and a shift in priorities for many people. But it had some advantages too. For Teiacare, those online meetings were a good opportunity to improve their negotiation and online pitching skills.
Since clinical studies have been postponed, companies went back to product development and customer validation. Even if the pandemic slowed down some hardware development, Leuko did not stop. Their CTO printed equipment from his kitchen table. It worked well and kept the business moving even though it was not as efficient as doing it in the office in a collaborative way. They also used the lockdown time to carry out market research and online interviews with customers, resulting in very useful feedback and potential leads.
The crisis also pushed companies to review their priorities, and accelerate the development of some features that had become more compelling due to COVID-19. contextflow started moving from pattern-based support system to disease level support system. Their system already had the potential basic functionalities for reading lung CT scans for COVID-19 patients or potential COVID-19 patients: clients’ interest in these functionalities compelled the company to double down on their development.
For companies like Teiacare that were working with clients (care homes) dramatically affected during the pandemic, the best option was to conservatively readjust sales projections by delaying them six to nine months, and rethink business priorities and expenses accordingly; however expecting to come back stronger, as the crisis highlighted even more the need for care homes to digitize their services.
impact on financial health and when having good investors makes a difference
The pandemic made it necessary for companies to reassess their financial situation and strategic plans. While all startups had enough runway to avoid financial concerns for a few months, a thoughtful plan to face the situation was required.
Teiacare decided to avoid layoffs but stopped new hirings planned for June/July. Mindpeak and Leuko applied for and won non-dilutive grants, competing for research funds that could help the startups execute the plan and accelerate once the pandemic is over. Most companies leveraged loans provided by their local governments at special conditions (Leuko, for example, applied and was granted a forgivable PPP loan).
Support from investors is very valuable in such an unpredictable crisis: the situation was unprecedented for entrepreneurs and investors alike, and a cohesive, shared plan was key. All companies reported that conversations with investors (angels and VCs) provided valuable insights at all levels -- strategic, financial, and operational.
MindPeak highlighted that local angel investors helped the company to be aware of the situation earlier. As a consequence, they sent everybody home one week before Germany went under lockdown. Their VCs worked with them on a strategic plan and discussed how to structure the next financing round.
For Teiacare, investors provided critical support in navigating the different strategies to cope with this period, providing feedback on when sales and operations could restart, how to prepare financial projections, how to review their current ones, how to think about their business and product in this environment. Investors helped them to do a reality check with the initial assumptions.
Leuko reported that they continued hiring for critical positions and investors helped them to spread the word about the new job postings. Additionally, investors shared some contacts with potential customers for Leuko’s product. Leuko found really valuable support from VCs and angel investors in reaching out to potential new customers, and understanding how to plan their operations during the pandemic.
For contextflow, investors played a very important role in terms of supporting the company with very constructive feedback and input in such a difficult situation. The company leveraged investors for advice on whether to start another round of financing and on development priorities. Investors provided interim financing to speed up the development of COVID-19 solutions and extend the runway and also leveraged their network to bring a new investor on board to close the internal bridge round.
None of the companies were actively fundraising when the crisis hit. Teiacare quickly lined up existing investors for interim financing, similar to contextflow. Teiacare could not add new investors to the round, but they could carry on with the process nonetheless and postpone in their roadmap the moment when new capital will be needed in order to compensate for delays in customers’ installations.
Everybody agreed that communication, early and often, was key in times of crisis: with their investors, within the team, and with potential clients and customers.
nina's companies - what needs are they addressing?
contextflow: a way to support radiologists' routing workflow during the process of image interpretation in order to reduce the time required for accurate diagnosis
MindPeak: a way to support the time consuming, complex process of pathological diagnostics for pathology labs to ensure consistency in quality of interpretation and lower cost of interpretation per slide
Leuko: a way to noninvasively check white blood cells levels for patients receiving chemotherapy in order to monitor risk of infections and thus decrease the number of hospitalizations
Teiacare: a way to detect movement for bedridden elderly patients in nursing homes in order to improve the quality and reporting of care
With thanks to Markus Holzer (CEO, contextflow), Julie Sufana (CMO, contextflow), Carlos Castro-Gonzalez (CEO, Leuko), Felix Faber (CEO, MindPeak), Guido Magrin (CEO, Teiacare), Roberto Salamina (CMO, Teiacare) for the availability for this interview.
Last edited on
June 29th 2020