Monday, May 18, 2020

Entrepreneurialism in the Age of COVID-19: from the Sublime to the Ridiculous

Necessity is the mother of invention. We’ve all heard that common phrase. When your need for something is imperative, you will find a way to get it.

While researchers around the globe scramble to meet obvious needs, including new or improved diagnostic tools and methods for detecting the COVID-19 virus, pharmaceutical preparations and devices for treating the disease and — ultimately — a vaccine to prevent it, others have responded to immediate and urgent needs by modifying or re-purposing existing devices and technology to address immediate and urgent concerns.

Methods of cleaning face masks to allow repeated use and modifications of ventilators for multi-patient support may have been developed as temporary fixes, but will likely evolve into longer-term solutions, now that we have experienced the need. Over time, inelegant “MacGyver fixes” birthed in crisis will be improved and institutionalized, but only because their usefulness or benefit was first proven through critical need.

This pandemic has also spurred creativity. Various devices and mobile phone apps appear to be available, or in the works, to promote safe practices brought to the forefront by COVID-19, such as the Immutouch wristband that alerts you when your hand gets near your face (by Slightly Robot) and “6Feet” proposed by a Puerto Rican citizen for, among other things, a mobile phone app that assists users in maintaining appropriate social distancing. Scylla, a company that markets gun detection systems for use in schools and other public buildings, is looking at using a thermal camera with its AI analytics software at location entry points to measure a person’s temperature and send an alert if it detects a fever.

In an effort to try to see what people are working on as a result of our collective COVID-19 experience, I looked at USPTO trademark applications — often an early sign of what is in the works. Searching for the obvious connections, I found that since April 1, nearly 90 applications were filed with “COVID” expressly noted in the description of goods or services, and more than 150 applications with “COVID” in the mark itself. There are also the dozen or so marks incorporating some reference to “six feet” and a handful each referencing “wash your hands” or “stay home.” Most have been filed on an “intent to use” basis, indicating that the applicants have spotted a market where they see opportunity.

The majority of these pending applications are for goods and services that you would expect — diagnostic devices and kits, treatments, vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning preparations and services, medical and scientific research, healthcare, charitable fundraising and administrative purposes, and educational services.  Maybe a third of the marks that include the word “COVID” are for shirts, hats, and other clothing items, while a handful are for signs, bumper stickers, and other items where the applications will likely be rejected because the proposed mark is not really going to serve as a brand but will be merely decorative.  

Not many of the marks are particularly catchy, but I have to admit liking the application filed by a New Jersey company, Celularity, Inc., for certain products and services used in connection with scientific and medical research — “SCIENCE THE SHIT OUT OF COVID” and “COVID COUTURE” for various PPE items.   Some of the more interesting non-PPE clothing marks are “COVID HAIR DON’T CARE,” “COVIDiot,” and “(COVID-19) NOUN: THE VIRUS THAT BRINGS FAMILIES TOGETHER.” I’m not sure about the appeal of “PARTY LIKE IT’S COVID” or “COVID-19” for drinkware.

There are a handful of proposed marks for games, capitalizing on our state of confinement, and one, “OUT OF THE DARK,” proposed for use in connection with drive-in, in-car, entertainment events. And then there are the odd disconnected concepts, such as “COVID K9” for animal/dog training (unless there is a plan to develop dogs that can sniff out the virus), “COVID-19 lbs” for weight loss programs and cosmetic body care services, “COVID VENTURES” for venture capital fund management, and “COVID” for firearms and ammunition (ranging from air rifles to machine guns).  

Frankly, it is logical that early interest in new developments are scientific and medical in nature — things necessary or useful to prevent, detect, and conquer the virus. No doubt many current plans will never be fulfilled, while other new ideas will develop as our experience with COVID-19 matures. Individuals and businesses will have to adapt to practices and behaviors that are likely to become commonplace, offering rich opportunities for creative new devices, new means of delivering services, and interesting new technology to make these necessary changes less disruptive.

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