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Navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic

July 27, 2020 By: Nivatha Balendra

This post is also available in: Français (French)

It was the morning of March 13 when I received an email saying that companies were under government directives to start working remotely due to the novel coronavirus. Our lab buildings were shut down immediately and we had no means of recuperating any of our items. What started off as a two-week notice to my teammates to work remotely, quickly turned into months. There was much uncertainty as to how we would continue advancing — being a life-sciences startup meant that our labs played a vital role in our company’s development.

These unprecedented times felt like we were navigating through uncharted waters, not knowing what to expect or when we would come out of this. It reminded me of a saying by Paulo Coelho: “You can’t change the wind, but you can adjust the sails to reach your destination.” As a leader, I didn’t have an instruction manual on how to manage our startup amidst a global pandemic, but all I knew was that I had to think fast and ensure that our crew safely made it ashore.

We took it week by week as a team — coming up with contingency plans and making the most of our time working remotely. This time allowed us to think outside the box and figure out how to minimize any delays in our development. Our goal was to not only survive, but thrive despite the setbacks of the pandemic.

Embracing change and flexibility

I believe that one of the biggest strengths of any startup is the ability to be flexible and adaptable amidst constant evolution of market demands. Embracing change and looking at a difficult situation from different angles are two things that have helped my startup journey from the beginning. This was even more important during the last few months of the COVID-19 crisis. I felt that it was pivotal for our startup to be flexible and creative in terms of how we can continue to innovate during these times. This mindset allowed us to not only continue our business development remotely, but also leverage opportunities that unfolded during this time. Working remotely over the last months meant I had more time to brainstorm on all things Dispersa. By slowing down and having more time to reflect, I was able to identify new antiviral applications of our technology which would allow us to expand the scope of our existing technology. With this, we secured a $120,000 Mitacs grant to develop our antiviral proposition and are collaborating with a group of notable virologists to conduct the experimental phase. This ability to embrace change and observe the situation from an outsider lens enabled me to identify areas in which we could enter this new normal with even more areas for commercial growth.

Giving back to the community

Despite being a startup and having limited resources, our wish was to contribute to local efforts during the pandemic in some way. We decided to donate hand sanitizers to at-risk groups, but there was one small problem: we had never produced disinfectants before. As a team, we were motivated to learn quickly and based our hand sanitizer off of the WHO-recommended guidelines. Within a few weeks, we procured our very first licenses and ordered the necessary supplies to produce, package and label over 100 bottles of hand sanitizer. Being a cancer survivor, I personally understand the difficult reality of living with a chronic condition and being immunodeficient — adding the layer of a pandemic only complicates the situation further. Given this, we decided to donate our batch of sanitizers to the Hope & Cope cancer wellness centre, as well as our local women’s shelter, La rue des Femmes.

Entering a new normal

As we continue to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is certain that the world we knew is in the past and we are now creating a new sense of normalcy. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, countries globally will be investing close to $20 trillion as part of their post-COVID-19 recovery plans. Within the last five months, there has been a positive reshaping of our global economy with a strong shift in priority towards adopting clean technologies and advancing a green agenda. This news brings a lot of excitement for cleantech startups like ours in being able to showcase the importance of sustainability moving forward.

With our lab operations resumed since May, we are grateful to be back and be able to continue growing Dispersa. Although we are still sailing the currents during this pandemic, I am personally looking forward to developing new opportunities. I believe embracing change can open your eyes to possibilities you may not have thought about before. Take this time as an opportunity rather than a setback and trust that everything will work out in the end.

Nivatha Balendra