Startups are making nasal swabs, clinical testing booths, and fever detection systems to fight the pandemic. Here are the 11 coolest pivots in tech since the coronavirus outbreak


atoms mask coronavirus

  • Some startups are pivoting their core operations to boost coronavirus relief efforts, or to tap into a new source of revenue as business slows.
  • “It’s almost like a wartime situation,” said Chris Prucha, a startup founder whose company Origin is using its 3D printers to produce nasal swabs.
  • We compiled a list of the startups that are shifting parts of their production in the pandemic’s wake.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A shoemaker is producing face masks.

A startup that makes phone booths as a quiet refuge in open-plan offices is now making coronavirus-testing booths for healthcare clinics.

And it seems every 3D manufacturer backed by venture cash is firing up the printers to crank out personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

It’s not unusual for a company whose business model isn’t working to pivot in search of  more customers, or a steadier stream of cash, or traction in bigger markets. But these days, startups are facing a much different crisis, which no amount of planning or experience could have prepared them for. They must adapt.

“It’s almost like a wartime situation,” said Chris Prucha, a founder whose startup Origin is using the 3D printers that it’s unable to ship to customers to produce nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing.

The coronavirus has been an accelerant for some startups looking to expand, or to create a new source of revenue. And even a temporary pivot can boost the company’s public image for aiding in relief efforts.

Semil Shah, a startup investor who focuses on early-stage companies, has been closely watching as startups shift parts of their production away from their core businesses to pursue other opportunities.

Even before the pandemic, he said his advice to entrepreneurs has always been, “if you’re not No. 1 or No. 2, you’re better off just selling the company or pivoting into something new because you don’t really get paid to be third.”

Athena Security is a two-year-old startup in the crowded business category of gun detection. It relies on machine learning to spot weapons in video surveillance images, but it can’t identify a concealed firearm, as one of its better-funded rivals can. Now, Athena Security has shifted its focus to fever-detection systems.

The technology relies on thermal cameras and software to pinpoint a person running a fever, which is a symptom of coronavirus infection.

Athena Security’s cofounder and chief executive officer Lisa Falzone said the company is rushing to fill orders at hospitals, banks, and other places where large numbers of people mill about. She said it’s not hard to imagine that, someday, stores and restaurants will use the company’s health surveillance system to help persuade house-bound customers to return.

She said if a customer asks a restaurant host, “Why should I come in here with a lot of people?” the host could say, “We wash our hands down more often. We clean the tables down. And also we have fever-detection system.”

For some startups, the shift is more of a passing response to the pandemic than a permanent project.

Carbon, a unicorn startup that develops 3D printing technology, has dedicated all of the machines at its Silicon Valley headquarters to producing face shields that protect doctors and nurses taking care of COVID-19 patients. The company is providing them to healthcare systems for free, with assistance from Adidas, a Carbon customer, said Ellen Kullman, chief executive officer of Carbon.

“As long as the need for these supplies exists, we will continue production to help,” Kullman said in an email.

We wanted to find the startups that are changing what they work on because of the pandemic. We asked Shah’s institutional seed-stage fund, Haystack, for tips, and researched on our own.

These are the coolest pivots in tech since the start of the pandemic:

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Origin is on pace to “print” more than 1 million nasal swabs a week.

Total funding: $12.3 million

What it does: Origin’s business is focused on selling its 3D printers to materials manufacturers, which use the company’s open-source software to develop new material chemistries, and test them faster than they did before. It also sells to customers making intricate parts for dentistry and automotive industry uses.

How has the business changed:

Origin was preparing to ship its third generation of printers from a warehouse in San Francisco when the city slammed into the pandemic. Employees under orders to work from home were unable to install the new units at customer sites. Rather than let the devices gather dust, Origin used them to print face shields, nasal swabs, and respirators.

Each printer has the capacity to make 1,500 nasal swabs at a time, multiple times a day. Origin is on pace to supply more than 1 million swabs a week for hospitals and other testing centers by the beginning of May, said Carbon’s CEO Chris Prucha.

In the next few weeks, “we could supply enough swabs as a single company to conduct more tests than have been done to date over three months,” Prucha said.

The company’s nasal swab has a soft plastic head, instead of a cotton tip. The head’s lattice structure is designed to increase surface area and soak up a larger sample. It was shown to work as well as a standard swab in testing at a hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

Athena Security, which develops systems for detecting guns, is shifting focus to finding fevers.

Total funding: $5.5 million

What it does: Athena Security makes software that allows security cameras to detect more than 300 types of firearms in real time, according to the startup.

How has the business changed:

Its software now applies the same rigor to detecting fevers as it does to spotting guns. Athena Security started selling systems that use thermal cameras to watch for an elevated temperature as people move through congested halls and doorways.

The system sends an alert and a real-time video feed to the customer’s security staff or monitoring system when it finds a person with a fever. It promises readings within a half-degree of accuracy. 

Athena Security’s earliest customers include a hospital system, a bank, and a shared office space near its office in Austin, according to CEO Lisa Falzone.

“The whole world is starting to realize right now that our greatest enemy is a virus,” Falzone said. “Let’s put infrastructure in place that stops people (showing symptoms of COVID-19) from going into grocery stores. That’s almost as deadly as a gun at the moment.”

Stationery startup Karst makes bottles of hand sanitizer stylish enough to leave on your desk.

Total funding: $850,000

What it does: Based in Sydney, Karst makes stationery without timber or water, using one of the most abundant materials on earth: calcium carbonate. The compound can be derived from rocks, and is used to make antacids.

How has the business changed:

The company, whose stylish notepads have been given as corporate gifts to Facebook and WeWork employees, started manufacturing bottles of hand sanitizer during the coronavirus outbreak. A 500-milliliter bottle costs about 14 US dollars, which is less than what some people are hawking Purell for on eBay, Craigslist, and Amazon.

“The pre-coronavirus Karst would not have made hand sanitizer, but with the rule book thrown out of the window, we felt strongly compelled to look at things a bit differently,” Jon Tse, a cofounder and co-CEO of Karst, said in an email.

“Business is not as usual anymore. In this day and age where nothing is certain, more business owners could think about asking themselves why they shouldn’t do something,” Tse said.

Room’s designers went on a “sprint” to redesign its signature phone booths into coronavirus testing booths.

Total funding: $2 million

What it does: Room builds private, semi-soundproof phone booths for noisy, crowded offices. The New York startup has snagged clients of all sizes, including NASA, Nike, and Salesforce. 

How has the business changed:

As the country began shifting into work-from-home mode, Room quickly realized that its office phone booths weren’t in demand for the time being. The company said it quickly embarked on a “one-week design sprint” to reimagine its phone booth into something that could aid relief efforts. 

The company’s so-called Test Booth uses upcycled doors from its phone booths and plexiglass walls, which are easily disinfected, to help shield healthcare workers from exposure to the virus. The booths also come fitted with medical-grade gloves and a shelf for disinfectants and testing equipment.

Those units are now being shipped to medical facilities around the world, including hospitals in the UK, France, Mexico, and Canada. Room has also uploaded the booth’s design to its website, so that other manufacturers can produce them.

Thalia went from making wooden guitar accessories to hospital-ready intubation boxes.

Total funding: $305,397

What it does: Thalia, a small direct-to-consumer startup with less than $1 million in funding, used high-tech lasers to cut wood into guitar accessories and phone cases. The company’s funding originally stemmed from a Kickstarter project launched by founder Chris Bradley in 2014.  

How has the business changed:

As a non-essential business, Thalia was originally set to shutter once the Bay Area announced its shelter-in-place regulations. 

Then Bradley’s friend, a doctor, suggested that the company use its technology to design and build intubation boxes — reusable, clear boxes that sit over a COVID-19 patient’s head. Their physician can place tubes into the patient’s mouth and still lower the risk that coronavirus particles will escape and infect others.

Within weeks, the company re-opened as an essential business. 

And its new healthcare operations might be here to stay, according to Bradley, who noted that the company had a chance to build from a base of 200,000 customers. 

“This is a great business,” Bradley told Business Insider in an email, referring to Thalia’s line of phone cases and guitar accessories. “But I expect that we will likely create a healthcare division that will continue to innovate and create new products for the new world that we live in. It seems that many things will change as a result of this pandemic and I can’t imagine just reverting to the old ways.” 

3D manufacturing startup Carbon halted all production at its facilities to make PPE for frontline workers.

Total funding: $682 million

What it does: Carbon invented a new method of 3D printing that it says could help companies make things that were previously unmakeable. Its machine “grows” objects out of a shallow pool of liquid resin using basic chemistry principles, inspired in part by the main antagonist from “Terminator 2.”

How has the business changed:

The company has pivoted production at its facilities in California to focus exclusively on making face shields, part of its response to the dire shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and first responders. It’s donating face shields with financial support from a customer, Adidas.

Carbon is also working with a medical device manufacturer to produce 3D-printed nasal swabs, which were validated in testing at a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.

Carbon’s CEO Ellen Kullman says the company will keep producing “as long as the need for these supplies exists.”

“This pivot in production at Carbon and across the industry has really shown the power of 3D printing and its ability to mitigate supply chain disruption,” Kullman said in an email. “Moving from manufacturing shoe midsoles and dental devices to face shields and nasal swabs in a matter of days is only possible with digital manufacturing.”

Moovit, the urban mobility startup behind companies like Uber, is helping transit agencies transport essential workers around cities.

Total funding: $131.5 million

What it does: Israeli startup Moovit’s app helps users plan their trip routes across public and private transit options, like the train, subway, Uber, and bikes.

The startup relies on data it collects from public transit agencies, as well as crowdsourced data from users, which helps it update the app’s planned routes in real-time. It’s available in 3,100 cities.

How has the business changed:

The coronavirus outbreak has caused city-wide travel and traffic to slump across the world, creating logistical snags and financial troubles for public transit agencies, according to Moovit.

But healthcare workers still need to move around cities to get to work, so the company rolled out a solution that lets corporations and public transit agencies deploy their unused vehicles where they’re needed most. Frontline workers can use Moovit’s app to schedule or request a ride on-demand.

As cities grapple with reopening, the startup doesn’t plan to wind down this new service anytime soon. 

“It will be exciting to watch the future of urban mobility unfold when we slowly ease back into working from the office or going to school,” Moovit said in a statement. “Public transportation will always be that backbone of societal life, but it seems that there has been a wider path paved for On-Demand transit services to take on a greater role.”

Atoms is making consumer face masks as stylish as its shoes.

Total funding: $8.1 million

What it does: Atoms is the latest startup aiming to make the world’s most comfortable shoes. Its sneakers come in quarter-sizes for a glass-slipper fit, while other manufacturers only have whole- and half-sizes.

How has the business changed:

The shoemaker now also makes copper-lined masks, which temporarily gives the masks anti-microbial properties, according to the Atoms website.

The pivot was possible thanks to a longstanding relationship with Atoms’ manufacturers in South Korea, which allowed the startup to pivot quickly. 

The company is selling the masks for $10 to cover the cost of production, and donates a mask for every one sold. Atoms said on its website that it doesn’t expect to make a profit off the masks.

Meter developed a ventilator that’s designed to be made anywhere.

Total funding: Undisclosed

What it does: Meter is an industrial hardware startup originally from Somerville, Massachusetts. It has not yet publicly launched a flagship product.

How has the business changed:

Meter has developed a ventilator that’s designed to be easily produced at scale. It’s built from parts that can be sourced outside of the medical device supply chain. The components are made by using standard manufacturing processes like plastic injection molding and sheet metal construction. Now, the company is in talks with potential partners to produce them en masse.

Meter’s CEO Eduardo Torrealba said the team got started on the project after clinicians at Massachusetts General Hospital contacted one of Meter’s engineers. The employee had worked on manual bag resuscitators during his doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the new ventilator builds on that research.

EO Products shifted its manufacturing resources to amp up production of hand sanitizer and soap.

Total funding: Undisclosed

What it does: EO Products makes a range of organic personal care products, including shampoos, oils, bath salts and hand sanitizer. 

How has the business changed:

Although EO Products already has a line 0f hand sanitizer products that dates back more than a decade, it has adjusted the operations of its production lines to boost its output in the wake of the coronavirus crisis — a move that the company deems especially necessary, given the nationwide shortage of sanitizer.

EO Products said it added an extra manufacturing line and additional worker shifts, among other measures, in order to do so. 

“We normally have seven production lines run in the company’s factory, manufacturing everything from shampoo to deodorant,” EO Products told Business Insider in an email.  Today, the company is narrowing its production mix to focus on goods that are “all around keeping hands clean and healthy across our soap and sanitizer products.” 

ESL Works revamped its mobile education app to offer coronavirus training drills to frontline workers.

Total funding: Undisclosed 

What it does: ESL Works helps train workers in the food-service industry to speak English on the job. It uses an app based on text messaging. 

How has the business changed: 

The startup has shifted from providing text-based English classes to delivering coronavirus safety training, a service that the company says is vital at this particular moment. 

It sends frontline workers a combination of coronavirus-related facts and multiple choice questions, to ensure that they stay informed about best practices needed to stay safe, medical symptoms to watch out for, and key facts about the virus itself. 

ESL Works has also broadened its target userbase beyond the foodservice industry. Now, companies in manufacturing, logistics, and a range of other industries can enlist ESL Works to help its frontline workers. 

“As we all continue to learn more about the virus, accurate and accessible training for frontline workers will be just as important as an ample supply of PPE,” Rachael Nemeth, ESL Works CEO, said in an email.