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Practical Magic

What mobilizing innovation for COVID-19 can teach us about catalyzing climate tech

Now is exactly the right time to channel this spirit on behalf of an even more existential threat, the climate crisis.

By now, I hope you’ve heard the uplifting story of an Italian 3-D printing startup, Isinnova, that stepped in produce respirator valves for a hospital in Lombardy after the regular supplier was unable to provide them.

Isinnova was recruited to help by FabLab, another Italian company that specializes in manufacturing technologies, because it is close to the hospital site. It took roughly six hours for engineers at the two companies to come up with a design that worked — a redo of a snorkel mask that it already was producing — and to start printing out the valves.

Another group — inspired by a company in Ireland and brought together on Facebook — convened 300 engineers, medical professionals and researchers to come up with an open source design for a ventilator in about a week.

It still needs to be approved by the regulatory world, but it's another step in the right direction.

There are dozens more similar tales of seemingly instant innovation emerging, as businesses grapple with how to stabilize their own operations and reassure their workforces, while acting meaningfully to provide valuable assistance and supplies to fight the pandemic.

Take Bloom Energy — yes, the fuel cell maker. California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the company’s CEO on Friday if it could repurpose old ventilators to get them back into working order — crucial for the most compromised coronavirus patients and in extremely short supply.

Bloom Energy, ventilator

The original manufacturer said it could take a month; Bloom figured out how to make it happen in under five hours. Now, it estimates it can redivert its manufacturing lines in California and Newark, Delaware, to produce "hundreds" every week during the crisis. (Ford, General Motors and Tesla are evaluating their capacity to do something similar, but it’s unclear how quickly they will be able to respond.) 

Given the critical need for better testing and diagnostics capacity, the masters of artificial intelligence and cloud computing are also jumping in with resources. 

Amazon’s cloud division last week committed $20 million to accelerate research. At least 35 global research institutions, companies and startups are involved. (Here are the details.)

Elsewhere, IBM over the weekend launched a consortium with more than a dozen well-known institutions including the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Argonne, NASA, MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic to foster research collaboration that can help surface potential drug treatments. (It already has worked with Oak Ridge lab to screen more than 8,000 compounds, identifying 77 that will be experimentally tested.)

And IBM tweaked the focus of its annual Call for Code solutions hackathon, focused broadly on seeking climate tech and disaster response applications, to "take on COVID-19." It’s letting inventors use its open source software to develop technologies that could help with diagnostics, treatments and (one hopes for the future) prevention. Last year’s winner was Prometeo, which developed a smart device for improving firefighter safety by measuring air quality during disaster response. The inventors? A nurse and a firefighter.

One of my biggest takeaways from reading about these and other inspiring innovation initiatives is this: When humans confront an existential challenge — one that knows no borders — the instinct among most of us is to put aside other petty, partisan considerations to seek ways to defeat that common enemy.

The climate action dialogue is understandably more muted right now, but I hope the corporate sustainability community is taking notes on how swiftly the right resources can be deployed by the private sector when it matters and how quickly humans can come up with some pretty ingenious ideas — once the challenge is opened to a diverse cast of unusual suspects.

I took comfort in an open letter issued Tuesday by Clean Energy Ventures and more than two dozen supporters of early climate tech investments reaffirming their commitment to backing solutions that address climate change. 

"If you're seeking investment, we're committed to continuing to invest actively now and in the coming months," they wrote. "We are moving forward in full force to seek out and invest in promising organizations that can make a meaningful difference in creating a more sustainable planet and way of life."

Now is exactly the right time to plan for the hopefully-not-so-distant day when COVID-19 is no longer dominating headlines. It’s our collective duty to channel this spirit of innovation on behalf of an even more existential threat, the climate crisis.

This article first appeared in GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here. Follow me on Twitter:@greentechlady.

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