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Myriam Wares/The Globe and Mail

Considering COVID-19′s devastating impact, it seems odious to suggest any good has come from the global pandemic. And yet, there has been at least one positive effect, according to research conducted by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Harvard Business School. As consumers worried about the risks of shopping and doing business, companies cranked up their development of new technologies and services to enhance safety.

It’s a small mercy in a dark time. But in the long run, these innovations could provide protection against future catastrophic events.

“COVID,” explains Rotman’s Alberto Galasso, “has given many people and companies the time to test and to experiment with technologies that probably they would not have done before.”

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Galasso’s research has long focused on deciphering what drives companies to change. “There are a lot of theories out there about what can spur innovation,” he says. Galasso and Hong Luo, an associate professor at Harvard, decided to look into how public fear can factor into the equation. The pair recently studied a 2009 scandal involving CT scans at a Los Angeles hospital. Some 200 patients were walloped with as much as eight times the normal amount of radiation for those kinds of medical tests. Further investigations revealed similar radiation overdoses occurred in other hospitals around the United States. Class-action lawsuits and congressional hearings ensued.

In that case, hospitals, doctors and patients suddenly perceived a high level of risk. That led to a “statistically significant” increase in what Galasso calls “risk mitigation technologies” for CT scanners and related medical imaging devices. “Ultimately, changes in risk perception can be an important driver of innovation and shape the direction of technological progress,” the professors' study concludes.

Of course, COVID-19 has pushed many Canadian companies into pure survival mode, “leaving them with little time or insufficient cash flow to either pivot during the pandemic or develop new products,” according to Galasso. But he’s also seeing evidence of companies seizing on the crisis as an opportunity to create risk-mitigation measures.

General Motors, for instance, rapidly developed new workplace-safety technologies, including automated scanning kiosks that can quickly conduct temperature checks on employees. In China, e-commerce giant JD.com used autonomous robotic vehicles to deliver masks and other products to people in the strictly quarantined city of Wuhan. Such a large-scale experimental pivot, says Galasso, “would have been unthinkable before COVID.”

Jane Kearns is seeing a similar spirit of pandemic-induced inventiveness at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, North America’s largest innovation hub. The vice-president of growth services for the organization says a long list of MaRS clients significantly refocused their R&D and market direction in COVID-19′s wake. One example: Myant Inc.

Under the brand name Skiin, the Toronto-based company is developing textile-based monitoring systems—garments with medical electrodes and Bluetooth transmitters woven into them. When COVID-19 struck, Myant quickly switched some of its manufacturing capacity at its 80,000-sq.-foot plant to 340,000 washable N95 masks per month interwoven with anti-viral copper and silver fibres. Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford have been photographed wearing them.

Meanwhile, clinical testing is just getting under way on special garments that can continually monitor the temperature, breathing, heart rate and other health factors. They could enable doctors and nurses to remotely monitor highly infectious patients, transmitting the data from a patient’s own phone. The company is even working on configuring the garments to remotely deliver medications directly into a patient’s body, allowing health care workers to safely treat them from afar.

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Kearns has seen numerous MaRS clients pivot to make new products or refocus their research. Companies are now striving to address issues ranging from consumer safety to health care challenges to manufacturing quandaries. Says Kearns: “I think COVID has really brought out the entrepreneurial spirit in a lot of people who have these technical backgrounds and want to do things that will help.”

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