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Innovation and Intellectual Property Management (IIPM) Laboratory

© Max Elsen*, Frank Tietze, Leonidas Aristodemou, Alexander Moerchel (2020)

*Corresponding author. Please send comments to: maximilian.elsen.19@ucl.ac.uk


Abstract: Lockdowns and related preventive measures have severely disrupted supply chains all over the world. While demand for a range of products and services, such as in the air travel and the hospitality sectors have plummeted due to restrictions induced by Covid-19, a range of products have suddenly become more relevant than prior to the pandemic. For example, cideo conferencing services, such as Zoom jumped from 10 million users by the end of 2019 to more than 300 million users in April 2020 and is now an integral part in the daily business of companies, universities[i]families and friends. This article offers a typology for such crisis-critical products, service and technologies relevant to cope with and fight against the Covid-19 pandemic - possibly also relevant to other crises - and the consequences that emerge from this particular crisis. By identifying five categories (or layers) we map existing and novel products, services and technologies that became critical in recent months and appear to remain crucial for what is yet to come during this pandemic. 


The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected the global health situation leading to supply chains being considerably impacted. While the Covid-19 pandemic will be effectively contained only if an effective vaccine is found and distributed on a global scale, there is a range of other products, services and technologies that are crisis-critical in the sense that these are relevant for managing and mitigating the effects from the Covid-19 induced crisis. For instance, it has now become normal to use online conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams for business and private meetings. These video conferencing platforms registered a dramatic increase in users and have quickly become de facto standard communication tools in schools and businesses around the world[ii],[iii], which was almost unimaginable before this crisis. While various of these crisis-critical products, services and technologies do not offer a cure to the disease, they nevertheless help people adapt to the new normal and preventive and social distancing measures in particular.

In our paper “Crisis-Critical Intellectual Property: Findings from the Covid-19 Pandemic”[iv] we propose a language to help decisions makers in firms, universities, and governments to address Intellectual Property related challenges during the Covid-19 crisis. As part of that language we introduces the concept of “Crisis-Critical Products”. In this follow-up article we take a closer look at this concept and unpack its components. While testing kits and a vaccine are obviously most relevant during the current pandemic, there are also many other existing and also novel, yet to be developed products, services and technologies that may not appear to be critical to fight the virus itself, but is relevant tp cope with and mitigate the consequences resulting from lockdowns and other preventive measures. On the basis of several workshops involving members of the “Covid-19 + IP task force” from the Cambridge IIPM Lab we propose a typology of Crisis-Critical Products with two dimensions. The first dimension distinguishes three artefact types (products, services and technologies). The second dimension distinguishes two "states", ie those that already existed before the start of the pandemic and those that are being developed during the pandemic (Figure 1).

 

 

Figure 1: Generic types of existing and novel crisis-critical products, services and technologies (Source: Own visualisation)

From that typology we derive five categories or layers that appear to be critical for living with, but also for the mitigation and for overcoming the pandemic. These are visualized in the onion diagram shown in Figure 2. The layers are distinguished based on the relevance to the crisis. The three inner layers (blue) are critical in helping infected patients and therefore more urgent for the relief of the health crisis causes by the Covid-19 pandemic. The products, services and technologies in these three core layers include direct treatments of Covid-19 and its symptoms, the diagnosis of infected patients, and the prevention of its spread[v]. The two peripheral layers (grey) include products, services and technologies that enable us to cope with the consequences of the crisis and ensure the security of supply of vital products and services for people, companies and governments, as well as non-governmental organisations. Those included in these two outer layers may not appear critical at first sight compared to a vaccine or ventilators, but have proven to be relevant over the past months to cope with the consequences of the pandemic. The layers and their respective products, services and technologies are further explained below.

 

 

Figure 2: Five-layer typology for crisis-critical products, services and technologies (Source: Own visualisation)

The core layer encompasses mostly pharmaceutical products and medical technologies that are relevant for the treatment of Covid-19 patients. Ventilators, medical care and support, intensive care unit (ICU) equipment, and finally an effective remedy are important for those infected and suffering from the virus and its symptoms. While there is no direct treatment available so far, the medical equipment that is needed to treat the symptoms of the disease is extremely important. The limited supply of ICU equipment and ventilators, for instance, is one of the major problems causing increased fatality rates[vi] and has been of paramount importance particularly during the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic when healthcare systems around the world were not prepared to cope with the surge in demand for ICU beds in hospitals. Their availability is limited by the capacity of the health care systems and their scarcity appears to be the main reason why the “flattening the curve” approach has become and remains so critical in the pandemic. The UK ventilator challenge is an example for a rapid response to meet the enormous need for medical equipment that quickly gathered large manufacturing and technology companies including some from outside crisis-critical sectors to design, build and upscale ventilator production, such as Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens[vii]. While treating symptoms helps people's immune system to fight the virus, thereby increasing survival rates of infected patients, development of a direct treatment drug is running in high gear in research insitutes worldwide.

The second layer includes primarily crisis-critical products, services and technologies related to diagnosing the virus in the human body. Diagnostic related products identify the prevalence of the virus and thus help breaking infection chains to contain the virus. We need to identify infected people in early stages to get medical support, which is particularly challenging due to the relatively long and varying incubation period of the disease and the many asymptotic Covid-19 infections . Identifying infected people not only helps patients to get medical support early on, but also contributes to reducing the number of infections. Testing kits fall within this category, with other diagnostic products including AI technologies, such as contact tracing of infected patients and COVID-19 detection from chest X-rays[viii]. This layer also includes new testing services, such as drive-through testing centers.

The third layer comprises products, services and technologies that help contain the virus and prevent its spread. The products and services in this category primarily address those not infected by providing products and technologies that make it harder for the virus to spread. As the most prominent product in this category, a vaccine as a crisis-critical product innovation would immediately prevent the virus from spreading if available at large scale and low costs. Upscaling that production also requires manufacturing technology innovations. While scientists all over the world are dedicating long hours to finding a vaccine, it is unlikely that it will be available within the next few months. Other, more readily available crisis-critical products in this layer include various types of high- and low-tech personal protective equipment (PPE). Wearing face masks and shields has now become commonplace in the public around the world and help contain the spread of the virus. Crisis-critical technology innovations, such as tracing apps for mobile phones that can be used to track infected people to estimate the risk of contracting Covid-19. Germany, for instance, has just launched its Covid-19 tracking app and other countries are about to follow with their own applications[ix]. Within days, the app registered more than 12 million, which makes about 15% of the German population.[x]

The fourth layer includes crisis-critical products, services and technologies that enable coping with lockdown consequences and other preventive measures taken in response to the pandemic. While these seem more peripheral and less urgent compared to those of the three inner layers, they are of utmost importance to mitigate the economic consequences of the pandemic by enabling workforces to continue business despite widespread lockdowns. Moreover, mental health of people is impacted with contact restrictions taking heavy tolls on the wellbeing of people[xi]. It will take its time to fully understand the impact of lockdowns on societies and until then, enabler services such as video conferencing apps and related online platforms are doing their best mitigating the damage on society and parts of the economy. While video conferencing cannot always fully replace meetings, this technology keeps not only businesses running but also enables people to stay in touch with their friends and family. Contactless and online payment technologies are another example that helps to reduce the spread of the virus when it comes to buying food, groceries, etc. over the counter. It is also an enabler when it comes to paying for products online that would otherwise require people to leave their houses.

The fifth layer includes products, services and technologies that ensure the security of supply. Particularly during the beginning of the pandemic and in the early stages of lockdown, demand for sanitary products increased dramatically. Supply chains were severely disrupted by preventive measures, with the result that businesses faced unexpected and serious challenges delivering even vital everyday products. Food supply was affected in most European countries and particularly in Spain and Italy[xii], two countries that were severely hit by the virus and are large suppliers of fruit and vegetables for the European domestic market. People were confronted with the unusual situation of empty shelves in supermarkets and internet providers were faced with unprecedented levels of data usage driven by many people having to work from home. While sanitary products, food, and the internet have existed before the crisis, demand patterns have changed significantly.


To conclude, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and related preventive measures on demand is vastly different depending on the respective industry[xiii]. While industries related to travel and hospitality, such as airlines and hotels struggle severely and are likely to be impacted for years to come [xiv], software companies have rebounded quickly and seem to adjust much easier to lockdowns. Although stock markets all over the world fell sharply in March, some industries and particularly big tech companies are already back to pre-crisis levels[xv].

We find that there is a wide range of both existing and novel (innovation) crisis-critical products, services and technologies that are relevant to cope with and overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and its related preventive measures. The various technologies behind many of these crisis-critical products and services, such as video conferencing applications or contactless payment systems, are far from new. Preventive measures all over the world made them more important and we will only learn in the future how the demand for these products will evolve beyond the crisis. The crisis amplifies existing trends and is likely to accelerate the transition towards a more digitalized society. Businesses will probably put more emphasis into ensuring resilient supply chains in the future[xvi]. While the crisis has increased research efforts regarding the development of Covid-19 related treatments and vaccines, it is unclear how innovation and technology trajectories are impacted in the long run. Our five-layer typology for crisis-critical products, services and technologies (Figure 2) visually emphasises the urgency for innovation in the respective categories. While the first three layers are particularly relevant now and specific to Covid-19, we can perhaps expect “enabler” products in the fourth layer to have a longer-term impact on business and society. People may realise that many tasks can be effectively accomplished online while others  continue to require physical presence and are easier to do in face-to-face meetings. Only the future will tell where we are heading, but it is likely that some of the identified crisis-critical products, services and technologies will remain important and continues to enhance our everyday lives even beyond the end of the present crisis.

 

References


[iv] Tietze F, Vimalnath P, Aristodemou L, and Molloy, J. Crisis-Critical Intellectual Property: Findings from the COVID–19 Pandemic. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 2020, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/TEM.2020.2996982

[v] Tietze F, Vimalnath P, Aristodemou L, and Molloy, J. Crisis-Critical Intellectual Property: Findings from the COVID–19 Pandemic. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 2020, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/TEM.2020.2996982

[vi] Immovilli P, Morelli N, Antonucci E, Radaelli G, Barbera M, Guidetti D. COVID-19 mortality and ICU admission: the Italian experience. Crit Care. 2020;24(1):228. Published 2020 May 15. doi:10.1186/s13054-020-02957-9

[viii] F. Shi et al., "Review of Artificial Intelligence Techniques in Imaging Data Acquisition, Segmentation and Diagnosis for COVID-19," in IEEE Reviews in Biomedical Engineering, doi: 10.1109/RBME.2020.2987975.