Startups

Startup founders report on their pandemic pivots

Read more at www.crainsdetroit.com

“Pivot” was perhaps the most over-used business buzzword in 2020. But back in March, April and into May as shutdown orders and the broader pandemic drastically changed life as we knew it, the word was also the necessary reality for a vast number of entrepreneurs.

Crain’s spent a great deal of time in those months tracking the pivots of metro Detroit companies looking for any business model that would help get them through the pandemic.

Now, as some light shines at the end of the tunnel, we decided to go back and check in with a handful of companies we had previously spoken with:

  • Sassa Akervall, CEO of Akervall Technologies, last spring transitioned her Saline-based dental protection company to making personal protection equipment such as face masks and shields.
  • As pools closed last year, MySwimPro Inc. had to pivot from workouts done in the pool to a more holistic exercise mobile application, according to CEO Fares Ksebati.
  • LynxDX Inc., a University of Michigan spin-out company, built itself to be a prostate examination company. But as people halted normal medical checkups last year, the company transitioned to providing a COVID-19 testing kit. Yashar Niknafs is co-founder and CEO.

Crain’s asked these entrepreneurs for a sense of where each company stands as glimmers of normal business life return. What follows are emailed replies from each of the business owners that have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

To what extent has your company’s pivot been temporary or permanent?

Akervall: We have gone back to our core business which is dental protection for sports, dentistry, and certain surgical procedures, although we still have a substantial inventory of face shields left. We actually added on several models for medical and dental use, as well as some models for kids that include vinyls or stickers, making it more of a fun project for parents and children.

Ksebati: We continue to focus on the holistic coaching experience for our members. Prior to the pandemic we focused almost exclusively on swim training in the mobile app and our educational content on social media. Today we continue to deliver to our members dryland training in the mobile app and through our growing social media audience.
Niknafs: LynxDx has pivoted back to working on prostate cancer. Although most of our team members are working on combating the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a core team of scientists, doctors and support staff working on the prostate cancer business … We utilize University of Michigan’s “MLabs” facility to run our prostate cancer assay — allowing our main lab to focus on COVID-19.

To what extent would you say the pivot paid off?

Akervall: It absolutely paid off. We wouldn’t have been the same company without the face shields. Fifty percent of 2020 revenue came from there. It is hard to think about how things would have been today if we wouldn’t have had the face shields as our primary source of income. In addition, I’d like to point out that we created over 100 jobs during the peak period of the summer. I’m extremely proud that we were able to pivot to help the company, as well as the community. It was amazing to see how it all came together. The staff did a fantastic job of setting up the production, hiring people and keeping track of everything. And the workers made close to one million face shields.
Ksebati: In the long run the pandemic is a bump in the road. We continue to focus on our long-term vision of creating the top fitness brand in the world for swimmers.
Niknafs: Our prostate cancer is a small fraction of our overall book of business. This is due primarily to the fact that we became such an extremely large provider of COVID-19 diagnostic testing. Presently, we are the second largest provider of COVID-19 testing in Michigan and we are still growing rapidly in this book of business.

Are there elements of the forced pivot that will remain with the company long term?

Akervall: Yes, there are. We have learned a lot along the way, for instance look to your current vendors to see if they can pivot as well so you create a win-win. We did and it worked out beautifully. Looking ahead, we have some ideas of new products that came out of the face shield production but are not necessarily related to that product category at all.

Ksebati: The pivot during the pandemic has forced us to accelerate our vision of bringing a holistic coaching experience to our members.
Niknafs: The forced pivot has had many long-term impacts. First, it has proven that our management team is much more capable than we would have imagined. We learned quickly to operate as “one team.” Our management team members have complementary skills and we have achieved our successes by working tirelessly towards achieving a common goal: reducing the impact of COVID-19 within our great state. Another long-term impact is that we developed very robust processes — from operations, to hiring staff, to acquiring and securing scarce resources (testing supplies). These processes will serve us well as we commercialize our prostate cancer and other diagnostic assays.

Read more at www.crainsdetroit.com

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