Nations launch ‘Challenges’ to find innovative solutions to Covid-19

By Joshua Chambers

EU, UK, Estonia amongst those seeking help.

They say that a problem shared is a problem halved. Well there is no greater problem than a pandemic.

Governments, particularly in Europe, have sought help to innovate and tackle Covid-19 as it spreads across the world. They have launched challenges, competitions and hackathons to pool new ideas and invest quickly in potential solutions.

GovInsider looks at some of the initiatives that are making waves, and could easily be copied elsewhere.

British ‘NHSX’ wants social isolation support

Britain’s National Health Service digital team, NHSX, has launched a call for ideas on how to support “elderly, vulnerable and self-isolating during the COVID-19 outbreak”.

There are three categories for startup ideas - remote social care; optimising staffing in care and voluntary sectors; and mental health to support people’s wellbeing during isolation and remote work.

Partnering with Public, a GovTech incubator, they are offering funding of up to £25,000 (USD$30,000) for a test phase, with applications closing at the end of the month. Crucially, this is not for medical tech but broader social support.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “We know isolation is not easy – especially for older people, those who live alone, have mental health problems or those who care for others. If people cannot leave the house, we need to quickly find ways to bring support to them and today I am calling on the strength of our innovative technology sector to take on this challenge.”

The challenge is not seeking clinical solutions, which are being handled in a different way with the UK’s medical and research sector.

European Union offers millions in open ended call

The European Union set aside €164m (US$178m) for ”startups and SMEs with technologies and innovations that could help in treating, testing, monitoring or other aspects of the Coronavirus outbreak”.

This call was “bottom up”, the European Commission said, meaning that there were no pre-defined themes or ideas. Already successful initiatives receiving funding include the EpiShuttle to transport infected patients around hospitals, and the m-TAP project which removes viral spores from the air.

Estonia channels startup spirit

Accelerate Estonia and Garage48 hosted a hackathon with €5,000 (US$5,432) funding for the five best ideas that are “prototypable in 48 hours to help solve the crisis” and “give Estonia the edge in the post-crisis world”.

“Do not stop at anything. Think of moonshots. Think of stuff that needs different regulations,” the instructions said.

The entire event was held digitally over 48 hours. In the first 90 minutes of the call for action, over 650 people had posted 80 ideas for consideration, Forbes Magazine notes. After two days “there were 1,000 people participating and 30 teams working on solutions”.

The winning ideas included a medical volunteer management database; a self-monitoring tool to understand one’s risk of being infected; and a breathing apparatus for people who develop acute respiratory distress syndrome, according to Estonian World.

Estonia’s Minister of Trade, Kaimar Karu, said: “I'm so excited and grateful that more than 1000 people from around the world decided, with only hours to prepare, to dedicate their whole weekend during this challenging, turbulent time to work together as a true community for the benefit of all of us. Thank you!”

All aboard

The hackathon founders have now transformed this into a global competition, which continues online.

This innovation spirit is seen across the world. For instance, Thailand’s National Innovation called upon the Thai Health Startup Association and the Thai Tech Startup Association “to come up with COVID-19 supporting schemes for hospitals and the livelihood of citizens in 4 areas: tracking; telehealth; social distancing innovation; and supply chain of goods in the highest demand;” NIA executive director Dr Pun-Arj Chairatana told GovInsider.

There are technical grants of up to US$2million available to innovators in the healthtech space, he added.

Are you running an innovation challenge? Let GovInsider know how to promote and support you. Email