Now That We’re All at Home, These Boston Businesses Are Stepping Up to the Challenge

The city's strongest industries seem uniquely well-suited to our new normal.

Illustration via Getty Images

From the musicians who need audiences to the hoteliers who depend on tourists to the college professors whose classrooms may sit empty this coming fall, it’s easy to guess which of Boston’s workers will face hardship in the coming months. The coronavirus pandemic has dealt an unprecedented shock to the local economy, and no sector will emerge unscathed. However, while news of layoffs and furloughs still dominate the headlines, another narrative has quietly begun to emerge in recent weeks—that of Boston companies and entrepreneurs who are finding ways to push forward even in the midst of this vast, crushing economic blow. The past two months have exposed countless issues in the ways our city, schools, workplaces, and more function, presenting an opportunity for creative thinkers to step in and problem solve. Yes, it’s still impossible to know where the future will take us—but it’s safe to say that Boston, with its high concentration of universities, healthcare experts, and tech companies, is well-positioned to innovate in a pandemic economy.

Already, some local companies are reimagining their business models to address the immediate needs of our brave new world. Local startup LovePop, for example, has begun using the die cutters it usually uses to make pop-up greeting cards to make face shields for healthcare workers. Employees of the local marketing app Knoq have temporarily pivoted from door-to-door marketing to delivering groceries on behalf of local food banks. And the 14-person startup Drafted, which has focused on hiring and referrals since 2015, launched a new platform earlier this month to match laid-off workers with recruiters.

At the same time, other Boston businesses that were lucky enough to be in industries aligned with trends the pandemic has accelerated are now reaping some rewards. Take LogMeIn, for instance—while some employees were initially laid off in February, the winds have since blown in the favor of the remote access software the company specializes in as more and more people began to work from home. “We saw increases as much as 10 times our normal usage rates,” says Bill Wagner, the company’s CEO. “We could actually see it happening in Asia first, and then in Europe, and then in the United States.”

As telework becomes the norm for a larger percentage of the workforce this year and into next, it seems logical that demand for remote access and video conferencing software like LogMeIn’s will rise. In fact, Christopher Mirabile, a full-time Boston-area angel investor, predicts that any company devising tools that can manage our newly distributed workforce will see gains. “We’re going to see definitions of productivity and definition of workplace change, and the companies that can figure out how to make me productive and secure working remotely are going to have big opportunities,” Mirabile says. He cites Newton-based Riff Analytics—which creates AI-powered tools that analyze vocal data during video meetings, then offers insights into how often people interrupt each other, whether certain employees get called on more than others, and how socially present team members are—as an example of a business poised to succeed thanks to our new WFH workforce.

Of course, in a world where all eyes are suddenly on healthcare, it comes as no surprise that experts also predict further growth in biotech, a lauded Massachusetts industry. Cambridge-based Moderna Therapeutics has already made headlines in recent weeks for its coronavirus vaccine candidate, which received nearly half a billion dollars from the U.S. government. The company is currently hiring for 150 manufacturing, engineering, and regulatory positions to help accelerate the production of the drug.

The demand for telehealth, too, has exploded in recent weeks, and several Boston companies were ready and waiting to meet the demand. 14-year-old startup Amwell launched a national COVID-19 telehealth response program, raising over $60 million in funding. Brookline-based XRHealth has debuted VR telehealth support groups to help people cope with isolation. And Buoy Health runs an online symptom-checker tool, which Governor Baker has referenced multiple times in press conferences, that is designed to help people determine whether they might have the virus. This wave of popularity will likely continue even after concerns about the coronavirus have eased—experts seem to agree that telehealth is here to stay. “I think once the cat’s out of the bag, there’s no letting it back in,” says Ted Chan, a futurist and the CEO of Cambridge-based healthcare tech CareDash. As these platforms become increasingly user-friendly, Chan predicts, they will become essential to the way we seek out healthcare. “Specialty by specialty, you’re going to see completely different use patterns,” Chan says. “You’ll still really want to go see your dentist in person—but for things like urgent care, when you have a cold or you know you just need an antibiotic, why would you want to go and wait in a germy medical facility?”

Of course, just because the winds of favor seem to be with a handful of new technologies and local companies doesn’t mean the changes are necessarily permanent. Robert Margo, a professor at BU who specializes in economic history, cautions that widespread investment in these areas is not guaranteed—especially once social distancing measures are lifted and life begins to look a little more like it used to. “I think the fundamental question is whether people think this [pandemic] is a constant, high-level risk or a 500-year flood,” Margo says.

In other words, the widespread adoption of and investment in more sophisticated remote-work tools and disease detection, prevention, and treatment measures may come only if we as a society register that a disaster of this scale is not a novel event, something that we have historically struggled to do. That means that for us to truly see exciting developments, from remote working tools to vaccinations, what may be required is not only entrepreneurs with big ideas, but a fundamental change in the way society understands pandemics. Will coronavirus finally push funders to accept that pandemic preparedness tools are a worthy investment? Maybe—but if being trapped inside for months on end, wearing masks when we go to the grocery store, and watching as the numbers of cases and deaths in the city steadily climbed wasn’t convincing, it’s not clear what would be.