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Existing innovation helping solve new challenges

Existing innovation helping solve new challenges

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There’s a YouTube video going around in which comedian Julie Nolke, sitting in her house in January 2020, looks up to see a future version of herself from April 2020 sitting across the table. “Future Julie” proceeds to tell “January Julie” about what’s to come. While she never mentions a global pandemic, she does tell her past self that she REALLY ought to “put a little money in Zoom.”

January Julie looks at her quizzically. “Isn’t that a … conferencing app?” she asks, perplexed.

“Yeah, trust me …” Future Julie says emphatically.

It’s a humorous take on the unexpected quarantine the world finds itself in right now. And while January Julie is just as confused when her future self tells her that she should get herself a dog — “because the walks are going to be clutch” — the from-the-future Zoom recommendation illustrates a point that applies to innovation during the time of COVID.

Many — including myself — have highlighted the explosion of innovation happening in response to the global pandemic. Everywhere you look, companies are creating new ways of doing business or new products to solve problems unheard of a few months ago.

But sometimes innovation isn’t new. It’s often a matter of existing products or services intersecting with a situation that demands what those services and products provide. Zoom’s a perfect example. Founded in 2013, it had grown to a respectable 10 million subscribers by February 2020. Three months later, it has 300 million subscribers, an astonishing increase of 2,900%.

Zoom’s unique, for sure, but this is happening on a smaller scale in Rochester, too. In fact, there are numerous instances in the aptly named Downtown Innovation Zone, a unique public/private partnership between Rochester Downtown Development Corp., city of Rochester, High Tech Rochester and RG&E. Two great examples are Envative and Second Avenue Learning.

Got challenges? Envative has solutions

In 1998, Craig Lamb and David Mastrella opened Envative, which specializes in mobile app, IoT and custom web development. The Envative team — consisting of more than 20 programmers, project managers, web designers and engineers based on Main Street in Rochester — has successfully created custom software and tech solutions for regional and national business such as First American Equipment Finance, Semrock Corp. and United Way of Greater Rochester.

Then March 2020 arrived, and businesses everywhere were faced with unprecedented challenges. And that, according to Lamb, is when things went from busy to really busy.

“The quarantine created a massive, almost immediate change in how businesses from every sector of the economy interact with their employees, customers and facilities. Professional service firms, manufacturers, schools, nonprofits — you name it — any and all organizations had to figure out how to get their business done, maintain their facilities and engage with key constituencies without having any boots on the ground,” Lamb says. “Technology became a major part of the solution. And a lot of these solutions were things that we’d been talking to clients and prospects about for years, but that they held off doing for one reason or another. COVID changed all of that.

“Almost overnight, we had companies coming to us saying ‘Remember that thing we were talking about doing? Let’s do it, and let’s do it now,’” Lamb adds. “As a custom software development firm we can build anything. We’re getting a lot of calls to automate and ‘virtualize’ areas of businesses: mobile applications, touchless-process automation and remote IoT sensors.”

New project inquiries for Envative’s services have gone up so much since the quarantine that the firm has hired three new software engineers to handle the volume.

Second Avenue Learning helps bridge training gap

Located on East Broad Street in Rochester, Second Avenue Learning has been developing interactive educational games and learning management systems for the K-12, higher ed, corporate and health care marketplaces since 1996. Since COVID, the company’s seen a rise in requests to assist corporate clients who’ve experienced an upheaval in the way they deliver training.

COVID has forced companies of all stripes to change the way their employees work. According to Second Avenue Learning CEO Victoria Van Voorhis, one example of this change is a major proposal her company is working on with the National Science Foundation to address ongoing training issues needed by various industries related to the pandemic.

The demand also extends beyond training that’s directly related to the pandemic.

“Companies still need to train employees on standard business processes and procedures, just as they did before COVID,” Van Voorhis says. “Everyone used to go to a hotel conference room, or even travel to another city for in-person seminars. That can’t happen anymore. Our team’s incredibly busy helping clients use online learning to navigate the new training landscape and bridge this gap.”

The spike in business among Second Avenue Learning’s K-12 education sector has been a slower burn. Van Voorhis says that, understandably, many school districts and state education departments are in triage mode right now, but she expects a shift as schools look to the 2020-2021 school year.

“We’re already working with early adopter school districts to help them use technology to forge return-to-learn plans that account for both remote and in-school learning,” Van Voorhis says. “Within the next few months, we’re expecting a big uptick in business as more conservative school districts get their arms around the tech solutions they need to ensure continuity of learning, regardless of whether students and teachers are in the classroom or at home.”

When great innovations that are already in the market — like these two companies — meet a new problem or hurdle, it can look a bit prescient. Like someone from the future tipped off innovators about what was to come. Of course that doesn’t happen, but if it did, I do have to wonder what my own quarantined self might say to “January Joe.” I’d like to think it would be something world-changing, but if I’m honest with myself, I probably would have just told myself to make sure I sign up for that Netflix subscription. Innovative, no. But necessary? Yeah, trust me …

Joseph Stefko is president and CEO of ROC2025, an alliance of economic development organizations established in 2019 to accelerate growth in the Rochester, New York, region through coordinated capacity-building investments in business retention and expansion, talent strategy, business attraction, downtown growth and regional branding/marketing.