The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated once again that we are a “meeting society,” as described by Doyle and Strauss.
One of the outcomes of the pandemic was the new reality of “virtual” meetings, which brought with it the application of technology that had been available for many years but was severely underutilized. Zoom was founded in 2011 and Webex was formed back in 1995 and later acquired by Cisco in 2007. However, until 2020, these platforms were not used widely to conduct meetings not held in-person. Even when using Skype, the preference was to use voice, only. By December 2019, using a conference call (voice) number to dial-in was the most common method of holding meetings that were not held in-person.
In a relatively short period of time, and out of necessity, online video conferencing tools became ubiquitous and business people overcame the initial technical hurdles of connecting to make sure that everything was operational (two-way audio and video). Holding virtual meetings had become our way of life for the last two years.
Initially, there was fear that start-up companies would not be able to raise funding since, until this time, investors preferred and were even required to meet entrepreneurs/founders in-person before making an investment decision. However, venture capital investments grew in 2020 and almost doubled in 2021, which, ironically, resulted from the disruption caused by the pandemic, forcing a shift to online services and a strong need for novel technical infrastructure.
During the first months of 2020, there was a similar concern about the viability of forming new cross-border collaborations, specifically, those that deal with R&D projects. How could one reach an agreement without ever meeting (in-person)? Was it possible to build a credible plan that included, for example, work conducted jointly in a laboratory?
The US-Israel Energy Center is an excellent example of an R&D program based on the consortium model which requires a high level of interaction between US and Israeli researchers, companies, and others. The first three consortia were selected and announced just as the pandemic hit along with the travel restrictions, quarantine requirements, and the international shutdowns that came with it. The actual work of the selected consortia started in August-September, 2020. Each consortium has a 5-year cross-border collaborative program during which most of the communication and meetings were held virtually for the first 18 months.
On the one hand, it is impressive to see how the consortia were able to perform most of the tasks as planned and even demonstrated significant progress and achievements. On the other hand, the lack of in-person meetings, specifically between the US and Israeli partners, limited their ability to take full advantage of cross-border collaboration, one of the main goals of this program. Only very recently was the first full in-person meeting of one consortium held in the US, with the participation of all the US and Israeli members. This meeting allowed for the creation of new ideas and new opportunities for collaboration, which were difficult to conceive of in a virtual setting, alone.
Meeting new people is an important part of the human experience. The transition from the virtual-only environment, forced upon us by the pandemic, to meeting colleagues in-person that we only knew “virtually,” brings about a new perspective and opens a renewed dialog along with added energy that can only be achieved through the in-person human connection.
While in-person meetings are essential, I believe it is possible to conclude that cross-border R&D collaborations have gained much from the limitations brought on by the pandemic. Our experience and actual results show that the adoption of online meeting technologies has increased the potential to work collaboratively without the need to travel as much as before, which brings significant cost-savings and other related advantages.
 Doyle, Michael and David Straus. How to Make Meetings Work! New York: Berkley Books, 1993 (first edition 1976)