THE MICROSCOPIC virus that causes COVID-19 has morphed once again into a shape-shifting monster in whose vast and deadly shadow nations seal their borders and global events are left hanging by a thread.
First came the coronavirus, then came the Delta variant, and now we have Omicron. Not since the dramas of Euripides have the letters of the Greek alphabet spelled out so much tragedy.
The NHL’s Christmas break could become a mid-season pause, England’s Premier League is staggering, and the World Economic Forum in Davos has been canceled for the second year in succession. The Slamdance Film Festival has gone virtual, the Critics Choice Awards and W Magazine’s Best Performances party are both postponed and even the red carpet premiere for the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race is canceled.
Reluctantly, we have also decided to postpone the OurCrowd Global Investor Summit, the largest investor event in the Middle East, for the second year running. Each year we host many thousands of our global community members here in Jerusalem, and without these foreign travelers the Summit will not occur. We are hoping to reschedule once the situation settles and we have more information about travel and visas.
But despite this cancel culture, we remain optimistic for the long term. In the face of overwhelming odds, scientific genius is gradually proving a match for COVID-19. The vaccines, developed and deployed at lightning speed, are providing important protection that keeps millions out of hospital, and largely away from mortality, even if they are not stopping Omicron infections in the way we would have hoped.
Effective treatments are emerging. In the last days of December, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s Paxlovid oral antiviral, and for Merck’s molnupiravir oral treatment for COVID-19. A nitric oxide-based nasal spray that kills the coronavirus, developed by SaNOtize, an OurCrowd portfolio company, is flying off the shelves here in Israel, and is advancing towards additional approvals in several more jurisdictions. Production is ramping up to millions of bottles and SaNOtize is due to start distribution by Glenmark Pharmaceuticals in India in early 2022.
OurCrowd’s MigVax is hard at work on its oral booster for COVID, utilizing its unique AI-driven bioinformatics software, which has successfully predicted mutations months in advance, correctly foreseeing 33 of Omicron’s 36 mutations fully six months before the variant emerged. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has recognized the importance of the potential MigVax booster breakthrough by announcing $4.3 million in funding for the development of a dissolvable tablet and the creation of a multi-variant vaccine.
Despite this year of lockdowns, travel bans, social distancing and constant testing, OurCrowd itself has continued to thrive. In 2021 we doubled our investments year to year, saw eight new exits for our investors, added 51 new companies to our investment portfolio, and registered more than 110,000 new accredited investors to our platform – more than 400% growth over our new investors in 2020.
Many of our portfolio companies have rolled with the pandemic punches and emerged unscathed, with many even strengthened due to the rapid digital transformation affecting multiple sectors. Despite the economic pressures in many countries, we see hundreds of new startups every month. Entrepreneurs are still dreaming and building, and investors are still looking for the right opportunities.
But even though we are weathering the pandemic storm, the cancelation of the meetups, conferences and other gatherings that for so long have been the lifeblood of the global tech community is taking its toll, particularly on young people just starting out. How can a visionary entrepreneur broaden their impact beyond their immediate circle without a live audience to address and real shoulders to rub up against?
We have hired more than 100 new employees in the past year. Until a Hannukah meet up between the fourth and fifth waves here in Israel, many of them had only ever encountered their colleagues via Zoom. How can they gain the valuable experience of the water-cooler conversations with colleagues, let alone develop contacts outside the company, without being physically present in the office or at tech events?
Safety must come first, of course. Nothing is more important than the personal health and wellbeing of our staff and colleagues – especially with Omicron, which seems to be even more infectious than prior waves of COVID. But the absence of our meetups and conferences is not trivial, and I fear we are only just beginning to appreciate the impact of losing them.
However, I am hopeful that the current cancel culture is temporary.
I warned soon after COVID-19 emerged that there would be no quick fix for this pandemic. It now seems possible that the virus, in its various and growing number of mutations, may become as endemic as flu, erupting periodically with a new strain. Some experts are suggesting that Omicron might herald the beginning of endemic herd immunity, but while it seems less dangerous, the sheer numbers of sick people may place unbearable pressure on our health systems.
I remain confident that the innovation community will ultimately develop the solutions we need to manage and subdue the coronavirus plague. The world’s smartest minds, powered by some of our canniest investors, are busy creating solutions at a breathtaking pace. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, we will look back on these two years of suffering, fear and panic in much the same way as we now regard the early days of HIV and AIDs.
I don’t yet know where, or when, but I am sure we will meet again.
Here’s to a happy, healthy and prosperous 2022.