A Covid-19 app and ‘how to fail successfully’ as a tech entrepreneur

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by Mark Bamford, Founder Viktrs

On March 1, I reached out and managed to pull together 24 techies and a handful of data scientists, marketers and lawyers, most of whom I had never met and somehow convinced them to work pro-bono on a crazy four-week sprint to build a COVID-19 Avoid, Trace and Track App.

You see, I was in a rush. I assumed time was of the essence to protect the UK from Covid-19 as Taiwan and the Koreans had done. These countries were way ahead of us in creating great tech tools to protect their people.

We did it – we completed a successful test of a phone-to-phone Covid-19 infection alert for contact tracing on March 30. That’s 10 weeks ago today and that is where this fairy tale ends.

It all came to a grinding halt as the ogres of this story appeared on the horizon… then all that talk of Government support to help ‘UK tech’ never appeared and the ‘Guardians of the Tech World’, Apple and Google stopped us testing. This is where we are today – sitting on our hands, waiting for someone to help us while the Government stayed notably very very silent.

This is not meant to be a rant about how Government bureaucracy is all-consuming, that they should never try to build tech and that Apple and Google perhaps have alternative motives.

However, I did want to reflect on what I have learnt these past 14 weeks about the key success factors for all tech when it comes to COVID-19.

  1. Create trust – when it comes to privacy and data, only one thing matters – building trust with the public. Irrespective of all the tech, encryption, tokenisation, Bluetooth v GPS and other ‘new fandangled’ ways techies can protect and anonymise your data. They are all irrelevant if you cannot gain the trust of the public. You do this by being explicit about data – total, complete, proactive honesty, and transparency. Oh, and some world-class GDPR lawyers are also very useful!
  2. Deliver value – no-one wants to be ‘told to use an app’ by anyone, especially the Government who you probably didn’t trust to begin with, so they were doomed from the start. No app in the history of the world is used widely because the users are ‘told to use it’. So, work out how to create value for the public, which for our App was to help them AVOID hotspots, enable them to order tests, self-report symptoms and would enable people to safely visit loved ones, get back to their jobs and get the UK back to normal quicker.
  3. Be ‘fit for purpose’ as an organisation – ok, simply put … the UK government should NOT try to build tech. They don’t even pass muster on my first two criteria! So, they were doomed even before they started building. There is too much red-tape, existing policy, old infrastructure, and legacy stakeholder complexity. We needed to build an App quickly and effectively. What is needed is a company and a team that has only one purpose – to build trust, protect data and deliver value. I am sorry – in this case, you cannot teach old dogs new tricks.
  4. Adoption – all this technology is for nought if no one uses it. So, get the first three right, and you stand a chance of winning people over and getting them to use your app.
  5. Nimbleness – this one is really simple. Don’t be old and slow. Sound like anyone you know? Be quick and trust people to deliver to their expertise… “Seemples” as a famous meerkat would say.
  6. Create Fun – this was in very short supply in March and with 24 strangers sitting on endless Zoom video calls ‘till all hours, working their hearts out, all without being paid. You’d better make it fun, even if the topic is a deadly serious one.

So, back to the beginning. When I started this with a few calls to friends in Government, technology, and the NHS in late February and the question came “why are you doing this?”, the answer was simple – “because no one else seems to be doing it”.

I never thought I would be right; I thought a big corporate or the Government would beat us to it. Alas, they have not yet, and 14 weeks later we are still stuck at the ‘Gates of Apple’ not allowed in, and with no Government support.

There is, however, a somewhat happy ending to the story, I have proved to myself that this could be done, I have met some amazing people in this new virtual world. I now sit on the Smart Pandemic Management board with a top American University and we are exploring numerous commercial uses for the C-19Tracker as businesses and universities seek to get back to work safely and people simply want to be able to hug their ‘at risk’ loved ones, who currently sit on ‘the other side of the window’. My heartfelt belief is that we can still make this happen.

A BIG thank you to the whole team involved in the project who provided their time, energy, humour, and expertise effectively pro-bono to make this project possible:

  • Zanyar Outhman and the five members of the Zuse Digital team
  • Vivek Behl (JAO Enterprises)
  • Paul Eisenberg, Joy Taylor, Parris Ikuomola and Leah Furbert (Viktrs)
  • Amit Mehta, Christopher Caldwell, and Leon Vvedenskii (Harness)
  • Frank Meehan (SparkLabs)
  • Richard Green (RJSG Advisors)
  • Wilson Sonsini GR and several members of their Data Privacy and GDPR team.
  • Leon Mills

Mark Bamford is CEO and Founder of Viktrs, which will be live in Q4 this year. Viktrs is a platform designed to monetise the dormant value in music videos to deliver new revenues to the music industry and new video-centric experiences to fans. More on the Tracker App here.