The impact of COVID-19 on innovation

by Nicholas Ferrar, partner and patent attorney


Times of crisis are sometimes accompanied by huge spikes in innovation. Much like a fight-or-flight response in individuals, a knee-jerk reaction to adverse conditions for some organisations is to develop new technology as fast as possible.

However, it very much depends on the nature of the adversity. The impact of COVID-19 has been so widespread, causing many organisations to cease operation so quickly that there was not much time to react. This has been coupled with certain pockets of industry finding themselves in such demand that they are struggling to cope. In amongst the upheaval it is also important to bear in mind that innovation is typically a longer-term commitment, often taking months or years for R&D projects to reach commercial fruition.

There is of course a pressing medical need and some very specific new products are required to cope with the pandemic. However, even in the healthcare industry, we are seeing very different effects. Certain manufacturers of essential medical devices are diverting all available capacity to making and shipping existing products. That is to say, longer-term innovation projects have halted to focus on the more important current priorities.

In some other areas of technology there is also very immediate innovation going ahead. In the food and drink industry, despite ongoing commitment to increasing automation for decades, there are many food production lines still heavily reliant on workers. Social distancing measures have now meant that fewer workers are available and they should not be working in close proximity. Innovation is needed to keep up with demand, i.e. to solve problems that did not previously exist.

The impact on the IT industry and the need for ongoing remote/cloud working solutions also seems inevitable.

But for most manufacturers that don’t operate in an essential area of industry, immediate demand has dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have simply ceased production and cut overheads. Some have kept production going for existing products to build up stock in readiness for the return to normal operation. However, there are many that we have spoken to who are investing the available time in existing innovation projects, or starting new projects based on how they believe the pandemic will have affected attitudes and behaviours in their industry.

For example, in the construction industry, live projects are currently on hold but when they restart, will there be a greater need to work in isolation on site? Will welfare considerations for construction workers change? Will different equipment be needed? And then, in the longer term, will the fixtures/fittings and internal space of buildings need to be re-designed to allow occupants to better cope with the possibility of future pandemics?

So, when you start from the premise that the pandemic will change certain priorities for society, it can be seen that there is significant scope for innovation to address both immediate and longer-term challenges.

There is much to be hopeful about in terms of the general level of innovation that should arise. However, there is a sticking point. The development of new products and services requires investment. Many technology-focussed start-ups are entirely reliant on grants and investors to fund development. We are already seeing uncertainty surrounding investment decisions for innovation projects that do not fall within key essential areas of technology based on the pandemic. And this is only the start of what might be a long period of economic uncertainty.

In summary, there are some pockets of intense innovation happening right now and there are some companies planning to innovate their way through the mid-term uncertainty following the pandemic. However, it already seems likely that funding for more-speculative and longer term innovation projects will dry up whilst everyone adjusts to the ‘new normal’.