On Silicon Valley’s singular focus on coronavirus

Amidst all the negative news about the coronavirus crisis, I’ve found it particularly inspiring to watch the Silicon Valley technology community rally around solving it.

I’ve watched this unfold by monitoring the daily posts on Y Combinator’s private online forum for founders and alumni. While YC doesn’t represent all of Silicon Valley, it’s often considered a microcosm of it, so I assume that other tech founder communities are rallying similarly.

To help quantify this phenomenon, I’d first like to share a chart showing the breakdown between ‘regular’ forum posts and those specifically related to coronavirus, by day:

Notice how right around March 13th, coronavirus topics begin to dominate the forum. While they typically remain below half of the daily posts, it’s unprecedented for a single topic to take over like this, especially given all the other things that technology startup founders typically discuss with their peers (strategic business advice, sharing job candidates, asking for introductions, discussing technology tools, etc.)

I think the March 13th timing is also interesting because that’s the Friday before the Monday when San Francisco Bay's “shelter in place” ordinances came into effect. Nothing quite focuses one’s attention on a topic like a dramatic impact on your day-to-day life.

To dig a bit deeper, I then divided the coronavirus posts into general topic areas to better understand the types of coronavirus topics that YC founders have been most interested in:

The single biggest topic area is Emotional Support / Prevention / Guidance. What’s most interesting is that the vast majority of these posts aren’t asking for support, they’re giving it. Example topics include:

  • How to Stay Calm

The next most common topic categories are Creating New Technology and Repurposing Existing Technologies, which combined are about half of all coronavirus posts. This is where you can really see technology startup founders doing what they do best — innovating.

While some of the founders are announcing pivots to their core business to make it more coronavirus-relevant, most of the innovations aren’t even related to the founders’ core businesses. Rather, founders are donating their time and expertise to the development of novel technical solutions to the coronavirus crisis. Example topics include:

  • Can you or someone you know help build a scalable virus detection device?

Next is the Inquiry / Request for Information category, which is essentially a less technical version of the innovation categories above. As with the other categories, while founders are sometimes asking for support, they’re most often offering it. Example topics include:

  • A list of people searching for remote work due to COVID19

The other categories are <5% each and include Introduction Request, Financial Guidance / Relief, and Medical Supplies / PPE, which are really just subcategories of the innovation ones above. Example topics include:

  • COVID-19 clinical trials (losartan and chloroquine): urgently need connections to these hospitals

So while technology startup founders are just as stressed as anyone else about coronavirus, they’re also displaying a remarkable degree of focus, optimism, and proactivity. Witnessing this makes me proud to be a technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

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Jared Heyman

Tech guy and investor. Founder at Rebel Fund and previously Pioneer Fund. Chairman of Infosurv and CrowdMed (YC W13). Former Bain consultant. Data nerd.