Startup Village 2021 contained an eclectic selection of speakers from a broad spectrum of sectors, cultures, and backgrounds. One of the key talks – “Houston, We Have a Problem. Post-Crisis Business Check Up” – comprised six speakers from the US, Qatar and Russia, who covered the changes businesses and governments made to get through the crisis.
"Houston, We Have a Problem. Post-Crisis Business Check Up". Screenshot: Sk.ru
Taking part in the session were Shannon Poulin, corporate vice president, Intel Sales and Marketing Group and general manager of global markets and partners; Abdulaziz Al Khalifa, the CEO of Qatar Development Bank; Grigorii Fedorishin of NLMK Group; Yan Kukhalskii of Media holding Media-1; Vladimir Sedov (Askona Group of Companies), and Edward Shenderovich, the co-founder and ex-executive chairman of Knotel. The session was moderated by Tatiana Naumova of NTV.
The title is almost self-explanatory, but to give a little more detail on the main topic, the speakers covered what they have seen in the last year in terms of what businesses and governments have done to adapt to the crisis that came with the Covid-19 virus, and what technological approaches businesses can use to protect themselves from shocks caused by crises such as this one. Every crisis, big or small, is unique and compels businesses to adapt in order to survive the turmoil going on around them. Those that don’t adapt suffer or go bust. It is widely known that Covid-19 has driven companies to digitize their models, but how can digitalization of business processes be incorporated to make a business model more resilient?
The moderator began the session by asking a pertinent question: Is the crisis over or is it still ongoing? Putting one’s head to the ground, one hears both sides of that coin. Some people believe that things will go back to the way they were before, while many others believe that we will emerge in a different world to the pre-Covid era. April of this year showed huge growth in investments worldwide in comparison to last year, and companies have been investing twenty times more than in the last ten years. There is also a paradox in that productivity has only tripled. While these figures don’t appear to correlate, this level of investment during the current crisis doesn’t necessarily lead to higher productivity. Do investments give enough value? What does it mean to be digital today? How does a business navigate in this new world?
Shannon Poulin of Intel answered these questions, tuning in from his home in Portland, Oregon, in the United States:
“What you see now is companies investing in digital transformation and have been for quite a while,” said Mr. Poulin. “If anything, the pandemic has caused that investment to be compressed from what was a period of several years to what they had to execute in a few months simply to stay in business. On the one hand, productivity would be a ‘divide by zero’ conversation if the company were to go out of business because the company wasn’t investing in digital transformation.
Shannon Poulin, CVP and GM, Global Markets and Partners, Intel Corporation. Screenshot: Sk.ru.
"I think also you have industries where some investments are paying off bigger and some investments are paying off smaller," he continued. "There are large heavy industries where they are investing in transformation, they are getting efficiency improvements, and they are seeing some of the benefits of that investment even through the pandemic; then there are others in the pandemic such as travel and tourism where you are not going to see much investment in productivity during that time period.”
Mr. Poulin went on to say that there is a spectrum of different companies and how they invest, but that there should be a drive to find out what problems need solving.
“There is a lot of transformation that I think can take place that is simply necessary for companies to progress, and then there’s the investment to get more productive,” said Mr. Poulin. “We’re seeing that productivity, not in terms of three times or twenty times or that sort of thing; we’re seeing it enable new businesses that previously weren’t even possible.”
These investments are, in many ways, triggering new operations for companies around the world, new investment, which many of the members of Skolkovo’s community sees firsthand and which, Mr. Poulin states, “Intel likes to see and enable.”
The digital transformation had already been underway for fifteen or twenty years before Covid came along; the pandemic just sped things up because for companies it was a matter of survival. On the other hand, there were those that were almost entirely digital (digitally native) which took it all in their stride.
“If you look at all the companies out there investing today, many of those that were natively digital have weathered the pandemic very well and gotten through it; many that were not were forced to adapt quickly or go out of business,” said Mr. Poulin.
He added that under the current crisis, a company that was already heavily digital and also in an industry that could weather the pandemic did very well, whereas non-digital companies working in industries that were vulnerable to the pandemic have not done well.
“We believe that it’s essential for survival, because if you don’t invest in digital transformation or digital technology, then one of your competitors will, and thus what will that do for you in the future? It will make you less productive, so we see it as a method of survival,” he said.
Asked about what technologies are the best bets for investment, Mr. Poulin was quick to point out that the most successful companies are now investing in AI technologies to automate areas such as industry, bookkeeping, production, and so on.
“We see many different opportunities, and some of the companies that have weathered the storm best have been cloud-oriented companies, companies that are working on compute, network and storage and delivering services and capability in a remote way that wasn’t done ten or fifteen years ago; many of those companies are finding new ways to add value. We’re seeing the most successful companies really embrace all of that, embrace 5G, embrace cloud computing, embrace AI, and maybe embrace things like analytics and edge computing as well.”
Mr. Poulin stated that, in his opinion, cloud computing has been the most important tool to get us through the pandemic, because it enabled people to work remotely during quarantine.
“Without that technology, you would have to do everything physically on-premises," he said, "and that would have been incredibly challenging. I think that as humans we are grateful to have that cloud computing technology to enable those things. What you are seeing in your startup community, I imagine, is people using cloud computing, building applications, doing different things with compute, network and storage and that’s the real innovation. If anything, cloud computing is a foundation element and everything is built on top of that. A lot of innovation is happening now in different domains like healthcare, manufacturing, and industry; many of those are built on top of that technology. What we are trying to do is enable it so that the innovation can happen.”
The second international speaker on the panel, Abdulaziz Al Khalifa of the Qatar Development Bank, described the measures that Qatar has taken to enable SMEs, especially in the context of the build-up to the World Cup in 2022.
The moderator opened with the question by reciting a quote from the Asia blockchain summit, which stated that blockchain technologies would be at the heart of the digital transformation in Qatar. It would be used in building smart governance systems, financial technologies, and even at the upcoming football World Cup.
Asked why he believes in blockchain and how could it help companies around the world advance and become more sustainable, Mr. Al Khalifa stated that it is necessary, first of all, to understand what Qatar Development Bank does as an institution.
Abdulaziz Al Khalifa, CEO of Qatar Development Bank. Screenshot: Sk.ru.
“We support startups and small and medium enterprises. In order to support these startups, we try as much as possible to solve issues that face them in different venues. Some part of that is accessibility to information and training, some is accessibility to markets, both local and international. We also deal with the government to ensure that the policies are friendly to startups and small and medium enterprises,” said Mr. Al Khalifa.
Blockchain is a relatively new technology, but the CEO of Qatar Development Bank sees it as a tool that ought to be used. He also stated that it isn’t just SMEs that faced uncertainty in the pandemic; governments also found themselves in the unenviable position of trying to foresee what the pandemic situation would look like from month to month.
“The [Qatari] government was also innovative by creating situation rooms and by providing solutions to those challenges faced by startups,” said Mr. Al Khalifa. “We provided programs to survive, revive, and thrive. Survivability involves solving these issues by providing SMEs with the right information at the right time, providing them with the right accessibility to finance at the right time, and providing them the accessibility to markets. Back home, we are creating acceleration programs that focus on technologies. Russia did a great job at the World Cup and Qatar is going to do a great job for our World Cup in 2022; this is an open invitation for you to witness ‘amazing,’ which we will do. Sport-tech is an area of focus in Qatar, and for sports technology, blockchain is one of the founding technologies that we are using to store data and help startups and entrepreneurs build on. The same goes for fintech. Last year we launched our fintech acceleration and incubation center. Our next area of focus is energy tech and that is a great area of collaboration that we are having or will be having with Skolkovo to capitalize on technology by providing the required solutions to the energy market.”
To view the full session, go to https://startupvillage.ru/en/live/05-24/tech/houston-we-have-a-problem-post-crisis-business-check-up