Navigating through the valley of death during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Fatma Kaplan
8 min readDec 27, 2021

I could not in my wildest dreams imagine navigating a startup through the valley of death during a global pandemic. Now I’ve been doing it for two years, with no end in sight. The COVID-19 pandemic feels like a time loop that keeps resetting itself every 3–4 months with a new variant. The most recent is the Omicron.

In mid-March 2019, when the COVID-19 shutdown happened, we thought the two-month shutdown was not a big problem. We had dealt with hurricanes in Florida. A public health emergency couldn’t be much worse. So, we reorganized our workflow to give priority to work we could do from home; business milestones, data analysis, and planning the next phase of R&D. We made plans for four to six months in case the disaster or the recovery lasted longer. Based on the information we had, Pheronym would be on time for both business and technical milestones within six months. Two months into the disaster, it became clear to us that the pandemic may last longer than we planned.

The following four months we continued with our initial plan with some revisions. We got a lucky break and Pheronym’s NSF SBIR Phase I grant was recommended for funding! We were right on top of our business milestones with the NSF I-Corps Beat-The-Odd-Boot Camp in May — June, which we accomplished using zoom meetings. We also participated in the NSF I-Corps National Teams program, completing over 100 more customer interviews, which improved our business plan by informing where Pheronym fits in the agribusiness ecosystem. We identified our beachhead market and refined our value proposition and more in August-September. Then we followed up with additional 34 interviews together with Keck Graduate Institute students. Three to four months into the pandemic, we realized that full-time work in the lab may not be possible due to social distancing. We had to revise the timeline for our technical milestones. When we made the plans at the beginning of the pandemic, we expected to be able to work full-time to catch up for the technical milestones, not half-time due to social distancing. We needed to start working immediately towards the technical milestones. We…

Dr. Fatma Kaplan