Before the pandemic, Yiying Lu was known for her work designing the Twitter Fail Whale and the dumpling and boba tea emojis. In the past few weeks, Lu said she was called to a higher purpose. From her apartment in San Francisco, she toiled away in a Slack channel with two dozen people she has never met to create a free website called Corona Carecard. It asks Americans to buy gift cards to their favorite local shops, providing a much-needed source of income while stores are shuttered.
Lu is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of workers across Silicon Valley trying to, in their words, hack the virus. The pandemic has stirred up a missionary zeal throughout Silicon Valley. Apple and Google put aside a decadelong rivalry to form an alliance to track the spread of infections. Facebook and Salesforce.com are procuring millions of masks for health care workers. Jeff Bezos is donating $100 million and Jack Dorsey $1 billion.
In other corners of the Valley, people are developing test kits and possible vaccines, as well as software to treat the social and economic maladies of the pandemic. Smaller companies have created entirely new business models in response to the virus. The projects can be as simple as an app reminding people to wash their hands or one that connects users with barbers in Brooklyn for lessons on how to cut their hair at home.
There’s a feeling among some technologists that some of their work in recent years had become mercenary or frivolous — attempts to capitalize on a prolonged tech boom with apps that cater to the whims of wealthy coastal elites, rather than meeting the urgent needs of the rest of the world.
“Facebook, Snapchat and the last decade of tech has brought us together in some ways but has also pushed us further away from real life,” said Lu, a former creative director at venture capital firm 500 Startups. “The virus is a warning for people in the Bay Area that we can’t just come here and take and take. We have to give, too.”
Tech companies aren’t spared from the crisis. Some are cutting jobs and wages, and startups are struggling to raise funds and keep the lights on. But many tech workers can afford to take the hit and see an opportunity to do good — or at least, virtue signal to their peers.
Lu’s gift card site was built using a $1,000 grant from 1517 Fund, a firm backed by Peter Thiel. The fund gave grants to various upstarts that took part in an 800-person incubator to create virus-related projects in two weeks. Another participant in the program, Martin Greenberg, is developing a new kind of surgical mask. “I felt like the government wasn’t doing anything, and at least I could try to accomplish something,” he said.
Some tech companies are falling short of the public’s expectations. Warehouse and delivery workers at Amazon.com have said the company isn’t doing enough to keep them safe. Uber drivers have said the company is failing to provide adequate ways to earn a living as ridership plummets. Taken together, there’s little indication the wave of do-gooderism will rob momentum from the consumer and government recoil known as the techlash.
The industry has its share of tone-deaf commentators promoting the use of unproven drugs to treat the virus and other forms of ill-advised solutionism. Even an earnest reflection on the opportunity to contribute can highlight a disconnect between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.
“I don’t want to overplay the tech hand, but we have the skills to build brands, companies and websites and scale really fast,” said Josh Elman, a former executive at Robinhood, Facebook and Greylock Partners. “If you work in the restaurant industry, you can feed the people around you. In tech, you can build something that helps a thousand or a million people.”
It’s true that such grandiosity can deliver good results when applied to a global crisis. One project that raised $1.6 million started with a request to buy dinner for hospital workers. Frank Barbieri, president of Walmart’s Art.com, said a friend at UCSF Medical Center asked him and Ryan Sarver, a venture capitalist, to buy pizzas for hospital staff. That quickly morphed into a widely shared Google document where hospital workers could request meals from volunteers. By the end of March, the project attracted 200 software designers and engineers who turned it into a nationwide network called Frontline Foods.
Many of these projects offer an antidote to the helplessness people are experiencing, Barbieri said. “We’ve tapped into this feeling of ‘there’s nothing I can do to be productive and useful,'” he said. “Well, here’s something you can do.”
One thing venture capitalists can offer is money. Y Combinator, the Valley’s most prominent business incubator, said it pulled together more than $30 million from a consortium of investors to put in coronavirus-related startups. (Willett Advisors, the investment arm for the personal and philanthropic assets of Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, is an investor in Y Combinator startups.)
Early-stage fund 50 Years earmarked $1 million for investments related to COVID-19 in $25,000 uncapped convertible notes, a form of financing many VCs reject because it’s akin to writing a blank check. “We wanted to push companies to go faster,” said co-founder Seth Bannon. “This is a wake-up call, especially in Silicon Valley, where life is pretty good and everyone gets paid a lot, that we’ve lost focus on what matters.”
Some of Bannon’s investments are heeding the call. Helix Nanotechnologies, a startup that was focused on cancer therapeutics, is now trying to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Chemicals-maker Solugen is mixing hand sanitizer. To encourage lasting habits, there’s an app called Covid Promises that asks people to record the behaviors they pledge to change and will send them reminders after the health crisis subsides.
“When someone works on something truly important, it’s hard to go back to something like ad tech, because squeezing more dollars out of ad clicks suddenly feels empty,” said Bannon. How long will this sense of purpose last? “Maybe 20% of people in Silicon Valley don’t go back to frivolous stuff?”