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8 April 2020 - Interview by Ute Leinigen (WTSH)

Letters from Silicon Valley: Life and work during the coronavirus shutdown


A north German’s take on the coronavirus crisis in California

Tim Ole Jöhnk knows Silicon Valley inside out.
Tim Ole Jöhnk knows Silicon Valley inside out. © WFB/Rathke

As in many other places around the world, the coronavirus epidemic has led to a complete shutdown of everyday life in the United States. For Tim Ole Jöhnk, Director of the Northern Germany Innovation Office (NGIO), a joint initiative by Bremeninvest and other agencies in northern Germany, this has meant drastic changes.

We asked him how he is organising his daily life – and how north German companies can take advantage of the NGIO’s services despite the crisis.

Tim, the whole of California is in lockdown. How does that affect you?

Jöhnk: The current situation feels unfamiliar, unsettling and often a bit unreal, as I suppose it does for many other people around the world. We’ve been in lockdown for ten days now (and will be at least until 7 April). San Francisco and the Bay Area were the first regions of the US to take this step, which was still regarded as extreme by many only a week ago. Now everyone is very happy that the local authorities took that decision. Most people in the Palo Alto area are abiding by the restrictions. You hardly see anyone out in the streets – that’s quite unusual.

My wife and I live on the Stanford campus. The university sent most students home before last term’s final exams. It is already clear that any teaching in the next term is going to be online only. The only students allowed to remain on campus are graduate students, that is MA and PhD students. Undergraduates are only permitted in exceptional circumstances. The campus feels deserted. My wife and I have turned our dining room into an office and are making the best of the situation. We frequently use Zoom and other online services to talk to friends and family all over the world.

There are only a few shops open here, such as supermarkets and pharmacies. Many foods are still impossible to find. The long delivery times for providers like AmazonFresh (Amazon’s food delivery service) indicate that many people are now using these online services. AmazonFresh normally delivers in two hours, or the next day at the very latest. But currently you have to order about three days in advance.

Campus of Stanford University - today almost deserted (varchive image)
Campus of Stanford University - today almost deserted (archive image)

What does your working day look like?

Jöhnk: The first week felt a bit strange even for me – someone who regularly works from home anyway. There were hardly any emails, because isolation measures were beginning in Germany as well. But now everything is pretty much back to normal. Every morning I have my regular meetings with existing NGIO partners and with my colleague Kristin Asmussen. At the moment I’m visiting virtual pitching events nearly every day. The venture capital scene is focusing primarily on the health care and retail sectors. At NGIO we are currently trying to find the most suitable formats to allow people in Germany to access these events. Fortunately we already have a well-developed infrastructure, since many local companies tend to work virtually even in normal times. So now all the appointments I have in my calendar are online ones.

How can you (still) support companies?

Jöhnk: Companies and employees around the world have been forced to digitalise their internal processes pretty much overnight. At the moment, the main aim of most companies is to keep their core business going, of course. But as soon as we’ve come through the current crisis we can help them in a more targeted search for technologies that support businesses, e.g. by optimising their processes and making them more efficient.

For example, most companies will have heard of Slack, Asana and Zoom by now. During the initial reaction, these applications are playing a decisive role in bringing teams that normally work together in an office into the virtual world. I believe that now is the ideal time to take the next step as well. For instance, there are simple AI applications (or even simple bots) that use communication in Slack and other messenger applications to accumulate certain data, process it, sort it into specific categories or perform specific actions. They can simplify the work of virtual teams.

Assessment: What are we all, and Silicon Valley in particular, going to learn from this crisis?

Jöhnk: One answer is that innovation must go on! I don’t mean that we can solve every problem with technology. But I do believe that companies that already had an active (digital) transformation strategy before the pandemic are better able to adjust to rapidly changing situations. Many local firms are using their own platforms to make a contribution. For example, Zoom is offering all schools in the US, South Korea and Italy unlimited free licences. Employees who normally deal with acquisition and customer success are now helping school districts to adapt lesson plans and to add extra functionality to their own platforms.

Other AI companies have realised that their algorithms can help to identify districts that need assistance and then send help or resources (e.g. food deliveries). Many are reinventing themselves overnight. But of course that doesn’t apply to all of them. Coronavirus will change Silicon Valley and the venture capital scene. In recent years, corporate venture capital funds have poured billions of US dollars into the Valley . All of these funds are now leaving or are no longer investing. That will have a lasting negative impact on the level of trust in those funds.

In social terms, Silicon Valley MUST learn from this experience. Unemployment is rising rapidly. Many people have lost their jobs overnight. There is hardly any protection against dismissal, and some firms even try to get around the statutory unemployment insurance. As in the rest of the US, many people here tend to struggle from one month to the next and are living on credits cards. So this situation is a devastating blow for thousands of people, especially for those working in the gig economy (e.g. for Uber, Lyft or Doordash), who are the worst affected. Fortunately, within a very short time there were numerous privately organised Google Sheets offering help (such as cash, food or accommodation) shared by thousands of people. In many districts the community has been coming together to compensate for the unwillingness or inability of politicians to help out. But I do worry about regions of the US (and at home) where there aren’t many people who can help out at the moment.

And finally – do you have specific enquiries relating to the crisis?

Jöhnk: Not enquiries, but ideas. At the NGIO, we are particularly well placed to introduce small and medium-sized businesses to technologies that enable them to optimise and expand the digital structures they’ve been forced to develop. This could be showing retailers simple options for building their own community and engaging with customers through new formats; or making the manufacturing industry’s logistic processes visible and then optimising them; or simply improving any company’s internal use of technology.

Thank you for talking to us, Tim.

Foto Bild Andreas Gerber

Andreas Gerber

Team Leader Bremeninvest

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