BERKELEYSIDE — As the federal government postpones Small Business Week (usually the first week in May) and Berkeley prepares to hunker down for another month under shelter-in-place orders, small businesses across every sector are transforming their services to solve problems during the pandemic — with many finding silver linings in the unexpected challenge.
Adeline Yoga, a one-room Iyengar Yoga studio in South Berkeley’s Lorin District, has seen its attendance more than double after the pandemic began, with clients across the world finding solace through its virtual lessons. The studio has hired back previous instructors and currently has students from Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Canada, as well as its local regulars.
“Our students have told us that we are the one consistent source of sanity, the one source of stability that they can count on during the day,” Studio Director Heather Haxo Phillips said.
The studio re-opened as a virtual experience one day after its initial closure, and Haxo Phillips explained that the pivot to Zoom has worked especially well for Adeline because its form of yoga is rooted in clarity of instruction.
Another business that was all about in-person interactions has similarly pivoted. Massage Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner Beth Baron, at In Touch Therapies, is running classes on self care in the time of COVID-19 on a sliding scale for the duration of the pandemic. Classes cover touch skills to support loved ones, coping with “touch hunger” when sheltering in place alone, and navigating the mental and physical strains of the “New Normal” – masks, vigilance, and video screens. She also offers ergonomics consultations for working at home and self treatment for trigger points.
Other businesses who are more reliant on their physical location, like manufacturers, have found ways to support “essential” functions under shelter-in-place orders.
PolySpectra had a wide array of applications for its specialized materials and 3D-printing services before the pandemic, including dental equipment, consumer electronic devices, and vehicle parts. In the last few months, it has honed in on using its Cyclic Olefin Resin, or COR, to create medical devices that can support hospitals. Its first rollout could be ventilators through a partnership with RespiraWorks.
“I think there could be a scenario where [the pandemic] helps us move into medical devices even faster than we otherwise would have,” said Raymond Weitekamp, founder of polySpectra. He emphasized that it’s important to create reliable, safe equipment, but the urgency of the situation is cutting through red tape for some institutions like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
If the company is able to successfully break into the medical field, Weitekamp one day envisions an “Amazon Prime” landscape where medical devices could be 3D-printed on demand with collaboration by designers and manufacturers, addressing supply-chain issues like those that have blocked healthcare workers from accessing personal protective equipment during the pandemic.
Zenbooth is another local manufacturer that has transitioned to support the healthcare industry by repurposing its resources. The company usually makes office phone booths for workplaces, but is now producing and installing acrylic sneeze-shields at medical facilities. In a partnership with Alameda Health System, Zenbooth installed around 90 shields at workstations in Highland Hospital. They’ve even started to receive applause from healthcare workers when they arrive on scene with the products, admitted David Evans, the company’s head of product.
“Our mission is to make working life more comfortable. During this pandemic we are accomplishing this by creating sneeze guards. When these sneeze guards are installed at hospitals, we have seen that people are noticeably more comfortable and relaxed,” Evans said. “We look forward to continuing to make products that improve life at work.”
Medinas, an online marketplace that already offered a platform for the sale of medical equipment pre-pandemic, doubled down on the procurement side of their business to further help hospitals acquire necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). Downtown Berkeley-based Medinas also launched a volunteer-run Mask-Match that connects people with masks to donate to healthcare workers to those in need.
Along with established companies, budding businesses are entering a world where COVID-19 is a primary consideration for all customers. This year, UC Berkeley’s LAUNCH accelerator hosted a Virtual Launchathon, or hackathon, where several teams pivoted to products that could be used during the pandemic. One winner, Canbiance, was originally working on a CBD-boba tea, but instead produced a new line of CBD hand sanitizer. Winners Sike Insights and CarpeMed Travel designed products to enhance remote work and help tourists find vetted medical resources, respectively.
“We know COVID-19 is affecting many people and businesses – and will continue to for months or years to come,” said Rhonda Shrader, Executive Director of the Berkeley-Haas Entrepreneurship Program, who leads the LAUNCH program. “Aligning the needs of clients and businesses is a particular challenge in the midst of a pandemic, but it is nonetheless the struggle we are facing and will help lay a path for the future.”
The accelerator’s main event, Demo Day, will also be virtual this year. The gathering of entrepreneurs from the entire University of California system usually sees 200 to 300 attendees at the Haas Business School, but Shrader said hundreds more than usual are expected this year with online events, individualized breakout rooms for each team on Zoom, and special investor sessions after the competition. By saving costs on catering and event planning, the competition is now able to split $70,000 of prize money across the five winning teams, instead of the regular $40,000.
“It’s just going to be easier for people to come. I hope it works out for the teams — it’s an experiment,” Shrader said. She also commended the work of student organizers. “Our students are super resilient and focused, I’m so grateful for how calm and problem-solving-focused [they’ve been]. It’s been a real bonding experience.”
Silicon Valley in Your Pocket, an already virtual accelerator program based at The Office coworking space in Downtown Berkeley, offered a free five-week series on Startup Survival Strategies in Challenging Times. One of the companies in the program, Important!, is using the technology platform they created to support pedestrian safety in the age of autonomous vehicles to help communities improve public safety by tracking the penetration of COVID-19 sickness in cities.
Berkeley SkyDeck, a UC Berkeley program that runs an incubator and an accelerator, also in Downtown Berkeley, pivoted to a similar virtual system. In addition to supporting companies financially, SkyDeck also gives them a physical space to create and build in Berkeley. Transitioning interactions to online has been a challenge, Executive Director Caroline Winnett said, but it’s gone better than they expected. SkyDeck now hosts virtual coffee chats, movie nights, and might be introducing an open Zoom channel as a simulated “water cooler.”
“I think the whole startup world is rethinking [remote work], but the basic fact that, if you want to fully take advantage of everything Silicon Valley has to offer, you have to be in Silicon Valley — that won’t change. The next best thing is a powerful Silicon Valley network, which SkyDeck has,” Winnett said, considering a post-pandemic world where international incubees may stay in their home countries, instead of traveling to Berkeley.
Projects from SkyDeck’s teams include: building trusted relationships between buyers and sellers of medical equipment, an affordable robotic delivery service, innovative immunotherapies for diseases, reducing inaccuracies in diagnostic tests, and several more.
“We’re continuing the UC Berkeley mission of innovation for the greater good and finding startups that can really solve the world’s biggest problems. It seems more important than ever.”
Brick and mortar retailers like Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore in the Elmwood are also finding ways to adapt. The store has revamped its website to focus on online recommendations and is fulfilling online orders. Games of Berkeley, who used to host in-person game nights at its shop in the Telegraph District, now runs its popular weekly events, Tuesday Paint Night and Tabletop Thursday, online. The Framers Workshop virtually hosted a children’s painting contest, where the winning artist had their artwork framed by the store – and gave away gift cards to past patrons for sharing photos of their framed artwork that brings joy into their lives. Flora Arte has updated their website to enable customers to more easily browse flower arrangements online and will create personalized orders for clients to suit the occasion. And Fern’s Garden on Solano Ave. is creating curated gift boxes, which they are shipping for free anywhere in the country on a daily basis, including their Mom’s Day boxes, which are almost sold out.
The virtual transition has swept up every industry possible, including those that rely heavily on in-person experience. The performing arts industry has been hit especially hard by shelter-in-place orders, but creatives are finding ways to adjust their programs and build community.
The Shawl-Anderson Dance Center hosted an event with six artists who produced solo works at home, premiering the series on YouTube with a Q&A afterward this past Saturday, May 2. The center has half of its usual 120 classes online each week for youth and adults. Artistic Director Jill Randall said students have taken time to adjust to the online format, but they’ve been overwhelmingly enthusiastic and eager to connect with teachers and get some movement in their day.
Randall is also the chair of the Berkeley Cultural Trust, and highlighted Saturday evening streaming concerts from the Freight and Salvage, rebroadcast productions from Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage, and online workshops from Left Margin Lit. There are also virtual shows from Shoh Art Gallery, Rialto Theater, Berkeley Rep, and smaller theaters across the city.
“I think we’re heading into hybrid territory, [like] when our local theater or music revenues will be able to open to limited capacity, while live-streaming as well,” Randall said, mentioning the complexities of copyright permissions for online use. “We’re such an amazing arts community here… and we’re just going to see new levels of creativity, engagement, and access, in the coming year.”
This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED helps entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley and thrive.
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