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Inside the Silicon Valley ‘brain trust’ taking aim at COVID-19

Start-ups combine forces to find solutions to COVID-19 problems.

On the screen are the founders and CEOs of some of the newest Silicon Valley startups. Just a few months ago, these were the people devising ways to disrupt industries under the umbrella of StartX, a Stanford-affiliated incubator known for mentoring future dot-com tycoons.

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"It's a brain trust," said Dr. Mitesh Rao, the CEO of OMNY Health, whose platform helps hospital systems coordinate critical equipment and medicine distribution so resources can find their way to those most in need.

"One of the biggest challenges in health care is that things are pretty fragmented, and that's been the norm," Rao continued. "Now there's been a move toward less fragmentation and more collaboration -- I think that's what's going to make the difference."

The companies have, to varying degrees, made progress in their line of work. Some with existing platforms or technology have simply accelerated efforts. Others have completely pivoted, hoping to make contributions to the cause -- and in the process carve out a new lane for business.

The cumulative efforts of the StartX companies are ambitious, and include some of the major issues vexing the health care industry: Streamlining supply chains and the logistics of moving critical equipment, expanding the availability of testing, developing new antiviral treatment options, and advancing telemedicine capabilities.

ABC News was granted access to one of their weekly video conferences last week, where CEOs -- a close-to-even split of men and women -- bounced ideas off one another for combating the array of problems that the coronavirus has spawned.

In the normally hyper-competitive world of Silicon Valley, the gathering was remarkably collaborative -- something that makes StartX and its member companies unique, those affiliated with the group said. There were frequent overtures for support: "I wonder if we could work together on that," one founder suggested. "Does anyone know of a clinic that would be interested in participating?" another asked.

"Typically, in the context of startups, generally partnerships aren't well-regarded because it's not clear how two startups with a high risk of failure would work together. In this case, it's a little easier," Dr. Nirav Shah, the CEO of Sentinel Healthcare, told ABC News. "Together, we offer more than one could alone."

Sentinel launched an app last month for remote monitoring of quarantined patients and health care workers who have been exposed. The company also developed a drive-thru, contact-less COVID-19 test-monitoring system using a scannable barcode and software to assist in contact tracing.

But as a member of StartX, and because of its existing relationships with health care systems, Sentinel also has been in discussions with another StartX company, called GEn1E Lifesciences, to help identify patients for an upcoming clinical trial for their acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) treatment.

"For them, that's a big deal," Shah said. "One of the biggest challenges in the clinical trials is how slow it is, how hard it is to get patients enrolled, and how hard it is to find them."

The helping hand from Sentinel is not lost on GEn1E, whose founder, Dr. Ritu Lal, sees a silver lining for her company in the fog of pandemic. Many of those infected with the coronavirus contract ARDS (Acute respiratory distress syndrome), and she says her prior work on the disease gives her a leg up in the race for a treatment.

"The bigger picture is we see the ARDS approval as our stepping stone to the larger diseases we can work on," Lal said. "So if anything, this will be helping us in terms of moving faster and in terms of what we want to do with our company."

In Silicon Valley, the venture investing model rules and every big idea comes with a big gamble -- and big opportunity. These executives, and many others in the digital space, are banking on that same venture capital mindset that fueled the dot-com revolution, to start solving many of the most vexing coronavirus riddles.

"Venture investing is like playing craps," Adrian Aoun, an angel investor, former Google executive, and founder of another health care startup called Forward, which is not affiliated with StartX. "If I'm going to put 10 bets out there, seven or eight of them might crash and burn. One or two might be middling. But one might be, like, 'Wow.'"

And to be clear, while a major driver behind these efforts is helping halt the spread of a global pandemic, StartX remains tied to the Silicon Valley mold -- and it's a hallmark of the tech industry: money matters. And all the usual players in such efforts are involved.

Earlier this month, StartX organized a special investor pitch database, called "demo day," for prospective venture capitalists to review the incubator's stable of companies. In two-minute video pitches, company founders and CEOs made their case to prospective investors, describing how their new or evolving coronavirus-related technology might take in hopes of attracting an influx of cash.

"There's a commercial motivation," said Fritz Lanman, a longtime Silicon Valley insider and CEO of ClassPass. "Yes, people in Silicon Valley tend to be dreamers, they tend to be altruists, they tend to want to have a positive impact. But it's also good when there's a commercial incentive aligned with that."

Others have opted to forego payment in favor of more quickly disseminating their platform. Mon Ami, for example, an app that connects young people to senior citizens, is offering free phone check-ins and grocery deliveries for seniors at home in isolation. OMNY, the medical equipment data service, is also offering its platform to hospitals without charge.

"We want this platform to be used," Rao from OMNY said.

Wout Brusselaers, the CEO at Deep 6 AI, a health care data analytics firm, also expressed interest in offering its platform at no cost to the University of California health system. He raised the idea during their weekly video conference.

Another voice jumped in: "Do you have a contact at U.C.?"

"I don't directly," Brusselaers replied.

"I can hook you up."

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map