Episode 15

A start-up’s guide to braving the Corona crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only placing unprecedented stress on the global healthcare system, but also challenging some of the most fundamental paradigms of modern business culture.

Entire nations are going into lockdown, international travel has come to a grinding halt, and much of our daily work routine is shifting from the office into our homes.

“What was unthinkable just two months ago, for example border restrictions in the Schengen area, is now reality,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated last week– implying that even the fundamentals of modern pluralism are not immune to the economic aftershocks of a global pandemic.

Globalization has, he cautioned, not only paved the way for the rapid spread of the coronavirus, but also fostered deep interdependence between businesses and nations – making them more vulnerable to the unexpected.

That vulnerability is especially salient among the start-up community. Face-to-face meetings have been all but banished and supply chains severely disrupted. Early reports from China – which is now embarking on the long and arduous road to recovery – also indicate that access to venture capital is drying up as investors need to “re-evaluate the market altogether once the dust settles.”

So how do growth-stage start-ups, especially those operating on a business-to-business footing, react to a world void of face time, funding and the one commodity they thrive on most – momentum?

Double-down on agility

To us at X-ZELL, the first response to the ‘triple threat’ of supply chain disruption, travel constraint and lack of face-to-face interaction has been to double-down on the inherent strengths of a modern start-up – organisational flexibility and agility.

Often borne from necessity, young organisations like X-ZELL are used to working in small, cross-functional teams that are required to make quick decisions and move fast. That ability to transcend traditional corporate boundaries and pivot at the micro level is now becoming a crucial survival skill – and could be a key differentiator when scaling up post-crisis.

Lead from the front

But there’s a catch. To be successful, agility has to go hand-in-hand with alignment – especially when the team is physically separated. That’s why vision, values and strategy have never been more important than they are now – and why protecting them from the chaos around us must be any leadership team’s first priority.

Importantly, retaining a strong sense of purpose and stability is not just an inbound challenge. Customers, investors and collaborators are equally interested in seeing how leadership teams react to a crisis. Are you being transparent? Are you living up to your own mission and values? Are you taking responsibility?

At X-ZELL, we believe that if micro-level agility goes hand-in-hand with transparent communication and committed leadership, crisis will ultimately cement culture and set the tone for a swift and smooth recovery.

Do the math

Next to safeguarding the unique social contract that is corporate culture and, by extension, agility, part of our crisis response has been to find the right balance between financial prudence and continued investment in mission-critical projects – not only to make sure we will survive the day, but also to be ready to scale up quickly when the dust has settled (after all, med tech has been on a growth trajectory in 2019, with early cancer detection widely considered the most promising sub-segment).

The reason why we prioritise prudence is as simple as it is true. As Dan Rosen, long-time chairman of Seattle-based start-up investment group Alliance of Angels, recently put it, “if you don’t survive, there is no upside.”

But while we openly question every assumption about your business related to cash flow, fundraising, forecasting, marketing, headcount and capital spending, it does not mean we blindly slash expenses. Instead, we focus on redirecting existing resources to fast-track projects that are unaffected by the crisis and actively explore how we can part of a solution to the COVID-19 problem.

Keep executing

X-ZELL’s Thailand team, for example, has freed up staff and resources to source urgently needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and distribute it to hospitals across the Bangkok metropolitan region.

As part of the project, X-ZELL’s local leadership team is working at the frontlines to ensure hospitals in need get preferred access quickly, while our medtech department is doing overtime to ensure rapid approval by local authorities and sufficient supply chain capacity.

Supported by our Singapore staff, X-ZELL’s Thai team is also exploring avenues to bring a new COVID-19 quick-test to the Kingdom, and with it some much-needed relief to the local healthcare system. Again, all hands are on deck to fast-track the project alongside a stringent day-to-day product development schedule.

In addition to taking tangible action to reduce the pressure on the Thai medical community, our Singapore-based marketing team has been offering free consulting services to fellow start-ups, collaborators and even medical practitioners from around the globe – ranging from content creation and marketing audits through to full-fledged media training.

Put strategy to work

Importantly, all of our COVID-19-specific responses align with X-ZELL’s long-term strategic outlook, which has been updated to adequately reflect the volatility of the situation.

To us at X-ZELL, being able to draw on such a document – as fluid as it may be – is key to staying on course in the long-term. As the great Randy Pausch put it in a now famous 2007 lecture on time management, you can always change your plan, but only if you have one.

Having strategic guidelines in place to fall back upon during periods of constant change may also prove vital to maintaining morale and motivation. After all, there is no “coming back to the core,” as Amy Friedlander-Hoffman – Head of Experiential Marketing at Uber – coined it in a 2018 HBR interview, if there is no core to return to.

With that in mind, we consider our contribution to solving the COVID-19 problem a natural extension of our mandate to make the world a safer, healthier, and more equal place. It does not, however, affect our commitment to the millions of patients worldwide who desperately need more reliable solutions to detect cancer early, when there is still time to react.

Stay vigilant

Plans might change, but there will always be one constant at X-ZELL – our people. They are our most important asset, which is why all actions taken across all departments must be in line with local health and safety regulations, as well as the World Health Organisation’s extensive guidelines on Mental Health And Psychosocial Considerations During The COVID-19 Outbreak.

At X-ZELL, we may not be able to control the COVID-19 outbreak, but we are able to control how we respond to it. By keeping our people safe. By remaining agile and focusing on execution. By living up to our vision and value system. And, most importantly, by communicating transparently what we know – and what we don’t.

To us, that’s what crisis management and leadership are all about.



In Singapore, where X-ZELL is headquartered, COVID-19 has been top of mind for many weeks now, with the local government taking strong and decisive action ever since the first cases reached our shores. Along with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, Singapore instituted strict travel controls as early as January and systematically tracked infected individuals as well as the people they had been in contact with. Until today, it continues to provide a transparent, daily account of the spread of the virus and measures taken to curb it – allowing organisations like X-ZELL to continue innovating in a safe and sustainable fashion.

Next-generation cytology

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