Pheronym’s initial COVID-19 disaster response

Nothing could have prepared us for this

Being a preseed/seed biotech startup in Agriculture is a challenge all by itself. The COVID-19 pandemic makes it even harder. Four weeks ago we were informed that the COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in the US and we needed to self-quarantine and start social distancing. This was an incomparable challenge to our resilience.

Pheronym’s founders (Dr. Fatma Kaplan and Mr. Karl Schiller) lived many years in Florida and were accustomed to dealing with natural disasters (hurricanes). We learned to continue to work without any disruption, take care of ourselves and families. The State of Florida had disaster plans and shelters already in place. We knew when the hurricanes were coming, what degree of damage to expect, how long we would stay at home (distance work), and whether we needed to go to a shelter/stop the work temporarily. All of this information helped us to plan and how to utilize our time efficiently during the many potential disruptions. If we needed to stop work for a period of time, we knew what to do.

I (Fatma) worked for the USDA-ARS. Many of my colleagues went through government shutdowns/furloughs where they were not allowed to work. During my time at the USDA, the government almost shutdown, so everyone got training for how to run a biotechnology research program during a government shutdown, where we would not be allowed to go to work and conduct experiments. I never thought this training would be useful, but here we are.

The first confirmed incidence of community spread COVID-19 in the US occurred in Solano County, California, not far from Davis where Pheronym operates R&D. I set up a temporary shutdown of laboratory work while maintaining the essential culture that would be ready to go when things come back to normal. My co-founder and I knew how to deal with unavoidable work disruptions, so we went about our usual disaster preparations. All disasters are bad, but nothing is like COVID-19.

I don’t think anyone was prepared for the kind of disruption caused by the COVID-19 disaster. The disruption was not just to Pheronym or businesses in our state, it was in all 50 states altogether. It was disrupting the entire world. It was like an alien invasion of our planet, disrupting our lives globally.

COVID-19 is worse than the deadliest hurricane in the US, Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, this time we are not trying to clean up some fallen trees or fix property damage caused by the winds and rain. This time we are worrying that our friends, family, and colleagues are getting sick and dying. Our hospitals do not have enough beds or equipment to take care of the sick.

In addition, all of the institutions that we rely on to function in our daily life are gone overnight. For example, the schools are closed, daycares are closed, eating out is no longer a possibility, getting together more than a group of two is not OK. We can’t find a simple toilet paper or flour at the grocery stores.

These are all things we have taken for granted, and they are gone. It is like living in a science fiction story where our planet is invaded and we lost everything except for our virtual world. We now realize that the virtual world is not enough. Now we have to figure out how to survive and thrive when everything is taken from us. We, humans, are very resilient, I believe we can do it together.

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