Startup companies waylaid by pandemic slowdown

Viribus VR Labs scheduled a top-flight launch party to bring the Oklahoma City-based startup to the world.

Viribus VR Labs scheduled a top-flight launch party to bring the Oklahoma City-based startup to the world.

They lined up country music superstar and Oklahoma native Toby Keith to help roll out the product, a virtual reality exercise system for children with cerebral palsy. The May 11 party was to be at the OK Kids Corral, a facility operated by Keith’s foundation.

A national public relations campaign, a nationally syndicated TV spot dedicated to the product launch, even an appearance by Rumble the Bison and Oklahoma City Thunder executives — all had to be put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Chief Innovation Officer Brent Wheelbarger said the company’s timeline called for an outreach event a week ago, but organizers decided to hold that off a few days to “let the dust settle.”

“But clearly the dust hasn’t settled,” Wheelbarger said. “It’s stirred up even worse.”

The nation’s reaction to the pandemic, which includes extreme levels of social distancing and personal isolation, has had broad effects on virtually every business. For startups on the verge of breaking into the market, those effects are amplified.

Because it’s a product launch, Viribus investors expect a big rollout to boost interest and get product sales off to a fast start, Wheelbarger said.

“While we can still put the product to market in May, without the launch event and the publicity it will incur, we’ll be off to a much slower start,” he said.

Despite that, he’s optimistic it will work out. The company is re-calibrating its timeline and online strategy to get the best bang for its buck. The event could be rescheduled for a mid-summer launch.

The Viribus team is taking the unexpected extra time to explore federal innovation grants and other opportunities, and they’re working with Oklahoma-based i2E to find less traditional sources of funding.

Another OKC-based startup, Hightower Clinical, faces its own challenges during the pandemic.

“We are blessed and cursed to be a completely revenue-funded startup,” CEO Bradley Hightower said. “While we had great success in 2019 and have managed to keep our overhead very low, we don’t have a super generous runway to rely on if there is prolonged disruption.”

Hightower Clinical works with physicians to implement clinical research in their offices and offer patients access to new medications and medical devices. It earns revenue by seeing patients and collecting data about their participation in clinical trials, a revenue stream at risk because of COVID-19 uncertainty.

“Patients are apprehensive and even scared to come into the clinic or hospital,” Hightower said. “(Pharmaceutical) and device companies’ supply chains are being affected. There is just so much unknown right now that makes it difficult to react accordingly.”

In the past few days, the company has seen less traffic at doctors’ offices and many patients are canceling study visits. Some studies have suspended new enrollment. But he said some people are sticking with their trials, like those in a post-amputation pain study.

The pandemic creates its own share of opportunities, too. StreamSum is building a unified analytics platform for clients who market within livestreams. Although clients like arenas and sports teams are trying to figure out what to do next, the company is seeing increased traction.


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