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The "MacGyver" technique: How COVID19 is showing us how to launch businesses faster

Updated: Apr 14

It was the night of March the 12th and reality hit home. Spain was in lockdown. The news from Italy, about 10 days ahead in the contagion curve, provided a horrific glimpse of things to come. The body count was piling up. Medical supplies were being stretched. Doctors were being forced to decide which patient would be given access to the scarce life-saving ventilators.


Online, the maker community was being called to arms. Teams across the globe began finding ways to put their know-how and tools to build ventilators. Protofy, a Barcelona-based team of engineers realized they had to do their part.


However, they were concerned with the initiatives that had been receiving traction. Most teams were designing state-of-the-art ventilators, creating 3D printed parts and using advanced components. Far too complex to be deployed quickly and be accessible anywhere in the world.


“We wanted to be able to build them with everyday objects”, said Ignasi Plaza and Lluís Rovira, Protofy’s co-founders, “something anyone can have easy access to”. They identified an unlikely candidate: the motor of a car’s windshield that could be used to power the breathing mechanism.


The team proceeded to acquire one from an old ambulance they had lying around (oh, the irony). Within 24 hours a fully-functioning prototype was unveiled: Oxygen, the open-source ventilator.



Hacking existing products is something that comes natural to young, maverick engineers. Building a device with independent, replaceable parts or “modules” is one of the keys to getting something ready to test it quickly. Such an approach is common in the agile business community and it is a common Business Prototyping technique. At NOBA, we call it the “MacGyver” technique, since it is conceptually similar to the approach taken by the protagonist of a 1980's TV series to save the world. And it is by no means limited to product development.


The “MacGyver” technique means that with a little creativity, anyone can set up a business quickly and without requiring coding skills. Connor Finlayson, a New Zealand-based entrepreneur, set up an entire freelance marketplace, Unicorn Factory, with no coding. He used Webflow, Memberstack, Airtable and Zapier. It took him days instead of the months it would have taken him to code from scratch.


The “MacGyver” technique is also being used to combat the economic effects of Covid19. Oriol Segarra is the founder of Bûmerang, a packaging-as-a-service platform to eliminate single-use plastic in the takeaway and delivery. He feared his customers, restaurants that cater to office workers, would face foreclosures. Within hours, he created Subimos Persianas, a “crowd-donations” platform for loyal consumers to save their favorite restaurants. It is allowing restaurants and local businesses funds in this time of need.


Oriol used Glide Apps, Paypal.me, Airtable and Integromat in combination. Sure, the platform could use a touch of design. Probably, a team of senior developers and a few months of work would have yielded a more impressive platform. But in the COVID19 crisis, the most precious resource is time. Within hours, he was able to launch and improve his platform based on real market feedback.


Even corporations are adopting new ways of working. During confinement, teams have found themselves scrambling to put together a simple meeting. The key is in using different tools to fill the gaps: Skype for video calls. Mural to set up a virtual whiteboard. Google Docs to contribute on a common document and Typeform to submit ideas and suggestions.


In normal times, for a large company to find and implement software to accomplish all these tasks would have taken months, external consultants, and approval from a number of departments.


However, the current situation has changed the rules. Corporations are finding themselves compromising perfection for speed. It is a mindset that is common in successful startups, but very rare during “normal” times.


The COVID19 crises promises to leave many lessons on a variety of levels. For innovation, it is best summed up by the WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies, Michael Ryan: “if you need to be right before you move, you will never win”.


On April 4th, 2020, the Spanish Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices announced the approval of Protofy’s Oxygen ventilator. SEAT, a Spanish car manufacturer, has adapted its facilities to start producing 300 units a day. The number of deaths have started plateauing. The crisis is far from over, but health services are buying time to ramp up capacity and be ready for a new wave. News like Oxygen’s approval offer a glimmer of hope.


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