THE COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic is an opportunity for start-ups with products that address urgent needs to bypass the usual hurdles and hit the ground running with full government support. This was the key message of speakers at a BusinessWorld Insights online forum moderated by StartUp Village director Carlo Calimon.

“Categorically, this is the best time to be a start-up. There is no bureaucracy, there is extreme urgency, and people seem to be open-minded,” said Winston Damarillo, Talino Venture Labs CEO and Amihan Global Strategies executive chairman.

Mr. Damarillo was a panelist at the BusinessWorld Insights SparkUp Entrep Series, which tackled “The Next Frontier in Innovative Business.”

Mr. Damarillo compared the public health emergency to the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and the 2008 financial crisis, which spawned both winners and losers.

Mr. Damarillo said he is betting on start-ups with business models geared towards seting up pass systems based on QR codes, and streamlining the distribution of financial assistance and donations.

James Lette, Manila Angel Investors Network executive director, added: “This could be the time when the unicorns of tomorrow are being formed,” referring to the term for start-ups that eventually hit the market at valuations of $1 billion an above.

Initially, “the gut reaction was to tighten wallets and see what happens,” said Bit Santos, Kickstart Ventures portfolio director. “Fortunately, there emerged new opportunities. Life has to go on. Consumers are consuming but differently — and you have to figure out in which ways.”

Many of these opportunities are online because of the reluctance to leave the home because of safety fears, and a market has opened up for companies helping small firms complete their online migrations after adopting stopgap measures when the lockdown was announced.

“We realize that our services are essential now more than ever for our clients to continue their business. We are putting all our best efforts in tailor-making solutions for businesses as they pivot,” said Mitch Locsin, PLDT Enterprise first vice-president and sales head.

QBO Innovation Hub director Katrina Chan, meanwhile, said QBO found in a survey that a fifth of start-ups were struggling to meet outsized surges in the e-commerce and delivery services sectors.

A further 60-80% reported that they were adversely affected by the lockdown and are retooling with more robust solutions. “We at QBO are watching this closely and are working with the government to ensure the survival — if not growth — of the community,” she said.

Eunice Braga, external relations manager of IdeaSpace Foundation, said that the start-up system is at an inflection point, particularly those firms dealing with sanitation, health, education, and farming.

Capitalizing on these opportunities, however, will need public-private partnerships. “This pandemic underscores the importance of the government’s role as we reboot. There is a lot of infrastructure we still don’t have. We need a digital ‘Build, Build, Build,’ and I advise start-ups to seek out these opportunities,” Mr. Damarillo said. — Patricia B. Mirasol