A venture capitalist got coronavirus. It gave him ideas about protecting health and the economy
Founder Collective’s David Frankel says the pandemic could bring innovation that improves public health, but with a trade-off on privacy
Like many other people with COVID-19, David Frankel spent days laid out with coughing fits, fever, and headaches. As the symptoms began to recede, he began to imagine with some clarity what the economy might look like as it recovers from the shock of the fast-moving pandemic.
Frankel, a venture capitalist with the Cambridge early-stage investment firm Founder Collective, says tech companies will soon be trying to meet needs that might have seemed unlikely before the coronavirus turned the world upside-down.
He sees big potential for innovations in fields including teleconferencing and touchless public accommodations, but believes the biggest change coming from the crisis might be a shift in public attitudes about the monitoring and sharing of real-time health data.
He’s been detailing on social media his own experience with the virus in hopes that more people will be more cognizant of the threat.
“It just dawned on me a week ago that people in my circle were not taking this seriously,” Frankel said. “It was like it was happening elsewhere.”
The 49-year-old, who was an early investor in companies such as BuzzFeed, PillPack, and SeatGeek, said he was one of several people to come down with symptoms of COVID-19 after a family gathering in Connecticut.
Frankel’s case was confirmed by a test last week, two weeks after the event and after he had already been through the worst of the symptoms. But while he waited, Frankel said, he proceeded on the assumption that he had the illness. That meant shutting himself in the study of his Brookline home, and interacting with his wife and kids mostly by video chat.
He said it is becoming obvious that the national experiment with remote work and teleconferencing will have profound lasting effects. He expects innovation to happen based on the explosion in the ways that people have been using existing services. For instance, Zoom isn’t designed for all-day communication between members of a household, and other products might be able to better meet that need.
Frankel said heightened awareness about the potential presence of germs on public surfaces isn’t going to go away, either. He anticipates automatic doors and touchless services in heavily traveled places are likely to become more common.
But a major shift that Frankel projects — a growing public acceptance of the sharing and monitoring of personal health data — raises important questions about privacy.
While temperature screening has been used in some public places here and around the world, Frankel’s experience suggests that more use of wearable sensors could provide useful in-depth data.
Founder Collective has invested in a couple of companies making wearables ― including the Boston fitness and recovery tracker WHOOP ― and Frankel was wearing several products as he dealt with coronavirus. He said some of the patterns appeared to show warning signs that predicted times when he would feel worse.
Though Frankel noted that scientific research would have to back up his hunches, he believes there could be technological innovations that allow people ― or potentially employers or even governments ― to track health data to look for signs of danger.
He said there’s a potential for social change akin to what happened with public safety after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The current extent of airport screening adds some inconvenience to air travel, he noted, but it’s hard to imagine flying without it.
The privacy trade-off involving data tracking would be significant, Frankel said, but it’s possible that better health monitoring throughout the population could help spot trends early enough that we might be able to avoid a similar economic shutdown in the event of a future outbreak.
“It’s a case of how much will we bear around health,” he said. “What it starts to get into is privacy, rather than inefficiency. The question is whether I’ll share my body temperature on a daily basis.”