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OpenAI CEO offers funding for startups tackling coronavirus

Coronavirus is fast becoming a new boom area for Silicon Valley

Thomas Macaulay
Story by
Thomas Macaulay

Thomas is a reporter focused on AI in all its iterations. He's particularly interested in the spaces where technology converges with politics, culture and human identity. Thomas is a reporter focused on AI in all its iterations. He's particularly interested in the spaces where technology converges with politics, culture and human identity.

As stock markets continue to tank globally, startup founders raising money are starting to worry. A notable exception is those with services related to coronavirus, who are enjoying a surge in demand and new investment opportunities.

Sam Altman, the CEO of artificial intelligence research lab OpenAI, created another financial stream yesterday by offering to fund COVID-19 projects.

In a blogpost announcing his plan, Altman said that as there will soon be enough testing capacity, he is seeking startups that could quickly produce a lot of ventilators, masks or gowns, screening existing drugs for effectiveness, novel approaches to vaccines, and new therapeutics that big pharma companies are unlikely to develop.

Altman isn’t pledging to provide all the funding himself; instead, he has asked startups to fill out a public spreadsheet that any potential investor can read.

[Read: AI sent first coronavirus alert, but underestimated the danger]

Within a day of its creation, that spreadsheet had already attracted submissions from around 50 existing companies and a dozen ideas, from at-home detection tests to ozone generators that can quickly fumigate aircraft.

Altman, who last year stepped down as president of Silicon Valley‘s iconic accelerator Y Combinator to concentrate on OpenAI, has already started splashing his own cash on startups tackling coronavirus.

This week, he invested in Helix Nanotechnologies, Massachusetts-based company that has spent the last two years developing a new cancer vaccine, but will now pivot to focusing on the new mutations of coronavirus that could emerge next year.

Silicon Valley’s work with the White House

The White House has pleaded for Silicon Valley to develop tech that can tackle coronavirus, but the US government’s slow and ineffective response to the pandemic has been widely criticized by the tech sector.

“Silicon Valley has wanted the government to take this seriously for a while,” Altman told The Wall Street Journal. “I still think an aggressive containment strategy would be great. But given that that didn’t happen fast enough we need to think about Plan B.”

Altman’s own suggestions are a month-long shutdown funded by a $1,000 lump sum for the government to everyone to cover their expenses, and a deferral on rent and mortgage payment. In addition, he has called for widespread testing and encouragement of altruism.

He also has a vaguely optimistic prediction for the pandemic: “The first week of June will be surprisingly normal.”

Probably best not to get our hopes up, however. By June, we may merely have entered a new normal in the age of coronavirus.

Published March 16, 2020 — 12:11 UTC

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