How to pivot in the pandemic: Lessons from Australian entrepreneurs

Amid pandemic uncertainty four Aussie exporters turned to innovation – with impressive results.

The global pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges for businesses, with no ‘right’ way to respond. Some businesses reduced costs to remain afloat. Others found new ways to grow.

For these four Australian exporters, innovation was the answer. They’ve ramped up their R&D to create new products, seize opportunities and lead the way as innovators in their fields.

Engineering a life-saving device

Safearth redirected its engineering expertise to develop an emergency COVID-19 ventilator in just weeks.

Safearth is a specialist electrical engineering company that improves electrical safety across Australia and internationally through consulting, training and software. It also manufactures earthing system-testing equipment.

Based in Newcastle, Safearth’s engineers travelled extensively to serve customers worldwide. When COVID-19 hit, the company’s main international sales and promotional channels disappeared. And after opening an office in Canada in 2019, plans to open a UK office and grow in North America and Europe were put on the backburner.

So the business stepped up its R&D program to develop products outside its traditional focus. In March 2020, Safearth developed an emergency COVID-19 ventilator alongside two other businesses.

Safearth’s team created a functional prototype within just two weeks. It’s now been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and may also be exported.

“We’re incredibly proud – although not surprised – about our team’s ability and openness to explore new ideas,” says Stephen Palmer, Managing Director. “This can-do attitude in unprecedented times displays the Australian spirit of having a good go.”

Advice for other exporters: “Your capability probably far exceeds your confidence. Many of our overseas business associates are surprised by the level of capability and the unique approach of Australians to solving real problems in the world.”

Improving people’s health around the world

Natural Evolution redirected a cancelled order into an innovative new health product for customers worldwide. This helped it maintain cashflow while retaining its entire team.

Cairns-based small business Natural Evolution converts food waste into health products. For examples, it turns unsellable green bananas into the world’s most potent resistant starch supplement – which means a starch supplement that is resistant to digestion.

In early 2020, the pandemic caused a major customer in China to cancel its order. With cashflow at risk and a huge amount of raw powder material with nowhere to go, founders Krista and Rob Watkins had to act fast.

They had already started work on developing Australia’s first symbiotic vegan supplement for gut health. So they fast-tracked their efforts, working with Australian universities and researchers to launch the product in July 2020.

The supplement is made from waste agricultural produce, giving farmers an alternative source of income.

“The product that went unsold has now been absorbed into a new product line that is widely available in Australia, and has just begun its export journey into Europe and the US,” says Krista.

Advice for other exporters: “A bump in the road should never stop you from reaching your destination. Take time, assess the situation, maybe even map out a new route, but keep going!”

Lighting the way to safer spaces

When sales dropped, specialist lighting manufacturer Coolon pivoted to research and development (R&D), developing ground-breaking technologies and growing its team of specialists.

Coolon designs and manufactures high-performing lighting products for customers across multiple sectors, including defence, mining, industrial, commercial and architecture & design. When the pandemic hit, customers’ budgets were slashed and sales dropped.

“No one was buying lights unless they were absolutely essential, and then they would engage in a price war,” says Andrew Orkin, Business Development Manager.

Rather than trying to compete on price and outsource production overseas, Victoria-based Coolon increased R&D spend to accelerate innovation projects.

Lighting gets smart

Coolon is now preparing to launch its ground-breaking ‘smart lighting system’ that uses sensors to detect and report on activity or environmental change in a space. The lights automatically connect, forming a wireless network. This will enable features such as asset tracking, machine monitoring and personnel location.

“This technology has the potential to completely redefine the workings of large and complex mining and industrial sites,” says Andrew.

Coolon is now projecting significant sales growth in the near future.

“Being able to keep all of our production in the country throughout a pandemic and an economic crisis is something we are incredibly proud of,” says Andrew.

Advice for other exporters: "Don't succumb to market pressure and give in to aggressive price-matching. Stick to your value proposition and look for ways to expand it."

Optimising supply chains from afar

Prophit Systems developed a way of remotely delivering its supply chain solutions, and built a global reputation as an industry leader.

Prophit Systems delivers supply chain solutions that help manufacturing companies worldwide run more effectively. When the pandemic hit, the business could no longer deliver its services onsite, which included auditing, training, customising and installing solutions.

Prophit Systems had also just signed a deal in the Philippines – its first in that market – which it couldn’t afford to lose. So it needed to design a new way of remotely installing its solution and training staff in a new country.

Becoming leaders in the field

Staff worked long hours and used online tools to quickly adapt. They have now remotely trained more than 100 people to use their solutions.

“We implemented a complete planning and scheduling system in a factory we have never stepped a foot inside,” says Tim Gray, Founder and Managing Director. “The implementation was a complete success and is our new model moving forward.”

Meanwhile, Tim became known in the media as the go-to supply chain expert. This has led to several exciting opportunities, including presenting at NASA.

“We are proud to be a privately owned Australian business that is now being recognised as having the best supply chain software and systems in the world,” says Tim.

Advice for other exporters: “We Aussies are open for business! If you stay focused on delivering quality solutions to serve your customers impeccably, you can overcome obstacles and achieve greatness in your field.”

Related stories