Editor’s note: RIoT, the internet of things users group based in Raleigh, on Friday hosted a webinar with numerous thought leaders in the NC tech community to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. WRAL TechWire requested RIoT to share a recap of the event so the tech community at large could learn about points discussed.

RALEIGH – As we ride the wave of the COVID-19 crisis, it seems almost all news has been bad news. At RIoT, we have the privilege of being included in a different and more hopeful narrative about what is being done to mitigate COVID-19 and better plan for our future. So much is being done behind the scenes that is not shared on the news. We’ve seen incredible minds from companies both small and large come together in new ways and we wanted to share that with our community.

On March 20th, RIoT held a live web conference, “How Technology & Data Combat Pandemics,” featuring industry expert panelists in the tech and data space. Discussion centered on technology strategies for response and recovery to COVID-19 as well as novel uses of data to predict and prevent the next pandemic.

(You can listen to recordings of the webinar on the RIoT Underground podcast, available on Spotify, iTunes, and Google Play.)

During the first panel, Nick Jordan, CEO of Smashing Boxes, expressed hope that this challenging time would be a change-driver in the future to teach us the importance of data, a theme which emerged again and again during the conference. Tech capabilities that were previously “nice to have,” he said, are now essential.

However, this does not mean that we are behind in developing new tech capabilities. As Michael Levy, President & Cofounder of DHIT stated, “At this point our technology can pretty much do anything we want it to. It’s how we orient our people and our processes (that matters).” He elaborated, explaining that we have all the data capabilities and components needed today that can help prevent issues like COVID-19 from becoming unmanageable. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The challenge is instead understanding the best ways of using these capabilities and adapting our culture and processes.

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This sentiment was echoed by other panelists who explained the importance of not only gathering data, but aggregating the right kinds of data. Veena Misra, Director of NSF ASSIST Center referenced research that studied Fitbit data to help predict cardiac health and improve health outcomes.  While this showed potential, there are serious drawbacks when insufficient data types are used and no baseline data. For instance, if a Fitbit device is indicating lack of activity, there is no way to know whether the Fitbit user is being lazy or if they are sick. 

Both ASSIST and Intake are working on medical devices that gather greater amounts of comparable data points without changing the behavior of its users. Intake, a Raleigh-based startup, gathers data points by sampling urine every time you use the toilet. They provide real-time, accurate feedback to users on their diet – the leading cause of chronic disease.  While they are not currently using their tech for pandemic prediction, this is an application that could be developed.

ASSIST develops wearable health monitors powered by the heat of the body, so they never stop running. This opens the promise of real-time, persistent health monitoring, which could dramatically ease the need for one-time health testing in the future, or at least better prioritize who should be tested when supplies are short.

Accessing the right data is not enough. Once data is gathered, it must be aggregated with as many data types as possible, as Ashlee Valente, Senior Scientist of Torus explains. “There is always going to be some degree of uncertainty in any data source.” The ability to combine multiple data sources into a cohesive picture reduces uncertainty. In order to monitor an outbreak and help prevent an influx of patients, health data can be combined with items like social media trends, transportation and weather data to present a more accurate view of the status of disease spread in order to make wise decisions. 

Panel 2

In the second panel, Steve Bennett, Director of Global Government Practice at SAS asserted there are no more creative and innovative people than Americans. “I feel optimistic that Americans are going to rise to the challenge and move quickly to overcome the COVID-19 challenge.”  

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One way that SAS demonstrates this philosophy is helping the pharmaceutical industry to fast track the development and clinical trials of new drugs and vaccines. In the past, the development of vaccines has taken 10+ years, through iterative experimentation and variant testing.  SAS applies analytics across the product datasphere to greatly speed up the process of finding connections amongst health datasets to increase the speed of bringing vaccines to market. 

As important, SAS provides tools to improve operations and logistics during a crisis.  Simple dashboards display only relevant information for government and health leaders to make quick and informed decisions about shifting resources like doctor and nurse personnel and the flow of supplies.

Speed of technology adoption is increasing in many areas in light of COVID-19. Many product families that have been slow to adopt are now taking off, said Michael Levy, President and Cofounder of DHIT. One example is in the arena of remote patient monitoring technology. Resources like chatbots have become common, allowing patients to have symptom assessments from a personal device without having to leave their house.

Manal El-Ramly, Executive & Board of Directors at Newsco explains, “Quick and smart communication is key to managing the panic response during a crisis.  It is the responsibility of organizations, not only medical teams, to promote emotional and physical wellness.” Newsco, another Raleigh-based startup, helps organizations leverage all the screens in their facilities to efficiently communicate the right information at the right time to employees and customers.

Discussion closed with focus on what people and organizations can do now to make positive change. Emil Runge, Director of Programs at BARDA, encouraged the entrepreneurial community to work quickly and rise up in a call to arms against COVID-19.  BARDA is aggregating information and ideas across the region and helping connect the best opportunities to federal funding.

As the conference came to a close, the optimism was echoed by each panelist about our nation’s ability to act quickly and wisely today and prepare for our future. As Emil reminded, “Innovation and optimism are key components in America’s competitive advantage. Not only will we be able to move forward now. We have done so historically and we will do so in the future.”

Editor’s note:  This recaps the first episode of a live online series that will be held regularly and published through RIoT’s podcast, RIoT Underground (available on iTunes, Google Play and Spotify). 


  • Nick Jordan of Smashing Boxes helps entrepreneurs accelerate their ideas at Unboxed Venture Studio.
  • Michael Levy is a regular convener on Digital Health topics and connector of health resources.  You can reach DHIT at.dhitglobal.org.
  • Emil Runge leads BARDA, which in part connects government funding opportunities for combating COVID-19 and other health challenges. He helps monitor a new NC Biotech site to find project opportunities. 
  • The NSF ASSIST Center seeks industry partners to help bring their wearable health and environmental monitoring technologies to market.

RIoT leads the entrepreneurial community through events, programs and a startup accelerator.  If you would like to support local small businesses through RIoT, donations are accepted here or you can reach out to Tom Snyder to discuss industry partnership.