Survey reveals that most business leaders think new kinds of business partnerships are driving innovation during the pandemic

  • A survey of Business Insider's 2020 Transformers found that partnerships are the third-most important driver of transformation that companies will be investing in 2021.
  • In a fast-changing world, companies must work more closely and with different kinds of partners than in the past.
  • The sense of urgency is breaking down psychological and physical barriers to partnerships.
  • Visit Business Insider's Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

For many companies, "we're all in this together" has become more than a motto during the pandemic. Partnerships have turned into a key mechanism for tapping into opportunities and overcoming obstacles.

Fetch Robotics has always relied on partnerships to build autonomous mobile robots that work in warehouses, factories, and distribution centers. Traditionally, the San Jose, CA-based company teamed with software integrators or large vendors if a customer wanted a whole warehouse built.

"When the pandemic hit, our door opened to more robot builders," said founder and chief executive Melonee Wise. Companies that made UV lightning and disinfectant products wanted to bolt their goods onto Fetch's autonomous robots.  

Fetch was already making robotic assistants for hospitals. Wise spent the first three months of the year vetting new partners, making sure they had sufficient "engineering chops." The result has been seven partnerships with companies that make disinfectants for different uses or verticals.

Keeping airports clean

At the Albuquerque Airport, for example, a robot called "The Breezy One" rolls out of a closet right after the last plane of the day has landed and all the passengers have departed. Using a predetermined map, the robot goes through the empty terminal, filling it with a fog of powerful disinfectant.

The Breezy One's base is Fetch's autonomous and programmable robot. The fog-sprayer was developed by partner Build With Robotics. It originally produced the technology to decontaminate chemical and biological agents in national labs. 

Another robot that Fetch developed with a partner rolls into conference rooms after a meeting.  The SmartGuardUV cleans the surfaces with ultraviolet lighting.

Fetch was already set up to be agile. However, it had to change processes to launch the new robots at the speed required by COVID-19.

"In the past, we were hands-off with partners that wanted to use our hardware," Wise said. "We'd give them the documentation and tell them to call with any questions. Because of the tight time frames, and the pressure to scale faster, we are working more tightly together and having weekly calls."

No.3 driver of innovation

Fetch is not the only company putting its partnership on a faster gear. A Business Insider survey found that partnerships was the third most important driver of transformation that companies will be investing in 2021.

Sam Schwartz Company, an engineering and transportation consulting firm, also found the speed of the pandemic required it to forge new partnerships. 

The consultancy's business is finding information.  A few months ago, it released a study of the effects of the pandemic on New York's transportation systems during the spring of 2020.

As a result, it found itself working with doctors and medical researchers. These are much different partners than the architects, lawyers, and academic institutions it teamed with in the past.

"We know what we know, and what we don't know, and we are always looking for partners who can fill in one piece we don't know," said Meera Joshi, a principle and New York general manager for the consultancy. "That became even more crucial when things were moving quickly and circumstances were changing quickly."

'Bigger world at our fingertips'

Joshi said a "fruitful and fiscally rewarding" partnership depends on mutual respect and due diligence. She has the same standards for a partner as she does for a supplier she's paying. Finding those new partners requires steps beyond cold calling and transactional networking.  These days, she does a lot of networking through webinars.

She said it can be hard to spend time on such non-billable activities. However, the payoff is worth it. "People are making themselves more available for virtual networking," she said. "Innovation requires us to get outside our comfort zone. There is a such a sense of urgency that we have a bigger world at our fingertips."

She means "bigger world" quite literally. "In the past, partnerships were often falsely limited by jurisdiction. Companies in other countries were wary of taking meetings with us."

With coworkers now collaborating over Zoom, a partner halfway around the world doesn't seem unusual anymore. Sam Schwartz is now partnering on projects in Dubai and other locations far from Times Square. 

"The only barriers now are language and time zone," Joshi said. "The other psychological barriers to partnerships have closed."

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