How one San Francisco startup bought $1.4 million worth of masks and other supplies

March 23, 2020, 1:20 PM UTC

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Like you, I’ve been reading, reading, reading, trying so hard to understand new concepts: flattening the curve, mitigation versus suppression, herd immunity, economic devastation versus saving lives, a roller-coaster recovery.

Like the ravaging virus itself, our knowledge base is moving quickly. Just when we think we have a basic understanding of what’s going on, experts give us new information we hadn’t considered. While virologists have studied pandemics for years, no one has seen this one before. Even if there were the perfect combination of epidemiologist/economist/health policy expert/political leader, that person or group of people would still be improvising as they went along. By and large, everyone is trying to do their best under stressful circumstances.

And so we cope, comforted a little by the knowledge that smart people will keep coming up with good ideas.

An entrepreneur in San Francisco, Ryan Petersen, took it upon himself to buy badly needed supplies for the city’s hospitals through his freight-forwarding startup Flexport. He worked with the city’s health department to identify what it needed—surgical masks, gloves, gowns, and thermometers—and then procured them for $1.4 million. Then he reached out to his network to defray the cost. (You can help by donating here, as I did; the city has quickly acknowledged Flexport’s contribution and publicized another site where donors can help with supplies.) I hadn’t heard of Flexport or Petersen. The company is backed by a bevy of first-rate investors, including Google Ventures, Bloomberg Beta, First Round, and SV Angel.

I’ve been deluged with messages from companies telling me how they’re helping. It is inspiring. Comcast, for example, is making its Xfinity WiFi hotspots available to anyone and is also suspending caps on data usage for customers.

Other than being cooped up with my family, my biggest hardship so far is that my newspapers didn’t arrive Sunday. I want to spend less time on screens, not more. I hope Sunday’s miss doesn’t mark the true end of print some of us have feared for so long.

Finally, I held fire on the whole gender discussion over Peloton a few months back, centering on an ad in which a woman explains that her husband bought her a Peloton. You see, around that time my wife bought our family a Peloton. There was no hidden message other than that she wanted the Peloton. I love it. (This is not sponsored content.) Even if you don’t have one, you can try the non-bike exercises classes in the app as part of the company’s 90-day free trial.

Adam Lashinsky


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


Keep digging. The chickens are coming home to roost at profligate startup investor SoftBank Group. The creator of the $100 billion Vision Fund says it will sell off assets worth more than $40 billion to buyback stock and reduce its debt load. That could include some of its $120 billion stake in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

They disturb each other’s orbits. Speaking of SoftBank, its preferred Internet space startup, OneWeb, successfully launched 34 more satellites on Saturday. OneWeb, which has been rumored to have financial troubles, says it plans to start demonstrating its service for customers by the end of the year.

Here I come to save the day. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology is organizing an all-star team of supercomputing to help find treatments for COVID-19. IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are on board, as is Summit, the Department of Energy's supercomputer that currently holds the title of world's fastest.

Battle stations. At least by one measure, Internet speeds are slowing in some cities crowded with stuck-at-home workers and students. Houston, New York City, San Diego, and San Jose saw significant slowdowns, reporting firm BroadbandNow says. It shouldn't take long to download a few e-books, however. Scribd says it's making its whole collection free for the month. Netflix will spend $100 million of cash to aid workers and some of Hollywood's related charities, like the SAG-AFTRA Covid-19 Disaster Fund.

The cure is worse than the disease. While many states have now banned drivers from using phones while driving, a new study suggests that may not be enough. Turns out, touch-based infotainment systems, including Apple CarPlay and Google's Android Auto, also seriously impair driver response times.


When the coronavirus crisis has passed, the economy will start growing again and new startups will...start up. Wired editor Victoria Turk spoke with Sophie Adelman, who co-founded the apprenticeships startup WhiteHat, to get some advice about quickly scaling up a tech business.

Adelman is a fan of the concept of “giving away your Legos”, coined by startup founder and former Facebook and Google employee Molly Graham to describe dealing with a scaling team. In Graham’s metaphor, the growing business consists of Lego towers that its employees are constantly building. As more people are hired, existing team members may feel anxious or threatened and not want to share their Lego bricks for fear of losing control over their tower’s design. But the better course of action is not to hoard bricks, but to find a bigger tower to work on instead.


Privacy could be the next victim of the coronavirus By David Meyer

TikTok’s newest viral influencers? Personal finance stars By Polina Marinova

Cisco commits $225 million to battle coronavirus, leading tech’s fight against the pandemic By Jonathan Vanian

Here’s what to look for in a work-from-home VPN By Alyssa Newcomb

No quarter: Coronavirus is killing pinball halls—and all the other communal spaces we call home’ By Bill Lascher

What to watch on Netflix while social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic By Isaac Feldberg

Diary of a lockdown: What it feels like in 17 cities during the pandemic By Rachel Schallom

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


The theme is right on, though you may or may not be ready to read some fictional stories that mirror our pandemic-induced dystopian times. If you are, Fortune editor Rachel King has you covered with a list of 11 great post-apocalyptic novels. Stay safe and healthy.

Aaron Pressman


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