Meet The PE Class Of 2018: Katherine Clayton, Co-Founder and CEO of OmniVis
The 2018 PE Intensive, taking place April 13 & 14, brings together the the top 200 female founders from the PE Venture Competition for hands-on workshops and mentorship in New York City. Among the 200 are 10 finalists who have been given the additional opportunity to participate in the pitch competition on Saturday, April 14 for a chance to receive a $10,000 grant and a spot in a five-week accelerator program hosted at Rent the Runway’s headquarters.
In the week leading up to #PEIntensive18, we’re featuring the 10 pre-selected finalists (two additional wildcard companies to be chosen during the Intensive will also present at the live pitch competition) and introducing them and their companies to our PE Community. Visit our 2018 PE Intensive website to meet the entire #PEClassOf2018, join our mailing list for Intensive updates, and follow Intensive highlights and behind-the-scenes with hashtag #PEIntensive18.
Katherine Clayton is Co-Founder and CEO of OmniVis, a biotechnology company that has developed an integrated, portable and smartphone-based pathogen detection platform. Dr. Clayton developed the underlying algorithms for the company’s technology in her PhD thesis, and with her team she is translating this work out of the lab and into people’s hands. Katherine sat down with Rebecca Sholiton, Co-Founder and CEO of WiseApple and a PE Class of 2016 Finalist, to chat about what motivated her to start OmniVis and how she is prepping for #PEIntensive18.
Photo credit Dong Hoon Lee
Rebecca Sholiton: I’m super excited to talk to you! Your background is fascinating and 100 percent different from mine. To start, I’d love to hear in your words what your business does.
Katherine Clayton: We’re working on a rapid and portable, smartphone-based diagnostic device that you can either bring out to a water source to detect for water-borne pathogens (like cholera), and we want to be able to use it for blood-based testing too (malaria, HIV, etc). We’re interested in detecting infectious or pathogenic diseases, and we use the smartphone because mobile phone connectivity around the world is huge—there are some places in the world where people have greater access to mobile connectivity than they do clean water.
We also want to use the smartphone’s geolocation abilities to know where the contamination has taken place and use those data to prevent outbreaks in the future; the goal is to prevent widespread outbreaks of disease.
RS: That’s amazing! I did water and sanitation work with the UN Refugee Agency, and I can definitely understand the need for what you are building. What inspired you to focus on the problem you’re trying to solve, particularly this idea of using the technology in developing countries?
KC: n college I studied abroad in Thailand working on a completely different water remediation project, but I was inspired by the fact that people were working on new types of tools that could work across settings, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. I wanted to get my PhD because there was a lot of good research happening, but it wasn’t necessarily being used in industry. I got together with three amazing professors at Purdue University who are experts in analytics, optics and global health, and we took my PhD research and started designing this portable diagnostic to use in the field.
RS: How long have you been working on your company?
KC: We first started trying to move the technology to smartphones in 2016, and we officially became a company in 2017.
RS: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far? And what’s been the greatest reward has you’ve worked your way through some of those obstacles?
KC: I have a biomedical engineering background, so learning more about the business side has definitely been a challenge. Also pitching global health in a for-profit environment has its own set of challenges; we’re social entrepreneurs and want to do good work, but we also want to do well [in terms of scaling and profitability].
Going through these obstacles, it’s been amazing to see what a great team I have. My team is always excited to give updates, and they’re always doing a great job. My co-founders, bring their expertise and insight to the table, so we’re all learning together and navigating these obstacles together. Everybody has the same vision to do things for the greater good, which is definitely a great reward. I love that my team believes in this work and believes in me.
Photo credit Dong Hoon Lee
RS: I feel the same way. It’s amazing to see a group of people come together with the same mission and have one goal in mind and work to overcome challenges together. None of us is the only reason that our company is moving forward; seeing real teamwork in action is amazing.
KC: It’s so rewarding! I love it! How did you build your ethos and culture into your company and team?
RS: I think it happened somewhat naturally through the type of business that I run, and I imagine that will be somewhat similar for you. I have a mission-based food company, and I attract a certain type of individual who wants to work in that type of space. At WiseApple, we all have a belief system in terms of what types of food we should be eating and what the food system in the U.S. should look like.
We also have shared beliefs about women—I have a lot of men that work on my team, but 90 percent of my customers are women, so we’re all about women having the right to bring in supports like WiseApple to help them as mothers. The whole reason why this business exists is helping mothers, and I believe our company naturally attracts people who see the world in that progressive way.
After two years in business, we’ve finally written down what our ethos and work culture really means. Things like being inspired by our customers and having fun (we believe food should be fun and emotional).
What is the biggest change you’d like to see in your industry, and how are you working towards making that change happen?
KC: One really big thing is this shift towards social entrepreneurship—we want to see a change in how companies that are doing social ventures are funded.
Also in global health, I really want to prove that for-profit companies can make a difference by getting technology out into people’s hands. We also want to see an increase in working with the end user—we work in global markets, and we want to see more user-focused design to make sure that these devices are actually adopted and can be used to make a difference.
RS: Why did you apply to the PE Venture Competition, and how are you prepping for the PE Intensive?
KC: The reason I got really interested in PE is because it was women-centric: three of our four co-founders are women. Also being a woman in STEM, you start to build your own network and community [of other women], and I was fascinated by the fact that the entire Intensive is focused on female founders. I’ve attended events here in my local community that focus on women entrepreneurs as well, and they are fantastic.
I say this over and over: empowered women empower women. So I’m looking forward to meeting other women not just in the healthcare space, but all types of spaces, and learn from them. And I’m really interested in hearing about other women’s successes and challenges.
What did you do to get prepared for your PE weekend?
RS: I relied very heavily on the women VCs that I knew here in Chicago. I’d practiced my pitch in the classroom setting, but before pitching at PE, I had never done a formal pitch to a room of people. I was super nervous, so I walked into Pritzker Group which is a VC firm based here in Chicago, and I asked one of the women VCs if she could help me, and then I did the same to every single mentor that I ever had.
I practiced my pitch a lot. Because we’re currently a regional business, I had to really paint the picture that the problem we’re tackling happens in the U.S. every single day—what we’re really trying to do is change the way that kids eat and change the way moms feel about lunchtime. We want to bring smiles back to people’s faces, so I needed to share that larger vision and why we needed everyone in the country to know who we are at WiseApple and what we do.