Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Mind Set
Júlia: What are you involved with two years after being at Duke?
Christine: I recently founded a company that’s called PathSpot Technologies and we use detection tools to be able to look for food borne illness contamination. Basically, I was doing some reading and I found a huge gap in these articles about food borne illnesses. People were being hospitalized or even dying from food borne illnesses. For example, a 15 year old boy died because the ice he had consumed at a restaurant was contaminated. I was hearing all these stories and realized that that one of the core roots for this issue was that people didn’t have a way to check if their hands were fully clean before they start serving food or interacting with patients in a hospital or working with people in a nursing home and 40% of these cases were specifically tied to hand washing. I wanted to fix that.
Júlia: How did your experiences at Duke and particularly at the GWHT prepare you for this?
Christine in the GWHT lab
Christine: I spent two years doing research under the auspices of the Pratt Fellows program (an intensive three semester and one summer research immersion experience) at the GWHT. I was able to really dive deep into the research and see how that tied to domestic healthcare problems and realized that there are so many problems that need solutions. I specifically did research in breast cancer and worked on a technology to detect tumor margins at the time of breast surgery so surgeons can remove adequate tissue before closing the patient. I worked at the Duke University Medical Center to test and iterate on the different designs of the device for margin assessment and improve detection of residual breast disease using light. This experience was huge for me in terms of having ownership of a portion of the project and to work with incredible graduate student mentors who empowered me to be independent. This research experience demonstrated to me what the applications of engineering really were and how skills I was learning could be used to make a difference.
Júlia: What other activities were you involved in at the GWHT?
Christine: In addition to the health innovation project, I also worked on a social innovation project at the GWHT in which I co-created a curriculum on how to use the human centered design process to build renewable energy based torches to study at night in energy poor settings. My fellow students traveled to Muhuru Bay, Kenya where they used this curriculum to teach adolescent girls how to engineer their own flashlights using locally available materials over a 6-week period. It was crazy to see how one type of technology [light] can be applied to a totally different problem. I was working on all these projects at once and there was a common thread between them. It was really empowering to me to see how to connect different dots that I did not think were tied together. This really helped me post graduation to be able to connect dots to solve new problems I encountered.
Júlia: How did you get involved with GWHT?
Christine working on an oxygen concentrator in Tanzania
Christine: I did DukeEngage in Tanzania through the Engineering World Health program when I was a student here and I was taking the global health courses and engineering classes. And honestly when I was in Tanzania and I was working in a hospital repairing medical equipment on the ground everyday, and when I got back from that incredible and very life changing experience, obviously, it was really hard for me to reintegrate into college life. I was very impacted by the things I had seen and I wanted to continue making a difference and I didn’t know how to do that when I was now back on campus and thrown back into the spin of everything. And all of you as Duke students know how crazy it can all be, so I wanted to continue that momentum that I had while I was there and when I heard about the work that Nimmi’s lab was doing, I just cold emailed her and said, “hey can I help, I want to be a part of this. I am so inspired by what your lab is doing”. And of course, you know she was so welcoming, she had a meeting with me the next day! I was one of the first undergraduate fellows to be a part of the center.
Júlia: How did you manage to hold it all together during college?
Christine at Duke graduation
Christine: For me it was honestly having incredible mentors. I don’t think anyone can do anything totally in a vacuum. That’s not the way innovation flourishes or the way that you end up being inspired. So being surrounded by my peers who were pushing themselves and me to make a difference in the world helped me keep going on a day to day basis especially when I felt discouraged. Also having incredible female mentors like Nimmi was huge for me as an undergraduate and beyond, because it showed me that other people believed in me and the work we were doing, enough to put in so much effort and so much of their own personal time behind me and my ideas and their ideas and vision. Working with Nimmi throughout that process was life changing because it let me see how she could take all of her ideas and transform them into innovations. The fact that she believed in me, kept me going throughout college. I continue to surround myself with mentors and friends who I want to be like.
Júlia: What is your life like as an entrepreneur?
Image of PathSpot technologies device for detecting contamination on hands
Christine: I think that founding a company is very similar to working in a lab and doing research. I use the same principles I learned doing research, because everything you do starting a company is basically testing out a new hypothesis. It’s figuring out what customers will like and building on different design models, getting feedback, and iterating continuously. This is why I am so grateful for my college lab experiences. Whenever I feel discouraged, I look back to all the failed experiments in Nimmi’s lab and how we continued to test out new methods for months until we found a breakthrough. As an entrepreneur I sometimes contact hundreds of potential customers and get only one buyer, however, when I think of the impact for that one customer using our device to detect foodborne illnesses in their institution, it is all worth it.
To learn more about Pathspot Technologies, visit https://www.pathspottech.com/