A world without cholera outbreaks is near, thanks to OmniVis’ CEO and Co-founder Katherine Clayton. Winner of the 2018 Girls in Tech AMPLIFY Startup Competition, OmniVis puts the power of the lab in the palm of your hand by dramatically reducing the time to detect and treat cholera outbreaks.
Based in San Francisco and currently, in the prototyping phase, OmniVis falls into the category of the 90% of male and female-founded startup teams that haven’t received venture capital funding. Though, according to the World Health Organization, their work has the power to change millions of lives and save thousands.
They’re not just going after water-based diseases. The $20,000 prize in seed funding empowers them to develop the technology to detect diseases in blood and other fluids.
We spoke with OmniVis CEO and Co-founder Katherine Clayton and Head of Operations Lynne Cheng about their lives as entrepreneurs, what has influenced them, and what they do when it gets tough. Stay updated by following them on Twitter and Instagram at @OmniVisTech, and read on!
Can you briefly describe what OmniVis is?
LC: We provide a solution for aid workers to detect the cholera pathogen in water in 30 minutes. The current solution takes up to 5 days to collect the sample and bring it back to a lab to culture before knowing the results. Our solution saves time, money, and helps contain outbreaks.
Where did the name OmniVis come from?
KC: The technology is all based on visualizing solutions and using that to provide a detection result. Because we can use the same technology to detect for a wide variety of pathogens, we settled on OmniVis. “Omni” meaning everything, and “Vis” for visualizing.
Did you always know you were going to be an entrepreneur? Who was your biggest influence?
KC: I don’t think I knew that I was going to be an entrepreneur for a long time. Growing up in San Francisco and in my family, I felt like I was surrounded by people who were driven by their passion for social justice. What you see at home and at school every day, can naturally integrate into your career path in one form or another. I also wanted to use my creativity to solve problems in health and science and create more opportunities for global communities. For me, I saw the best way to do that was to start my own company, so I could make changes that were sustainable and scalable.
LC: I enjoy the process of creating and figuring things out. We’re taught to revere pioneers and revolutionists but above all, I always felt a strong need to participate in solving humanitarian challenges. I was lucky to find a company and role I truly believe in and the rest is history.
When did you know you wanted to start OmniVis? Please describe the “epiphany moment.”
KC: In my later undergraduate career I knew that I wanted to do disease diagnostics in the global health realm. In getting my PhD I was learning all of the scientific skills that I needed as part of my training. While I was at Purdue, my three co-founders, who were my advisers at the time, helped in developing my PhD research methods to perform disease detection in low-resource settings. While in development we saw Yemen undergoing one of the cholera outbreaks in history and it made me entirely enraged. I wanted so badly to empower communities through better health outcomes. And it’s events like this that inspired us to start OmniVis.
What are you most proud of?
KC: OmniVis’ culture is all about transparency, communication, and kindness. I mentored quite a few engineers and scientists who are affiliated with OmniVis. After working with each one and trying my best to lead by example, I came to notice that each and every one of these people work so well as a team. They communicate constantly with each other and it shows in the great work they produce. They are transparent with all of their results. And best of all – they treat each other with an incredible amount of respect. A few weeks ago we had a meeting where I realized that each person showed qualities of transparency, communication, and kindness. This made me so proud that this culture is cultivated with OmniVis employees or with all of our partners.
LC: We were asked to submit a short video about who we are as a company. With the help of several boxes, a stapler, and some pens, we propped up my phone so I could film Katherine hands-free while using my laptop as a teleprompter. At that moment, I remember looking at Katherine and thinking “we’re a startup!”
What’s the hardest part about being a female founder?
KC: Three out of four of the OmniVis co-founders are women. I have been particularly lucky to work with and be surrounded by advocates of women in STEM and start-ups. The hardest part of being a female founder is when you hear all of the statistics, like the percent of women who receive VC funding or the lower numbers of women-led businesses that become the next multi-billion dollar companies. I used to question myself as an entrepreneur when I heard these numbers. But then I realized I heard these same sorts of statistics for women in STEM and it didn’t stop me, or my female colleagues, from achieving a PhD in mechanical engineering. So, I learned to not let that stop me with moving forward with OmniVis, either.
What inspires you to keep going when it gets especially tough?
KC: There are two approaches I take when things feel unbearable. The first is that I start reading the news. When I read all about what humanitarian aid workers are doing to help communities around the world, it inspires me to keep going and work as hard as possible to get OmniVis technology out into the market. This inspiration leads me to the next step that I take when things get particularly hard – and that’s thinking about my team at OmniVis. We are all working toward the same vision. Knowing that the OmniVis team comprises of incredibly intelligent and passionate individuals who want to change global health outcomes keeps me energized and excited to work with them every day.
What’s 1 piece of advice you wish someone had told you when you started out?
KC: I wish someone told me that it is okay to not know everything. I was often told early on that I didn’t have the business acumen to be successful. After meeting other founders from different start-ups, I learned that everyone has one weakness or another, and that’s why you either hire someone to fulfill those gaps or seek mentorship. No one knows everything with their first start-up. I wish someone really sat me down and told me that from the beginning so I wasn’t so hard on myself.
Share with me something about yourself that you’re working on improving, and how you think OmniVis will be better once you’ve accomplished your goal.
LC: We are working on automating or offloading some of our day-to-day tasks so we can better focus on more pivotal aspects of the company. The challenge is knowing where to spend the money on supporting services and when my time is more valuable.
KC: I think Lynne is right on the money – working to offload some of the day-to-day work is becoming a game changer so that we can accelerate the most important aspects of our business. We, like so many other entrepreneurs, are learning as we go. It was hard at first to learn what my limits were. But it was a great lesson to learn when to hand off tasks to people who are the experts.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
KC: 5 years ago I was working with my co-founders, Tamara Kinzer-Ursem, Steven Wereley, and Jacqueline Linnes, developing this technology as a PhD student. In 5 years I want to see the product out on the market to detect the cholera pathogen in water, and working toward the detection of diseases in blood, and beyond. I also hope to see the OmniVis team has grown but still maintains the great community and culture that we currently have. I am really excited for each of the steps we will encounter along the way, too!
LC: As our name implies, the technology can visualize a lot more than just water. In five years, we will have added blood and other fluids to our growing menu of tests. Additionally, we believe in being proactive rather than reactive which means preventing in addition to containing outbreaks. I look forward to building out an educational platform targeted to families and children to encourage conversation and give communities tools to be their own change agent.
How will the $20,000 in funding from winning the AMPLIFY Competition help OmniVis?
LC: Funds from AMPLIFY will go to user research and design for our software. We understand that our user base may come from a very different cultural and language background than ourselves. It’s important to us to understand their thought process and design something universally intuitive.