By Sonia K. González, DrPH, MPH
Katherine is the CTO and Co-Founder of Kinnos, a New York-based company that is revolutionizing how people are protected from infections. Their innovative work in infection prevention has spanned from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to healthcare-associated infections in US hospitals. For her work in global health, Katherine was named to Forbes 30 Under 30 in Healthcare, has been featured by the United Nations in celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and was named to the inaugural list of The Tempest’s #40WomentoWatch. Katherine received her B.A. in Biology and Computer Science from Columbia University, where she was a Coca-Cola Scholar.
Back in 2014 at the height of the Ebola crisis, Columbia University sent out an email to its students about holding a hackathon for the worsening crisis. I was a junior who still hadn’t figured out her major. At the time, all the news was dominated by the tragedies engulfing West Africa. I felt useless in the classroom – where I was literally taking a class called Virology, but felt like I could not make an impact or even help. At the hackathon, we learned one of the major problems during the crisis was ineffective decontamination, healthcare workers were getting infected at disproportionately high rates which only made the crisis worse. We had an idea of coloring the disinfectant – our first conception of our product Highlight – so workers can make sure they adequately clean all surfaces and joined the week-long hackathon to see where our idea could go. We got some media coverage, our solution was featured in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and on NPR. The Chief Medical Officer of the FDNY read one of those articles and invited us to demo the product during their Hazmat trainings. We had no idea where this project was going, but we said yes to every opportunity available to us. In late 2014, the FDNY decided to buy our product and belated we incorporated our company, Kinnos. We submitted a grant proposal to the USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge and won – receiving over half a million dollars to finish the development of Highlight powder and actually go to West Africa during our senior year to work in Ebola Treatment Units in Liberia and Guinea. After graduation, we raised an equity funded round to focus on our second product for hospitals, Highlight Wipes.
At the time, I never imagined I’d be working in infection prevention. I went into college with vague ideas about majoring in Russian literature or being pre-med or maybe going into software engineering. I’d never thought about starting a company before and definitely didn’t think it’d be my first job out of college. However, I knew I was working on something I really cared about and even though this project was never part of my plans, I made it my first priority over school and other jobs. By being open minded and trying new things, I was able to forge a new path for myself that I previously couldn’t even have conceived of.
Imagine you go to the hospital for a simple procedure. Your room is cleaned insufficiently and the patient before you in that room had a contagious infection. Coming out of that procedure, you immediately get infected by a serious pathogen, putting you in more danger than you were originally in when you came to the hospital. You’re moved to an isolation unit for several months as doctors try different combinations of antibiotics and medications. There’s no guarantee you will recover from this infection, in fact these infections can be deadly – 1 in 25 patients contract a hospital acquired infection and over 99,000 people die every year. In the greatest irony, you came to the hospital to get better but leave much worse off.
Disinfection sounds easy and simple, but it’s actually very complex. If you’ve ever used a Lysol wipe at home on your kitchen counters, you should read the back label where it tells you your kitchen counter must remain wet from the wipe for 10 minutes before you know your counter has been disinfected. Disinfectants require a contact time to work, but no one ever stands there with a timer waiting for everything to be killed. At home, this isn’t a big deal, but in a hospital not disinfecting properly can be the difference between life and death.
This is where we come in – our product Highlight combines with disinfectants that hospitals are already using. Highlight colorizes the disinfectant blue so you can see exactly where you have and have not covered so you never miss a spot and the color fades from blue to colorless to provide real time visual feedback of when decontamination is done. Our first product Highlight powder is currently available for spray decontamination and bulk liquids of bleach. We are working with leading medical institutions for Highlight powder – our partners include Doctors without Borders, Save the Children, and the Henry Jackson Foundation. Highlight powder was deployed in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola Crisis and is currently being used in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda for their current outbreaks. Our second product, Highlight Wipes, designed for hospitals, cleans rooms with disinfectant wipes will be launched by the end of 2019. For our peer-reviewed research and literature, please visit www.kinnos.us/whitepapers.
Highlight looks simple, but the development of the chemistry was complex and took several years of dedicated work to figuring it out. We started with our first iteration of Highlight powder back in 2014 and had a sellable product by the end of 2016. We began working Highlight Wipes in 2016 and will finalize the chemistry as well the physical product by the end of 2019. Building a physical product is difficult and will take time, something that works conceptually or in lab does not always translate to working well in the real world. Some great advice I got at the beginning of my journey was everything costs more and takes longer than you think. Have realistic expectations and understand that building something completely new will require patience.
The business world is not a meritocracy – it’s all about your network and who you know. Your science can be the coolest in the world, but if you’re not out stomping the streets and advocating your product to anyone who can listen, your science won’t matter. You need to take every single opportunity to meet people who could possibly be helpful for your company. I remember when we first started, our founding team would go to these horribly awkward networking sessions where we’d split up and nonstop pitch our product to look for collaborators. It’s painful at first, but very necessary. Do not hole yourself up in lab, get out there and meet people. It gets much easier with time and having a strong network will make your journey to success much easier. A network is something you have for life, start cultivating it now and know that awkwardness is inevitable but will not kill you.
NYC has been making great strides to transform the city into a health-tech hub. Cost and affordability are always top priorities for start-up founders and even though NYC has the reputation for being very expensive, we’ve found that the city’s dedication to building the health-tech sector has made NYC a great launching pad for start-ups. For example, Kinnos is part of the Start-Up NYC program, so the company pays no sales tax and our employees do not pay state income tax. We have lab space in the Downstate Biotech Incubator in Brooklyn, which is also affiliated with SUNY Downstate, giving us a neighbor hospital to help direct our product development. Additionally, we utilized the LifeSci NYC program to recruit subsidized interns – we’ve had such great success with that program that our first two hires came directly from the internship! Being located in NYC itself has been great for Kinnos – we are in close proximity to dozens of major hospitals and research institutions, which makes piloting and deploying our technology much more convenient.
The greatest challenge for health-tech is the high barrier to entry. For example, to get a diagnostic tool to market, you’ll need to raise millions of dollars of funding and spend years running trials to get through the FDA process. Therefore, most of the innovation in the health-tech space takes at least a decade to become available to the general public, which holds back advances in medicine and technology. Federal oversight is important for customer safety, but often these hurdles you need to jump are impossible unless you have the requisite large amount of funding behind you. Ideally, these oversight agencies should have pathways for smaller, more cash-strapped companies. The high cost to entry limits the number of players in the space and also disproportionately favors large corporations that can afford the time and money to go through the regulatory agencies.
The greatest opportunity comes from the switch from hospital care to in-home care. By developing more tools and technologies that keeps the focus of care at home, we can have greater individualized care, more convenience and less stress for the sick, and reduce transmissions between patients. This opens a vast new market of health-tech directed toward consumers instead of hospitals – hopefully encouraging innovation and competition in the process.
Innovative new technologies favor higher-income hospitals. Furthermore, getting involved with a health-tech startup is a risky endeavor that also benefits from some level of financial security, making it difficult for low income or first-generation college students to even consider start-ups as a viable job opportunity. Therefore, health-tech in general needs to improve its outreach to marginalized and underserved communities. Unfortunately, this is a systemic issue that starts simply from education and access to STEM. The start-up environment as a whole needs to become friendlier to marginalized communities – this can be in lowering barriers to entry (like sponsoring fellowships for low resource students to work on their own ideas), hiring local talent (like from LifeSci NYC!), and designing products in tandem with disadvantaged communities (as opposed to designing technologies that can only be used by the most high tech hospitals). One of our major goals with Kinnos is to reduce hospital acquired infections, which affect all communities but disproportionately affect low resource areas. Our goal to improve equality and serve all communities is also intrinsic in our hiring ethos – we prioritize willingness to learn and hard work over any other metric. Our first two employees were both first in their family to go to college, an incredible accomplishment. We must design all of our systems to be more equal – from the composition of start-up teams to which markets and hospitals we’re targeting.
Don’t let great be the enemy of good. As a scientist, I’m always looking for ways to optimize our current product offering. Should we introduce more features? Should we continue tweaking the chemistry to optimize the product? Should we wait until the product is perfect before we launch? Unfortunately, no product is ever perfect or completely ready to be launched. The most important job of a start-up founder is to be in constant communication with end-users so that the product is designed appropriately. Do not let the pursuit of perfection stop you from moving forward with a product that is good enough. Iteration and improvement are constants in life – no matter how perfect you try to get something, there will be always more work you can do to make it better. Labs are great places for tweaking, but if you’re looking for a real understanding of how your product works, get your product out there and in the hands of end users as soon as possible.