Christina Drake is a member of the Life Sciences Cluster. As founder and CEO at Kismet Technologies, she applies extensive knowledge of materials science to develop advanced disinfectants that help people live healthier and safer lives.
Read on for highlights from her interview with us about Kismet Technologies, her entrepreneurial journey and thoughts on what it will take to foster a more diverse innovation community in Central Florida.
Tell me about your business. What inspired the idea?
Kismet Technologies is on a mission to help people live healthier and safer lives, and we do that by creating innovative material technologies. We’ve developed something called nanoRAD that quickly and repeatedly kills viruses and bacteria on surfaces. In an emergency room, for example, where it’s really hard to keep surfaces disinfected between patients and you have lots of people constantly in the room, you can’t use UV lights or spray disinfectants. So, being able to prevent the transfer of infections on those surfaces is really important.
How did you get started in this field?
At the beginning of the pandemic when Orlando was under lockdown, I went to the grocery store and saw how everyone was highly agitated, including myself. Someone who worked at the grocery store was trying to disinfect a door handle as I was going to get milk, but he immediately wiped it off. And I knew that surface wasn’t disinfected; you can’t just spray it on and then wipe it off. It just bothered me so much. I thought, “It seems dumb that we can edit genes and do CRISPR [a gene-editing technology], but we can’t stop viruses and bacteria from spreading on surfaces. It seems like that’s an easier problem to solve than gene editing.” So, I spent two days obsessively researching how disinfectants work. My background is in materials science in inorganic oxides and I realized I actually knew a materials system [that could disinfect]. I knew we would need to make some tweaks to it to get it to behave properly and to be safe, but we could basically do what hydrogen peroxide does, and have it not be a wet chemical that evaporates off the surface, but something that actually stays on the surface and keeps disinfecting. That’s where nanoRAD came from.
Is your product available in the marketplace?
We just invented NanoRAD a year and a half ago; started making the first materials in late 2020 and we’ve spent the last year developing prototype formulations. We have different coatings for different types of surfaces. We have one that goes on toilets. We have one that goes on stainless steel. We have one for curtains that we’re working on now. It’s not available for sale yet. We have to go through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and get registration for the active ingredient because it’s new and it’s a nanoparticle. We have a long process to make sure that we safely get through the EPA, but we will start partnering with hospitals and other organizations this year to do pilot tests to actually show efficacy in terms of reducing infections in critical spaces.
What brought you to the Central Florida area? What is your experience being part of the innovation ecosystem here?
I’m actually considered a Florida native. I grew up in the panhandle, and I did my undergrad at the University of Florida. My husband and I came to Orlando when he got a job at Lockheed and I started going to grad school at the University of Central Florida (UCF), and then we didn’t leave because it was just a great community. I didn’t start my company until 2019, but I wanted to stay within the Central Florida area. The ecosystem here is not as well developed when compared to places like Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin. They’ve had more time to develop their entrepreneur ecosystems, but I do think that between Central Florida, Tampa and Miami, there is a concerted effort to get support for entrepreneurs. I think that it’s just going to keep growing. Being from here, I want to stay here and be part of that.
What resources have helped your company grow in its early stages?
The first grant we got to do the initial proof for NanoRAD was through the National Science Foundation. We subcontracted with a team of researchers at UCF and were able to get a grant [from the Florida High Tech Corridor matching one-for-one. It caused us to need to request a new cost extension because they had now twice the money we budgeted for. It’s also why we have such great scientific results for what we’re doing. And we’ve gotten a lot more done in a year-and-a-half in terms of discovery and product development that I think wouldn’t have been possible without [the matching grant].
Can you share more about your involvement with Cenfluence and how it has impacted your business?
Cenfluence is one of the organizations that’s really trying to create a more tight-knit ecosystem. One of the issues that we have in Central Florida is everyone’s kind of spaced out. I think organizations like Cenfluence are helping to make it easier to find other entrepreneurs because it is lonely and mentally taxing to be an entrepreneur. Cenfluence helps to bridge connections. That’s what they’ve immediately done within the community and they’re always looking for opportunities on both the local and national levels. That’s helpful because most small businesses, most startups, might not have a full-time business development person. It is extremely helpful to have an organization every week saying, “Hey, these are the opportunities,” and then giving you the links to that.
How would you describe the state of diversity in Central Florida’s tech industry?
I would say it still has a way to go. I don’t meet a lot of women tech founders for companies. It’s hard for me to meet someone that’s also a mom that has children. I know there are fathers that have children that they have to take care of, but it’s a little bit different when you’re a mom and you have small children, and you’re also running a company. I think that there is more that can be done to kind of highlight what that looks like and what success looks like. Because then, if you have a brilliant engineer coming out of their undergrad and they have a business idea, but they’re like, “You know what, I think I want to get married and start a family first,” the chance of them ever starting a business is pretty slim at that point if they feel like those don’t go together.
I do think that there are ways to highlight stories and show more, not just diversity in women or people of color, but just in different lifestyle types, to make it not seem like you have to be a certain type of person to do this.
How do you balance it all?
I accept that it’s going to be hard upfront and that I’m going to probably encounter other people’s misconceptions about what that is, and I’m patient with people. I know that it’s not me, and to some extent, that maybe it’s not them; it’s society. I follow people like Sarah Blakely [founder and CEO of Spanx] and other women entrepreneurs on Instagram. I love when they’re just like, “I’m on vacation, but not really because I’m literally having to feed all three of my children, and two of them are crying and one’s naked in the back.” You don’t have to have everything together. My husband understands that he’s got to carry his weight, too, so we split duties. We’re very flexible with some weeks. I do more in some weeks. He does more in others and that’s okay. Being flexible and patient are key.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
We’ve made lots of progress, but I think that there’s still a lot to be made. There’s still room to grow. I think it’s just that we’re overcoming thousands of years of engendered, racial and cultural stereotypes. That’s really hard to break out of; to basically view people just on merit and not on anything else that they might have.
What advice would you share with women entrepreneurs who may be just starting out?
I think you have to have a really clear sense of what it is that you want and not what other people want for you. You have to know who you are and to basically ignore what everyone else says. Because you’re being bombarded with messages from advertising, social media, movies, TV shows, music, and maybe your family and friends. But at the end of the day, it’s your life. There are no do-overs. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. You need to know what it is that you want if you want to be able to live a life where, at the end of it, you’re not full of regrets. Where you can be like, “I did the best I could with the time I had.”
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be able to say that I used my technical abilities to improve people’s lives somehow. I don’t know exactly what that looks like. I’m hoping that it’ll be NanoRAD and that this will hit the market, and that it will really change how we do disinfection. We’re going to put fewer chemicals into the air and around people. We’re going to create less waste. Also, people will get sick less often.
Why do you love your job?
I kind of feel like it’s science Sherlock Holmes. You are solving problems, but you’re using science and the scientific method to do it. It’s very rewarding when you’re right. That doesn’t always mean that you have a product that is going to make it to the market and make it big, but there is something very satisfying about being able to correctly predict an outcome scientifically and being able to use research skills to do that. So, I do kind of feel like a “sciency Sherlock Holmes”.
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