Kate Garrett '06: The Making of a Medtech CEO By Freelance Writer Erin Graham

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Kate Garrett met her future business partner while studying BioDesign a few years ago on a fellowship at Stanford.   Despite being in the same program, they were an unlikely pair:  he's a surgeon who thinks big-picture, and she's an engineer who likes to zero in on the details.

Still, Kate learned long ago that a major key to success is collaborating with people who have unfamiliar perspectives.  She discovered this during her first semester at Olin, when she worked on hierarchy-free teams, learning new ways to apply engineering skills. And this was drilled in at Stanford as well, where a similar structure routinely put her in collaborative, interdisciplinary groups.

Dedicated to developing medical technologies that address unmet clinical needs, Kate was  initially inspired by the success of her Senior Capstone (SCOPE) Project at Olin.  There she was challenged to develop a cheap, simple tool to detect tuberculosis. Using a similar approach a few years after graduation, Kate decided to develop a tool, the BronchoGuard, to prevent aspiration pneumonia on patients who are on ventilators. 

Some facts to consider:

  • Patients in the ICU have a 20% higher risk for pneumonia than non-ventilated patients.
  • This affects about 50,000 people each year, and kills roughly 5,000.
  • About $ 2 billion is spent each year treating vent-related pneumonia.

Building on the success of her initial project, Kate and her partner formed Ciel Medical, Inc., a medical device start-up in 2012. The company has now expanded to include 10 consultants, and a few interns from Olin; in fact, Kate chose to hire one of her Olin interns a few months ago into a full-time role.   

To date, the team has developed several medical devices that meet the company's goal:  finding ways to use simple, inexpensive technology to directly impact patients' health,  while helping care providers and driving down health care costs. Their first product will be out shortly, and they plan to introduce two related products next year. 

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How did Kate's undergrad and graduate education prepare her for this venture? 

Kate's story shows how Olin's educational approach lays the foundation for innovation in both graduate-level academics and entrepreneurship.

Her work at Stanford built on specific skills she learned at Olin:

  • Her Stanford BioDesign fellowship was designed around open-ended learning: how to address unmet clinical needs. Kate was used to this approach and was able to start by examining why so many vented patients get pneumonia, and then figuring out how to approach the problem.
  • Her user-oriented design classes, as well as SCOPE, made her realized she wanted to continue to base her studies on addressing people's real needs.
  • At Stanford, she was expected to be resourceful, independent and able to solve unfamiliar problems. 

The Olin mentality was important in Kate's role as Co-Founder of a two-person start-up.

  • The do-learn approach: Kate had no experience running a company and was new to the regulatory, business and marketing sides of product development. Used to being "thrown into the thick of things" at Olin, she competently gained her footing.
  • She learned the importance of perseverance, having been pushed to the point of failure during several projects. This is the quality she sees that she most appreciates in her Olin interns.
  • Being able to communicate with--and work alongside of--a broad range of people outside of engineering (physicians, nurses, CEOs of medical device companies, lawyers) is critical. In this collaboration, Kate draws on her years at Olin, where she had to communicate time and again with people from different backgrounds.

In both settings, Kate's success depended on her having confidence. She took a leap of faith when she partnered with a doctor to launch a business she wasn't familiar with. She stepped into the role of CEO despite having little experience.  And she continues to run an expanding company in a young and exploding field.

Posted in: Alumni Speak, Careers in Healthcare, Life in a Start-up, Making a Difference