Spotlight Series: Interview with Kitty Liao, CEO and Founder of Ideabatic

31 Mar 2020

Spotlight Series: Kitty Liao

Who are you?

I am Kitty Liao, and I am the CEO and Founder of Ideabatic. My background is in electronic engineering and physics, and I spent more than 10 years working with cold systems, such as the upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Now through Ideabatic, I work on engineering innovations that help to improve people’s lives in underserved communities, such as my smart vaccine carrier SMILE.

What inspired Ideabatic?

I participated in the first ever humanitarian hackathon at CERN in 2014, to look at the most urgent problems that needed solving. I was shocked by the fact that two to three million children die each year of a vaccine-preventable disease according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Today, nearly 20 million children still lack basic vaccinations. One reason for this predicament is that vaccines can become damaged while in transit due to the fluctuations in temperature they can be exposed to in during the last few miles of their journey. I was determined to solve this problem. So I came up with SMILE.

What difference does SMILE make?

Vaccines need to be kept between 2 and 8°C. A typical journey involves health workers carrying vaccines inside vaccine carriers that are filled with icepacks. To date, there are 25 brands of WHO approved vaccine carriers, however 22 of them can freeze the vaccines within the first few hours. Some also claim to keep vaccines cool for 17 to 50 hours, but in some areas the duration of a trip can last for days. This can result in up to 85% of vaccines being wasted. Once at their destination, health workers often leave the lid of the vaccine carrier open, use insufficient icepacks for cooling or accidently leave usable vaccines out in hot temperatures, which further accelerates spoilage.

I thought, what if the risk of vaccine waste could be reduced to less than 5%? That’s why I created SMILE. SMILE is fail-safe and keeps vaccines in the right temperature range for three to five days with features such as a self-closing door and a double door mechanism to minimise human error and heat transfer when in use. Due to its effectiveness, SMILE can also be used as a carrier to transport and preserve bio-samples before they reach a laboratory.

What are the best things about working at Ideabatic?

I enjoy the challenges I have to face and resolve, and that I get to learn new things every day. The best part is that as each day goes by, I am one step closer to helping someone receive an effective vaccine or preserve their bio-samples.

What is the hardest thing about working at Ideabatic?

The hardest thing is probably seeing just how underserved communities are in remote areas of developing countries, and how little they can do due to their limited sources. But I have not given up yet!

What’s your biggest achievement so far?

We have just completed a successful field trial with healthcare workers in Ikongo in Madagascar. It is like a dream come true – from starting with an idea in 2014 to carrying out a field trial in remote Madagascar in 2019. I am so grateful to everyone who has helped me throughout this journey. I wouldn’t have achieved this without their help. 

What does the future hold?

In the near future I would like to see health workers using SMILE in the field. I hope that people living in remote areas will benefit from reliable test results and treatment thanks to SMILE preserving their bio-samples and drugs more effectively.

What advice you would give to future entrepreneurs?

Stay healthy and strong, never stop doing market research, never stop improving and always be open to opportunities and suggestions.

What impact has the Enterprise Fellowships Programme had on your business? What are the most important lessons you’ve learnt?

My business has accelerated exponentially since I started the programme, on both technical and business aspects. I learnt so much from working with my mentor Richard Goodwin, my programme manager at the Academy and from hearing my fellow entrepreneurs’ experiences. Even though I have finished the programme, the Enterprise Hub continues to support me with advice and making connections. There are always tough decisions to make, but for me, the most important lesson is to be open, to listen and to understand.

What advice would you give to potential applicants?

Being an entrepreneur is not easy, but if you have the passion and determination, the Enterprise Fellowship programme will transform and accelerate your business like you’d never believe. Make sure you take time to work on your application, in the same way you work on your business!

The Enterprise Fellowship is by far the best programme I have ever participated in, because it is tailored to your individual needs. The best part is that I know I am not alone on this roller coaster ride – the Enterprise Hub team is like family. I’m very grateful for this opportunity and to everyone who has helped me on the programme.

Quick fire questions

Who is your role model?

I can’t think of one person who has all the qualities that I look up to.  I admire Michael Faraday’s experimental spirit, Samuel Colt’s problem-solving attitude and Mother Teresa’s love for the poor.  

What is your secret talent?

I make my own clothes and I’m quite good at shooting.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Touching anything that’s fluffy - I have 50+ fluffy stuffed toys

When I’m not working at Ideabatic, I am…

Swimming, doing Zumba, HIIT fitness classes, swing dancing, cooking, playing with dogs on the street.

What makes you happiest in business?

Overcoming difficult challenges, meeting people who share the same values and meeting people who are dedicated to their business.

Do you have any business regrets?

Yes certainly. But I have to learn to move on and not make the same mistakes.

If I could have a superpower, it would be…

To ensure the UN’s sustainable development goals are achieved!  

If you could switch places with any famous entrepreneur, who would it be?

I’d be interested to see how Donald Trump would run my business. 

The tech that I could not live without is…

The internet for sure!

Ever told a white lie to get what you wanted in business?

Yes, probably. Actually, I would answer the question differently instead of giving direct answers, so does that count?

Which fellow Hub Member are you most impressed by?

Aergo’s Sheana Yu. I tried her adjustable wheelchair for children at the Enterprise Hub’s Showcase in May 2019 and was amazed by it. As someone who has had spine surgery and has back problems when sitting down for long periods, I found her device really helped with my posture. I also admire Dr Atif Syed from Woozano because his leadership and entrepreneur skills are impressive. 

If you had to choose another sector to work in, what would it be?

I’d probably create my own sector, working on multidisciplinary innovation for good.

And finally, if you could invent a new piece of tech, what would it be and what problem would it solve?

I’d like to create a device that will allow me to communicate with animals in their ‘native languages’. If plants also communicate within their own community, I’d like to be able to talk to them too. It’ll be so cool to understand how living organisms think and what they talk about.

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