Karen Havenstrite

The Soothe Seer

Chemical entrepreneur is improving contact lens design

Karen L. Havenstrite once considered becoming a professional poker player. She was so good that she even won first place in an online tournament, besting some 3,000 players to win $12,000. But in 2011, the chemical engineer funneled her penchant for risk-taking into improving human health: She launched a company based on a chance encounter in the lab.

At the end of her doctoral studies at Stanford University, where she was studying chemical engineering and stem cell biology, Havenstrite was working in the lab late one night when she stumbled upon two visiting fellows from a biomedical innovation program. They were dissecting rabbit eyes to try to understand dry eye, a common and uncomfortable issue for contact lens wearers.

Normally, our eyes are kept moist by a thin layer of oil secreted by the eyelid. But wearing contact lenses can cause that moisture to evaporate and leave wearers with uncomfortable dry eyes.

The researchers asked Havenstrite if she had any ideas, sparking a collaboration to develop a more comfortable contact lens. In 2011, just months after Havenstrite defended her thesis, the trio launched Ocular Dynamics, a biotech firm that will commercialize their work, with help from QB3, a University of California biotech accelerator. Havenstrite and her cofounders have already negotiated two licensing agreements for the contact lens technology, and they expect to have it on the market later this year.

To further her entrepreneurial ambitions, Havenstrite just finished her M.B.A. at Stanford. When she told QB3 management about her plans to get a business degree while also running a start-up, they initially balked at the idea. “We thought she was a little busy,” quips QB3 Associate Director Douglas Crawford. “But she did both brilliantly.” – Jessica Morrison

Vital Stats

Current Affiliation: Ocular Dynamics

Age: 31

Ph.D. alma mater: Stanford University

Talent: Using her materials science prowess to invent better versions of medical devices.

Scientific role model: “All of the people who mentored me.” Havenstrite worked in five different labs as an undergraduate, starting when she was a freshman in college.

Three Most Important Papers By Havenstrite:

“Substrate Elasticity Regulates Skeletal Muscle Stem Cell Self-Renewal in Culture” (Science 2010, DOI: 10.1126/science.1191035)

“Contact lens with a hydrophilic layer” (US Patent 2014005574)

“Perturbation of single hematopoietic stem cell fates in artificial niches” (Integrative Biol. 2009, DOI: 10.1039/b815718a)

Research At A Glance

Contact lenses cause natural moisture—our tears—to evaporate, leading to uncomfortable dry eye for some wearers. Havenstrite and her partners have developed a lens coating (purple) that helps retain moisture (blue) as well as lipids (yellow) secreted by the eyelid, thereby helping to treat dry eye.
Contact lenses cause natural moisture—our tears—to evaporate, leading to uncomfortable dry eye for some wearers. Havenstrite and her partners have developed a lens coating (purple) that helps retain moisture (blue) as well as lipids (yellow) secreted by the eyelid, thereby helping to treat dry eye.

Credit: Ocular Dynamics/C&EN

Tobias Erb
Jacob Hooker

3 comment(s) on “Karen Havenstrite

  1. Okky Steviano says:

    wait what? beautiful lady who great at poker and decides to improve human health? praise the lord! xD

  2. Sokolov says:

    Chemical Engineering at Cornell University, Karen Havenstrite developed her passion for research, working on projects that included characterizing polymer melt rheology, developing technologies for biosensors, and designing wound dressings for burn victims.

  3. R. Teixeira says:

    I am a fellow Stanford Chem. Eng. Ph.D. and have seen her work up close. She is one of the very best scientist-entrepreneurs there is, period. The fact that she is only 31 is quite frankly mind-boggling. What she will accomplish in the future may surprise the world. Godspeed Karen.

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