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
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.
Credit: Ocular Dynamics/C&EN