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Ever since her days pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering, Christine Schindler has always been obsessed with proper hand washing techniques, and how to use tech to promote those techniques. "As a biomedical engineer and with my passion for public health, I felt like there had to be a technical solution," she said.
That hunch sent Schindler to the developing world, where she worked trying to devise low-cost hygiene solutions prevent the spread of disease. After returning to the U.S., it also led her to the idea for PathSpot, a sanitization technology company Schindler co-founded in August 2017.
Back Of House spoke with Schindler earlier this fall about her experience launching PathSpot, the early difficulties she faced fine-tuning the prototypes, the challenge of meeting booming demand during the coronavirus pandemic, and much more.
This interview has been edited lightly.
Back Of House: Hi Christine, thanks for your time. Let's start with who you are and what you do.
Christine Schindler, PathSpot: Hi! I'm the co-founder and CEO of PathSpot, and also the inventor of this technology.
BOH: How long has PathSpot been in business?
CS: Three years exactly, actually. Today is our third anniversary of founding this.
BOH: So you invented the PathSpot technology, which is very cool. But take me back to before the technology, even. When did you first have the idea? Did company come first, or did the idea for the technology come first?
My background is in biomedical engineering and public health. I started to get inspired for this because I lived and worked in the developing world, where I was building low-cost medical tools and technologies for resource-constricted settings there, and doing research on projects for how to make low-cost cancer detection tools.
After I returned to the US, I started seeing all these public health issues that were existing domestically with a different light. I was working full time in the healthcare space but kind of always inspired by all these challenges that existed, and ways to be able to potentially solve those. One of [those challenges] at the time was this huge issue of food-borne illness. It was all over the news: people getting incredibly sick hospitalizations even deaths from these harmful food-borne illness outbreaks. I started to dive into the reason why all these outbreaks were happening, and I found that the vast majority of these case came directly from poor handwashing. So that's when I got obsessed with the handwashing.
BOH: Do you feel like a trendsetter? You were ahead of the curve compared to our current pandemic-induced cultural obsession with hand washing.
CS: I never thought it would end up here.
BOH: So you became a hygiene expert. Then what?
CS: I never saw myself as becoming an hand washing guru! But I saw this issue of hand washing, and I felt like there was no one doing anything from a technology standpoint, other than putting up a bunch of signs that said "wash your hands." As a biomedical engineer and with my passion for public health, I felt like there had to be a technical solution. It started almost as a joke: I was talking to my co-founder about it I was like, "Why doesn't someone reinvent hand washing? We need something to actually make sure we're washing our hands right in the right number of times."
I literally just started building algorithms in my apartment bathroom on nights and weekends, and we had a bunch of wires taped to a dinner plate. When we had [a prototype that could] isolate the core contaminants behind these harmful food-borne illness outbreaks, we just started going door to door on nights and weekends.
Saturday mornings, get up at 6am and knock on doors 'til midnight, asking restaurants, "Hey, what would you think about something that could track your hand washing frequency and advocacy," or whatever. One [restaurant operator] said "I waited 10 years for something like this to exist, this is the thing that keeps me up at night." So I quit my job, I sold my car, I bought a 3D printer, and that's what we started the company.
BOH: Be honest—how many times did you electrocute yourself?
CS: Oh, we set many fires, to be honest with you.
BOH: What was the biggest challenge you guys had early on? Besides the fires, I mean.
That period of time was so tough because we had no money. We hadn't raised venture capital, so we [gave ourselves] four months where we could leave our jobs and dive all the way into this, to see if we could make something and raise capital and get our first customers and truly make a minimum-viable product. So that's what we did: we would build a product in the 3D printer, go to 100 restaurants, ask them what their thoughts were, and they'd say "I really wish it looked like this or I wish it did this." So we'd stay up all night building a new version, go back the next day and say "well, now it does that." Then they'd say, "well, no I wish it did this," so then we'd stay up all night and build another one.
We built hundreds of versions of the product in those first couple of months. Maybe we could have gone into a room as engineers and come up four years later with this "perfect" [version of the PathSpot] product, but I'll tell you what: it would have been totally wrong. Every day I would go to different restaurants and aggregate their feedback, and it was usually not what I expected. But that was OK because I was talking to them constantly so we're really building the product exactly how people wanted it. And then once we incorporated all those feedback changes, those early feedback cases became our earliest customers and our earliest investors.
BOH: So that was early on years ago. Tell me what the product actually does now that it's no longer a prototype.
CS: It mounts on the wall next to a hand washing sink, in [places like] the back of house of restaurants, farms, packing facilities, cafeterias... really anywhere where food is handled, stored, or served. After an employee washes their hands, they put them underneath the device and flip them over and [a reading] instantly pops on the screen and lets you know if you have contamination.
The [basic explanation] is that it shines a specific wavelength of light on the hand and then it's able to auto-fluoresce the contaminants, even though they're completely invisible to the human eye. We pass that through a series of filters and a unique custom algorithm we developed on the unit, and that gives us the custom green for "all clear" or red [indicating] "you need to rewash." Then we pull all that data and we give it to management teams so that they can go online and and really identify who's washing their hands, and when and how effectively, and use that to inform best practices and celebrate sanitation across the establishment.
BOH: Was there any particular piece of restaurant feedback that you never would have thought of yourself but has since become an important part of the product?
It's funny: now [data] is such a core element of our products, but at the time we were just building a detection tool. What ended up coming out of those early installs [in restaurants] was people saying, "Can this track data on how many times we wash [and] data around how often and how well we're complying with our sanitation processes?"
That's become a huge value proposition of using this product: we can tell you exactly where your gaps in your sanitation processes are both from frequency and efficacy, and use that information to scale across an organization and make sure that all the protocols are being followed. We can create "hand washers of the week" and "hand washing champion" locations [amongst chain restaurants.] There's so much we can do with that data, but the data was truly a feature request in the beginning.
BOH: What's the approach that you guys make to the restaurant and food service category? Are there things you consistently hear from clients in this sector?
A lot of food safety solutions are passive. They're in the background, like checking to make sure that the refrigerators are running. It's not something that's constant and minute-by-minute. By creating this, like, hand washing hub, essentially, our unit builds into the process [...] rewards and incentives for hygiene in a different way. We work with the [restaurant] brands to create that culture around hygiene across the establishment. We're actually able to take something that is theoretically always happening [in restaurants] and turn it into something that's really, you know, fun and engaging and actionable.
BOH: Let's talk a little more about right now. We're in the middle of a pandemic. Take us through how PathSpot is adapting to what I'm assuming is a pretty high-demand moment for your business.
CS: Once everything started to shift back in March 2020, we started seeing a 500% increase in demand for the product, and inbound [leads] on our website. People are just more educated than ever about these transmission vectors, and they want tools [to combat transmission.] That's really a silver lining through all of this: people are being proactive. They're trying to find hand washing technologies to create the safest environment possible for consumers and employees. I think that will continue far beyond the pandemic.
We raised additional venture capital in the past couple of months to be able to meet that demand. We've focused on hiring during this time. We try to be as accessible and helpful to our customers as possible, whether that's helping them with marketing materials, or helping them build out [plans] for how they can use [PathSpot] to help ensure safety for employees, or [highlighting] them on our website so that they can advocate to their customer base what they're able to do and how they're leveling up their sanitation. It's on our minds every day. It is an empowering time to be in the business of preventative healthcare and hand washing, for sure.
BOH: Is that validating, to see people as concerned about hand washing now as you've been for awhile?
It's surreal to turn the radio or the TV and hear "wash your hands for 20 seconds." Suddenly it was everywhere. I think our mentality from the beginning was hand washing matters. We feel grateful that we're in a position where we can make a big impact because we've been working on this for the past three years.
[Photos via PathSpot]