Originally aired on September 29, 2021 @ 5:30 PM - 6:00 PM EDT
Kennedy McDaniel is a bio-optimist entrepreneur and operator with a clear understanding that biology is the future of technology. She is deeply motivated by human need and technologically obsessed with the cutting edge of biology, algorithms, and hardware.
She oversees product at Canid, an early stage startup providing comprehensive vaccine management for community pediatric practices. She is also a co-founder of the Glassfloor, a founder development community.
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Women in Tech
Hi everyone and welcome back to this week's episode of Yes We Can. I am just so honored to have Kennedy McDaniel here. Hi Kennedy. Hey. Thanks so much for joining. I'm really excited today. Today we're going to talk about science and technology together. That's so awesome. Yeah I think it's kind of the perfect intersection really. It really is. It's great. Well just one housekeeping item for those the audience tuning in if you have any questions there's a way for you to submit questions online just follow the buttons and if you have ideas of people that you'd love to have on Yes We Can that I should help that I should have on the show please email me at yeswecan at Cloudflare.tv. I love getting all of your emails and suggestions so thanks so much for in advance. So let's dive in Kennedy. We have so much to cover. I mean first of all biology and science. You have so many things to say. Technology. These are all huge fields. But you are a biologist who went to med school. You've dropped off. You dropped out of med school. You have a PhD. You've also started a company. You're an entrepreneur and now you're working at a startup called Canada. That is not common. Let me just start like that is just such a that is not a typical background. And so maybe tell us a little bit more about your career. Yeah absolutely. You know when I think about my career I think it's basically the result of this like deep love of biology combined with a mega dose of humanism in my decision making process. So for me a big part of loving biology loving life is to understand not only what does it mean to be alive but what does quality of life mean. What's impactful. Right. And I think that's really the humanism angle that comes in. And so as you mentioned I have a PhD. I actually did grad school first and that humanism angle of what's impactful is what really led me to go to medical school. So I had this thought that if I was closer to patients and work with them every day I would perform better research because I would do research that was more impactful to the real problems and bottlenecks of the people that I hope to help. Problem was once I got to medical school I love the art and science of medicine and patient care but I also was now living the day to day reality of you know what it means when people say that our health care delivery system is broken. And that really drove me crazy because I was starting to feel like when I walked through the hospital doors each day I was endorsing a very broken way of doing things that I fundamentally didn't believe in. And so eventually it hit me that research itself wasn't necessarily what I was aiming to do and that what I was really passionate about is how we bring this knowledge to the real world. And that meant leaving academia which I was convinced was my lifelong journey and discovering what the private sector was really all about. So the first thing I did is jump to consulting because that's how you get paid to learn is you leverage the expertise you already have and then okay cool I can learn about business while I give you you know kind of consult on these technical projects. After several months of that I was poached by an early stage pre-series a biotech company where we were actually merging genetically engineered cells with traditional silicon-based hardware and software technology and effectively created a portable artificial nose. So you have this full power of the capabilities of biology but you're now you're synergistically combining that with the capabilities of the traditional tech stacks. So super cool example of how to bio is tech and a really powerful experience for me of what it is to build from zero to one right. So I ultimately left that company though to start my own company called Banting. Banting connects patients here in the United States with licensed Canadian pharmacies to save 70 to 90 percent on their insulin. So it's kind of a geographical arbitrage but in Canada you can buy the same insulins from the same manufacturing plants but thanks to policy reasons again it's 70 to 90 cheaper. So Banting is still alive and well I want to say to this day at Banting .co but at the beginning of this year I realized I had an opportunity where I was not necessary for the day-to-day of Banting to continue and that I kind of had this opportunity to explore where do I really want to dedicate my time and my life moving forward and maybe a more thoughtful and strategic way. And so that led me to two realizations. One is that I fundamentally believe that biology is the future of technology. Unfortunately despite having some great examples of that today adoption has been less than enthusiastic which led me to my second insight which is that we've completely failed at communicating the value of biology as technology. So that was this part of this great realization that for me my long-term future is in this space of bio as tech but that my first step was to really work on learning how to effectively communicate the value of biological technologies. So I did this in two ways. One I started a blog called Bio Optimist which gives me a place to talk about some of my thoughts of what I think is this inflection point. I also joined my friend Pedro's company called Canid and Canid we provide end-to-end vaccine management for independent pediatric practices and there's some very down the rabbit hole health care economic big picture implications of these decisions but fundamentally as a product we focus on using tech to alleviate administrative workload so that providers and health care workers in general can focus on the patients. So as the head of product here at Canid I get to spend a lot of time thinking about how our workflows impact both patients and providers alike and understand what fundamentally increases vaccination rates in our local communities. So since the COVID vaccine was approved for adolescents 12 and up we've helped thousands of adolescents to get their COVID vaccine from their pediatrician which is something that I'm extremely proud of and think is very special. That's amazing. Okay there's you just said so many things Kennedy there's like we're going to come back to bio as tech we're going to dive in but before we do when you decided to leave med school was that a hard decision like what did your parents say because I think there's a lot of people who find themselves in situations that they're not completely happy but deciding to leave or drop out is a hard decision like was that did that take a lot of courage or was it really obvious? A little bit of both right I think when it comes to emotions there's a lot of opportunities for and so in some ways it was very clear to me that it wasn't it wasn't the right fit for me it wasn't clear what was the right fit that was the scary part but I knew that that wasn't the right fit you know and you mentioned parents and family I have to give my mom an insane amount of credit here she was supportive from the first time I told her I was I was going to drop out her friends freaked out and they told her you can't let her do that you need to call her you have to make her finish she's close to the end like just get it done and she told them no first of all if if you think I'm going to call my daughter and tell her what to do like you've really miscalculated a few things about her but also she didn't agree with that decision she said look my daughter has a great track record of making the decisions that are right for her I trust her I support her and I believe that she's probably right and that was incredible because the social piece was the most awkward piece it was you know the my advisors in medical school going why are you doing this I think it did help a lot but I already had a PhD one of the hardest things about leaving medical school in the U.S. is that you're leaving but you're keeping the debt and so having a professional degree already definitely made that decision feel more accessible to me because my fundamentally right my ability to make a sufficient income to manage that debt was much more feasible than had I gone into medical school with just a bachelor's degree amazing I mean I just I really hats off to you for like you said the social pressure making a different decision is is I think it's a good reminder for all of us that it's possible that you are in control so good for you okay great and you've done so many things since which is amazing so you you keep using bio as tech and we're gonna I want to go and talk more about Banting and and Kenned but what do you mean by biology as technology maybe we can spend a few minutes about like what do you mean by that yeah I love that so I use that term specifically to distinguish it from the term biotech and the reason why is because biotech traditionally has meant technology to fix biology and I think we're at an inflection point I think that we've actually reached a level of understanding and frankly a level of engineering capability that we can begin to productize biology and so instead I think that biology is a fundamental technology and so I use the term bio as tech to differentiate it from the traditional term of biotech which for many people just means pharmaceutical companies which are valuable and important but it's different than what I'm talking about in general I also use that term because the more common colloquial term is syn bio or synthetic biology that doesn't feel exciting I think that sounds really scary to a lot of people so I I love the term bio as tech I I think what's fascinating when it comes to this conversation of biology as technology the the the pushback I most often feel from people is this this odd view that biology is limited or weak and the irony here is that every single technology that's been created by humans is the result of a biological computer the human brain right there are so many things that biology has already solved for there's so many things that it is capable of doing that we haven't discovered yet and even better than all that it's the only fully renewable tech stack so right now we're both on computers to speak to each other none of the silicon atoms in our computers were in the first computer but the carbon atoms in our bodies came from other life forms whose atoms we've been able to repurpose and I I think that there's just incredible uh synergistic possibilities from from those things it's amazing I mean my mind is like extended 10 times by just everything you're saying and and for for this audience actually I am I also studied science as my undergrad I have a degree a science degree from chemistry not biology but part of the reason why I was so excited to talk to you today because it's just this is I've always said I feel like scientists need to be given the same sort of um exposure that entrepreneurs get because it really feels like the next big wave and I you say it much more eloquently me and and doing it so I just I'm very excited to see everything that you accomplish um so one of the things about new technologies that I've learned building Cloudflare is often these new technologies you need a killer app you need something to really uh like to take hold and to almost grow like wildfire and just curious like it's hard to predict the future so I with that caveat what are some of those killer apps that might be this biology as technology that you will so this that you're so fond of totally so I mean there's a couple of things technologies that are bio as tech that exists today and are in wide use right vaccines that is using biology to train our immune system so that we don't need to take a medication uh genetically modified crops you know we tend to think of them as just the roundup ready crops and there's huge problems with that kind of usage of pesticides but there's also examples of gmos that increase the vitamin a content in corn and actually can decrease blindness in certain populations right the the challenge though as you said is like what's going to be the killer app that gets people excited what's going to actually create this like yeah I want bio as tech uh I think it needs to be consumer and I think it needs to be optional right so both of the examples I cited uh vaccines I guess are consumer but they're not very optional and to be honest the user experience of vaccination is pretty boring because when it's perfectly successful nothing happens there's no severe illness there's no anything like your best case scenario is nothing that happens and so we need goods that are fundamentally more consumer in nature and to really start from scratch on how we deliver that narrative I think on that point of narrative there's some interesting things happening in the food space so there's a lot different companies trying different types of biology to make different types of proteins and and meat substitutes and replacements and what's interesting from my perspective is that they're all trying different ways to communicate the value to consumers a lot of the terminology from science sounds really icky instead of appetizing and so they're having to create this new culture and this new vocabulary for this space and they're all kind of testing different ways to do it so so to me that's a space I'm watching closely to really understand you know what these pieces are but fundamentally to answer your question I think that the killer app of bio is tech will have a few key criteria biology will be at the core of how it functions and the bio itself will be the competitive advantage of the product it will be as I've said a consumer product and I believe it will join an existing conversation so for example in food we already talk a lot about our foods our food choices there's a cultural conversation I think that creates a synergy where it's easy to then convert people to be your evangelist and then as a point it's not requisite but I think there is a very high likelihood of something within the pricing model which is that when you look at scale manufacturing for biology it's very solved in some parts of the field and completely unaddressed in others so depending on the biology involved there's a very high likelihood that there will be a premium priced product that needs to lead into the market that then creates broader accessibility as it scales amazing amazing I'm excited to see what this is I you know you said food that as soon as you said I was like actually that's a really good place where it could be because everyone I just there's there's a big culture around loving food so that that that that makes a lot of sense to me and where did you find this passion for biology and science I mean you obviously I mean you're just so passionate I've you're also fairly early career like where did you find this passion how did it happen do you remember I think it's a combination of innate attraction but also really incredible teachers so for as long as I can remember my parents have taught me to be excited and curious about nature instead of afraid when I was about seven years old my dad and I we were walking on a sidewalk and this little tiny snake like zigzagged in front of us and it was about to go into the road and my dad freaked out because he wanted to save the snake from the road right so he swoops down and he picks up the snake and I'm not sure because I'm like I think I'm supposed to be afraid of that right and he's like no no no it's not dangerous don't be afraid you know like it's just a snake and it's just trying to live its best life we need to help it live its best life too and I remember just being so excited like yeah we should all live our best life so I think that that definitely helps a lot but it's the not just parents but teachers right so like from the second grade I had Mrs. Clark as my teacher and she had us dissecting fish with like plastic knives because we were in the second grade you don't hand us knives right to in high school I had Mrs. Cooper Smith from freshman year to senior year she taught me in various courses and then I TA'd for her when I got to college I had Dr. Dana Kremples, Dr. Lionel Sternberg at the University of Miami I had a PhD advisor right Dr. Julia Baldini and then from both my PhD and medical school Dr. David Davies incredible mentorship there and it's almost not fair to name those names because of how many people I've skipped but I truly don't believe that I would be sitting here having this conversation right now if it weren't for having every single one of those individuals be a part of my life and I think that has in so many ways informed not only the guiding and the empowerment of my own passion and my own confidence to follow my passion but I think it's done a lot to inform me of really the value of encouraging others and of empowering others to achieve their best selves and saying that that's something that's additive to our lives not as a cost that we take when we help others. I like have goosebumps I mean I think back to all the great teachers that influenced me and my mother is a teacher and how she still to this day talks about all her students and names them. Yeah my mom was in the schools growing up she's a yoga instructor today it's yeah. And and it's just it's kind of a shout out to all the educators out there that it's really they make huge difference in our lives and yeah just now you're just memories are flooding back so I feel like you're very lucky and and I mean good on you for recognizing that and doing something with all of it and being grateful for all of that that appreciation obviously comes from you with it and so amazing. So you've had such an amazing career so far and you're so early in this journey maybe just to help contextualize it for the audience maybe you walk us through one or two moments or projects or initiatives that you're most proud of and why? Yeah it's so hard because there's so many things and I think one of the things that's helped me to feel the most the most at ease kind of in my ambition maybe was learning to let go of conceptualizing success as milestones and thinking about success as when my time and my effort is aligned with my priorities and as long as I'm doing that I judge myself to be successful so that transformation was about a year and a half two years ago that was definitely an impactful one but I think in line with that it was learning how to really hold on to that sense of humanity and business and business there's so many opportunities where it's acceptable to treat somebody in a way that you would hate to see a friend treated and in general there's really no accountability around this it's often encouraged frankly and so I work really hard to make decisions that I would be equally comfortable making in my personal and business life equally and there have been hard moments for this we at Banting started off as three co-founders and became two co-founders and that was a very difficult thing where you are wishing the other person all of the best of luck and success and you want to empower them to be successful but it doesn't work to do it all together right that's a really hard moment but following through with that moment and doing it in a way where everybody is equitably treated despite the strife that's occurring is something that I'm really proud of right. Similarly here at Canada so much of why I joined was because of the team and having these shared values of how we thought it's right to work together so I guess if anything I would say I'm proud of realizing at a certain moment in my career that it you shouldn't have to sacrifice your values to be in business and if you feel like that you're having to sacrifice what's important to you then then you should reevaluate what the alignment is because there probably is a better fit for you somewhere and that's probably better for everyone involved. Yeah or vote with your talent I like to say it's it's go find seek out the places where the values you have or live there vote with your talent. Exactly I love that. Yeah me too me too I love that and then like have the courage to do it and you can you can do it you gotta find the way it takes work if possible. And when you trust yourself to do those things you tend to trust the other people you work with more and and most professional relationships it's can you trust each other enough to really get everything done right like you reach a certain moment where everybody around you is competent great and that is a really great moment um but but then you still have to trust each other to do the job you have to trust each other to communicate um and and until you really trust yourself and trust your own decisions it's very hard to trust others. Definitely and there's all that that there's that great research they actually came out of the Google teams looking at the best high -performing teams what what makes a team high-performing versus another team and like you said everyone's very smart it's not the talent it was I think they called it psychological safety which is a derivative they trusted each other they felt safe they could share concerns and work through those things together because there was a shared respect and trust and I and that leads to really great outcomes and it feels good to be on a team building impact and delivering value and solving hard problems together it just feels so good and so it's like you kind of if you have that which I feel like I have at Cloudflare I'm always like I want other people to have it if they want it too it's like it is possible go don't don't settle. Yeah I love that and I love the point about psychological safety um I was talking earlier this week uh with a group on from the glass floor and the the line that we said was that vulnerability is the action verb of trust um that that when you're able to that psychological safety when you're able to be open that is the action that comes as a result of trust and I think that that's something that um it's easier said than done but to your point it's so fulfilling when you get it right. You know one of the things that when we first met Kennedy that just struck me and it continues to strike me right now during this conversation is you are so good at words you're so good at taking very technical uh uh technical topics and it's it's almost like uh prose like it's it's like a poem it's like a spoken word it's like Amanda Gorman but with the science bit really um you're very eloquent and and and beautifully spoken I mean how did you learn this skill and how have you honed it I I feel like you are all gonna make all of us better communicators I definitely was very lucky to be surrounded by some really great storytellers growing up um my we used to joke in the family my my dad could sell sell ice to an Eskimo uh not not because he was going to like coerce you into it but because he could tell you such a story that by the end you were convinced that you really needed that ice you know um it's like any other skill practice is a big part of it I I view kind of speaking and wordsmithing like playing an instrument in a certain way you're trying to convey an end goal I'm the only biologist in my family and as long as I can remember I've been creating these analogies to help explain what I've been learning and doing to my family and to my friends I think a lot of the time we're convinced that our work is boring to other people I'm not sure that it's actually that our work is boring to other people we get so lost in the weeds that we lose our audience when we talk about our work right which is a very different kind of way of looking at it and the more specialized you are you're in love with this nuance that's what makes it so exciting to you and so you want to convey that to other people but you sometimes lose sight of how much jargon you're speaking in or how many tangents you've gone down and now you've lost the thread of this actual narrative you're trying to tell so uh practice for sure don't uh courses and everything are great but don't feel like that's necessary practice take small opportunities in conversation with your family with your friends focus on the takeaway of what you're trying to say don't get lost in the weeds don't get caught up in your jargon and analogies are definitely your best friend be careful and make sure that they are intuitive to your listener it's very easy from a specialist perspective to create an analogy that makes perfect sense to another specialist but then pretend you know nothing about it and see if that analogy still sticks uh before you give it to somebody because sometimes uh as they say where the rubber meets the road is where things get interesting i love that and i love that you you're saying how you you pressure your family member like when you were doing your phd you said you called your mom every week and said okay let me tell you what i'm doing this week in the lab and i mean i just i love that story being like to have the discipline to do that and the enthusiasm to do it and and again as you said you practiced a lot and again it shows you're very good at what you do kennedy thank you very much okay so at this point everybody wants everyone is in love with biology and science everyone's like okay kennedy has convinced me i'm in but i have nowhere to start i'm not i'm not going to go get my phd i'm not a i'm not a doctor but i want to learn more about this field and what's going on all the things that that can be said that i kind of understand i want to go down the rabbit hole to learn more where would you recommend the audience to what are good resources for people to read up on some of the latest trends and themes and tech and research and and then also separately i'd love to know where you go to read about all these things too yeah absolutely i i mean it's it's so much easier to stay up to date with things once you're there than to find your way in right and so i i think of it sort of like the best the best type of exercise is the one you'll actually do the best way to dive into a space is find what you actually truly find fascinating because then you'll naturally seek to learn more and so from that perspective if we were talking about software i would say oh look go check out hackathons and see what is the bleeding edge that is developed enough to use on an application right now the time scales of biology don't really work so well for like two to four day hackathons but there are biospecific competitions that serve a pretty similar function so specifically i would say check out igem and see what their teams are doing i gem is a competition that started at mit about 20 years ago it has since branched out into an international competition uh the founders of ginkgo bioworks which just ipo'd earlier this month they actually competed in one of the first few years of i gem so i think that's a great opportunity you can see really like where's the bleeding edge some of those teams will try to then spin out into companies others don't but i think it gives a great perspective of what the opportunity space is and where the technology to support those solutions are there's also a biodesign sprint as a collaboration between the google hardware design studio and the biodesign challenge and it is kicking off next week so it's going to be a four-week competition focused around bio as tech that could be integrated into consumer electronics today to improve sustainability so a great opportunity to see like where is it on this very kind of hard edge this very hard interface between silicon and biological technologies what are the opportunities so that's something i'm personally watching very closely i think it's going to be really exciting and fascinating to see once you kind of have some sense of being in the know i mean this is where i almost feel like i'm cheating to say to say how i do this but you have other i have other friends that are scientists i follow certain people on twitter and we share interesting things with each other um i think the other thing is that i'm never afraid when i have just a weird question or idea i look it up and i've had so many different like things that became passions in my science life off of these weird whims of like oh uh i wonder if auras are a form of synesthesia let me let me google that and then it's like oh yeah there is some sort of correlation here uh so follow your curiosity is definitely my number one tip once you find people that are interesting twitter works better for some people than others but it certainly is great if you know who is interesting once you've identified that you can generally see the highlights of what they want you to know about through their twitter accounts even if they aren't that active on it so that's a great start um and i i would but i think that's the biggest thing find find the people that are interesting find ways to talk to them oh another thing i should say scientists love to be asked questions and they especially like deep in the heart of it researchers oh my god send them an email out of nowhere it's gonna make their day and and so don't be afraid don't think you're interrupting somebody just send the message if they're busy they won't reply that's don't get your feelings hurt but they're probably going to be so excited that you're curious and so excited to explain it to you and you might need a dictionary to read their reply but i promise it's worth it uh because that is where you can just find the excitement that makes it worth your time to follow i love it there's so many great great tips there and one of the themes that i've seen through yes we can it's just this idea of curiosity fuels so many different sorts of things like just be curious you can learn you can you can learn these sorts of things i think that that is a good reminder for all of us okay i can't believe it we're out of time where we have a minute we have 90 seconds left um and of course people should follow you bio optimist which is your twitter handle um and and your blog too which would be a great twitter uh thought leader so about a minute left and the question i like to ask everyone who joins is as a woman in technology where has the industry lived up to your expectations and where has it fallen short for you kennedy yeah i want to end on a high note so i'm going to start with the bad uh like anywhere there's bad actors not many but they definitely have an oversized impact uh and the truth is i've gone through phases where i've loved and hated and then loved again networking events purely on the basis of having to deal with the other attendees there um and it sucks to say this but ultimately i've learned to walk in with an exit strategy and to try to leverage my existing network at these functions as much as possible but the truth is there's no perfect plan because at the end of the day there's no hr for when founders and investors interact right uh the flip side though is i've been floored by the sheer volume of people i've met who really understand how to use their positions of power and privilege to empower others not not just for gender but also um where they are in the org chart race religion there's really no end to this list right and there's just an incredible number of people that are truly doing the work to change the status quo uh and that's what keeps me so hopeful for the future kennedy this was amazing thank you so much thank you everyone for tuning in to this week's episode of yes we can can't wait to have you back kennedy and see everything you do with your career it's just amazing thank you