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Author Chené Murphy
Chené Murphy
Updated on May 24th, 2023
Fact checked by Emma Vince

OmniVis: Revolutionizing Food Safety with Innovative Technology

The company's innovative technology has the potential to revolutionize the field of pathogen testing, providing a fast, accurate, and affordable solution that can help prevent the spread of disease through contamination. In this feature, we hear from Founder and CEO Katherine Clayton to take a closer look at how OmniVis is harnessing the power of technology to detect pathogens, from bacteria to viruses, and the impact their work is having on the field of food safety.

What inspired the founding of OmniVis, and what is the company's mission?

While each of OmniVis’ founders' stories is a little bit different, I can tell you a little bit about mine and how we came together as a team. For me, I have been interested predominantly in disease work for a really long time. My story always goes back to when I was seven years old and watched as my Uncle Don died from full-blown AIDS. It was the first time in my life I understood what death could mean and what disease was. At that age, I told everyone that one day I was going to cure the world of all disease. Of course, that's not ever going to happen in my lifetime, even though it's a great 7-year-old goal. But I did study biomedical engineering, where I started to learn about different ways you could make really cool medical supplies to help save lives. I did my undergrad and said, "OK, there's nothing for me in industry yet." I did my masters, and there was still nothing yet for me in industry. And then I did my PhD.

While I was doing my PhD, I met my co-founders, who were my PhD advisors. We were developing something in the laboratory to do quick detection of different infectious pathogens. We were building out this technology and starting to do blinded studies and seeing how well this was working. We said, "You know, maybe we should go further. We shouldn't let this die in a lab. There's a real tangible thing we can do." So at the end of 2017, we officially formed the company, the four of us being two professors from the School of Biomedical Engineering, Tamara Kinzer-Ursem and Jacqueline Linnes, and a professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering, Steve Wereley, all from Purdue University. We spun this out, and from there, I moved the company to South San Francisco, CA.

In the most recent time, we said we should be taking our biomedical knowledge and applying it to the front lines before people get sick. And what are those things? Those big things tend to be food or water. Food safety was just such a great area to work in. I think food safety is something tangible, and I think people really get the importance of it. And I think everyone in food wants consumers to be safe, right? They really do. So we said, "Well, why aren't we teaming with these people to continue that mission?" Our whole mission is to create technology that can really help lives in a proactive way.

How does OmniVis's technology work, and what are some of the key applications of the technology?

Right now, we are focusing on food manufacturing facilities and food processing facilities. We work with them to obtain swab samples or samples from their water handling system. We then put these samples into single-use disposable test kits, with one test kit per sample. For example, the first test kit we will be releasing will be for E. coli O157:H7, a popular food borne pathogen. We place the test kit inside our handheld device, which leads the person through a series of instructions from start to finish. Inside this device, the technology is looking for the specific DNA associated with that pathogen of interest, in this case, E. coli O157:H7. It amplifies the DNA, reads the amplification result, and determines if it's positive or negative for that pathogen. All the data can then be offloaded to a cloud dashboard, giving organizations a better way to monitor what's happening in their facilities.

Is OmniVis's technology primarily water testing based? 

We first started with water testing, so we've become really good at that, but we're also now working with swabs as well. This involves swabbing counters, belts, benches, docks, and then taking those swabs and putting them into samples that are then tested using our kits. So, we work with both water and swab samples. 

How does OmniVis ensure the quality and reliability of its products, and what steps does the company take to maintain high standards of performance? 

First of all, everything that we do is tested against the gold standard. We have built this out by testing against cell cultures and PCR to ensure that the results are aligned. We also publish all of our work, with nine peer-reviewed scientific papers already published to date on this technology. This is great because it shows the scientific community is vetting what we're doing.

At the same time, we make sure that we can do over-the-air updates to our software if things need to be tweaked.

Additionally, we offer training on what we're doing, so those are some of the ways we ensure quality and reliability of our products and maintain high standards of performance. 

Is your primary focus only to the US market at this stage and what are OmniVis's plans for future growth and expansion?

Even though we are starting with the US market, because of the proximity and our understanding of the market here, we are absolutely open to bringing this technology to different parts of the world. Actually, our technology was developed from a more global perspective, so we are always thinking about how we can expand outside of the US. 

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs or innovators who are interested in developing new technologies to address global challenges like you are?

I would definitely say that the piece of advice I have is to know your "why" for why you're going into entrepreneurship. If you are truly passionate about the problem you're solving, that will carry you through the tough times that happen in entrepreneurship, as well as the good days. To simply want to be an entrepreneur is one thing, but having a true purpose and passion for what you're doing is what helps me persevere when things get rough. So, I think that would be a significant piece of advice that I would offer.

Any major challenges that you've experienced then during your startup?

Oh, absolutely. I think as an entrepreneur, when you meet with others and they open up, you see the same themes all the time. One major challenge is the stress of wanting to go faster. I always compare it to Looney Tunes characters, where you see their feet spinning before they take off. I feel like that's how a lot of entrepreneurs feel, including myself. Sometimes, you feel like you're not going fast enough, and you need to speed up.

Another challenge is making sure you always have some sort of cash in the bank, which could easily keep you up at night. Having a great team under you is also essential. These are things that you're always thinking about. I can't wait for the day when I can have a solid week of beautiful 8 to 9 hours of sleep every day. I think that would be the best.

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