First Ask Customers What They Want. Then Build Your Product
Christine Schindler was obsessed with handwashing way before COVID-19 came along.
In 2017, as foodborne illness outbreaks were plaguing businesses like Chipotle and wreaking havoc on public health across the country, she understood how to solve the problem. “No one walks into a restaurant with a vial of E. coli,” says Schindler, a biomedical engineer. “Eighty-nine percent of foodborne illness outbreaks caused by restaurants are directly linked to poor handwashing practices.” She got to work on a solution, called PathSpot, that would utilize spectral imaging to detect illness-causing contaminants on a restaurant worker’s hands, all in a matter of seconds.
But there was a problem: Although Schindler knew how to build the technology, she had no idea what kind of product a restaurant would actually use.
“I truly had hundreds of different versions I thought could work,” she says. She’d gone through a process like this before, having spent time in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania creating cancer-detection tools for resource-restricted communities. But American restaurants were something else. “I considered attaching the technology to a cellphone, mounting it to a countertop, incorporating it into a tablet,” she says.
Eventually, she realized there was only one way to find the answer: Ask restaurant owners.
She sold her car, used the money to buy a 3D printer, and set out on a cycle of intense rapid prototyping. She’d walk around her New York neighborhood, showing up at random restaurants as early as 6 a.m. to steal a few moments from the owners and explain her proposed solution. She’d take their feedback home to her apartment, 3D-print various hardware options, superglue the parts together, and return to cooperating restaurants to test the crude devices.
“I’d put it on the wall [of a restaurant] and watch how people interacted with it,” Schindler says. “The prototypes only lasted for two hours before they fell apart.”
But those two hours of observation created invaluable feedback. Schindler learned what restaurateurs wanted, as well as what they’d pay for. “Sometimes they’d ask for six different available form factors, or the detection of additional bacterium, but when I told them that would triple the cost, they walked back from those requests,” she says. “We knew we had to make it accessible.”
After six months, one design rose to the top — a kiosk-style, wall-mounted device. Employees place hands under it and receive either a green light (good to go) or a red light (please rewash). Feedback on that version led to an even more robust product.
“Over and over again, teams would ask me for data around overall handwashing frequency in addition to efficacy,” she says. “So now we have a 24-7 dashboard with automatic insight and alerts that we give to restaurants. It’s so critical, and I never would have thought of it on my own.”
That data shows that PathSpot helps create a threefold increase in handwashing, reducing instances of contamination by 75 percent in just 30 days. Brands including Chopt and Dairy Queen became some of Schindler’s earliest supporters, and in 2020, as demand skyrocketed, the CEO raised a $6.5 million Series A and tripled the size of her staff.
The experience provided her with a lasting lesson. “If I’d spent the time building a robust unit from the beginning, it wouldn’t have been right,” she says. Her success came from getting feedback early — and building exactly the thing her customers need.
That’s how Schindler was able to trade in her superglue for an actual manufacturing process. “I do not build them myself anymore,” she says.