This Female Entrepreneur's Mission: Kill Germs at the Flip of a Switch

Updated 06/20/18
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What does it take to be the first? From the numerous interviews we’ve conducted with successful disrupters, there seems to be a formula of key attributes, personality traits, and, yes, failures that pave the way for female pioneers, or as we like to call them, womaneers. By definition, she’s a woman who defies societal norms with heroism and tenacity to become a pioneering voice in her field. Each month, we will share a new womaneer’s story to uncover their vision, grit, persistence, grace, and drive to keep going despite the odds. The time of the womaneer is now.

young female entrepreneur—womaneer
Brian McConkey

Take a look around your kitchen. Even when it looks clean, you can bet there are bacteria lurking on that sponge and what looks to be a hygienic countertop. Yes, you can use a disinfectant, but for many people, the synthetic fragrance and chemicals found in those products can be just as harmful.

Well, stress no more, because biomedical engineer, Forbes 30 Under 30, and the co-founder and CEO of Vital Vio Colleen Costello has found a better way to kill bacteria: germ-fighting LED lights. Yes, this impressive young female entrepreneur has created lighting technology that kills up to 99% of bacteria including MRSA, E. coli, and salmonella, and all before her 30th birthday. It's beyond impressive.

So why germs? Well, during Costello's third year of college (she was working toward a degree in biomedical engineering and engaged in research on tissue engineering), her grandmother contracted MRSA—a staph infection that is resistant to antibiotics—during a routine hospital stay. This extended her stay much longer than expected. Her grandmother’s experience opened Costello's eyes to the costly problem of infection.

"Once I learned how pervasive the problem was, I could not look away," she tells me. According to the Centers for Disease Control, hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) "affect 5 to 10 % of hospitalized patients in the U.S. per year. About 1.7 million HAIs occur in U.S. hospitals each year, resulting in 99,000 deaths and an estimated $20 billion in healthcare costs." And that is just data on the risk of germs in hospitals. "The challenge is enormous," she adds.

In fact, infection is among the leading causes of preventable death in the United States. "The threat is all around us," says Costello. "Traditionally, people combat these germs with intermittent cleaning, primarily with some form of chemical solutions. I was convinced there had to be a better way."

Now, Costello's revolutionary Ellumi lights continuously kill germs. "With just the flip of a light switch, we reinvented disinfection," she says. Read on to find out how she pushed past the fear to pursue her passion and how she faced the many challenges along the way.

How did you push past the fear and pursue your passion to start this company?

My early STEM education proves the value and importance of that type of education in helping to drive the U.S. innovation economy. My interest in science and engineering was sparked and fostered in high school. By the time I helped launch Vital Vio in my fourth year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I already had experience in clinical research, engineering, biochemistry, product development, and technical entrepreneurship.

I had conducted research on master thesis projects at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, worked in surgical device design and pre-clinical studies at Covidien Surgical Devices, and was involved in tissue engineering research at RPI.

But there came a point—after the business was launched, as I was finishing my college degree—where I had to decide if I was going to continue pursuing the entrepreneurial path of nurturing Vital Vio or take a job at a larger biomedical company. Despite my looming college loans, I chose to pivot away from the traditional corporate research track and stick with my pursuit of a better way to fight deadly infections.

Because of the encouragement and mentoring I experienced in those early years, I regularly say yes when asked to speak with Girl Scouts, college Society of Women Engineers programs, or other similar mentoring initiatives designed to spark the interest of young women to pursue STEM careers.

What was the biggest barrier you had to overcome?

The greatest challenge for Vital Vio was and remains to be how to create a cultural shift from just using traditional intermittent cleaning methods to adding a layer of protection with continuous disinfection. Frankly, how to convince people that lights used to illuminate the spaces that they live, work, and play in can also be powered to safely and effectively kill germs.

As an entrepreneur developing a novel technology, I faced the same problem that all entrepreneurs face: how to get the financing needed to fuel the early stages of our business while at the same time continuing to hit critical efficacy and validation milestones.

As a college student launching a business, the bar was even higher. As a female college student launching a healthcare hardware technology business, the obstacles were daunting indeed.

Fortunately, the university I attended has a strong commitment to technological entrepreneurship and offered an array of resources—including business plan competitions—that helped us get started. Once established, I was able to connect with investment groups and accelerator groups focused on fostering female entrepreneurs.

Those organizations—including BELLE Capital USA, Plum Alley Investments, and Springboard Enterprises—have played a significant role in providing the resources, support, capital, connections, and mentoring that are essential to growing an early-stage technology company.

Do you think it's harder or easier for females in your field to start out today?

Commenting not as an expert, but as a survey of one, though barriers still exist for women entrepreneurs—particularly for women in the sciences and engineering—enough doors and alternative routes have been opened by others to provide pathways to success. Barriers may delay you, but they should not deter you.

How has the industry changed since you first started out?

From my perspective, the more pertinent question is How can we change the industry? Every day I work with people up and down the lighting industry supply chain, and with their customers, to expand awareness of the power and potential of lighting. We are working to change the culture so that people understand lights can multitask to both illuminate an interior space and kill germs. The initial reaction now, in 2018, is Who knew lights could kill germs? Check back with us in a few years. I firmly believe people will say "of course my lights are killing germs."

female entrepreneur—Colleen Costello
Brian McConkey

How do you shake off the fear and doubt to pursue your passion?

Fortunately, early in life, I learned that being outside your comfort zone is where growth happens. I have grown to find comfort and value embracing being out of my comfort zone whether I am in a lab working on study protocols, in a client meeting brokering a licensing deal, or on a ski trail negotiating with moguls.

What is the one thing you think every woman needs to become a pioneer in their own field?

Anyone seeking to pave a new path will need tenacity and vision. You have to be asking the right questions. You have to know where you are going if you are going to get there.

What do you wish people knew about what you do that they don't right now?

I wish more people knew that LEDs are available right now that safely and effectively kill germs. When our antibacterial lights are on, they are working to protect people against germs that can cause deadly infections.

These lights—powered by Vital Vio’s White Light Disinfection technology—are available and in use. You can buy Evolution Lighting’s ellumi lights at The Home Depot to better protect your kitchen or bathroom at home. Ambulances can be equipped with a bacteria-killing patient compartment light from Code3. VioSafe lights are working to protect everything from the Chicken & Rice Guys food trucks in Boston to athletes at Duke University. If more people knew that germ-killing lights, safe for continuous human exposure, it could save lives.

What does it take to be a womaneer?

Breaking new ground, in whatever field you are in, requires being focused, tenacious, and persistent. When asked what advice I have for emerging entrepreneurs, there are a half-dozen ideas I share:

1. Make a plan; then execute the details.

Progress—whether in your work life or personal life—does not happen by accident. It requires planning, action, communication, flexibility, and followup.

2. Treasure and cultivate your network.

Build a broad network and stay in contact. The connections you make will make all of the difference in the success of your efforts and in how you live your life.

3. Play three-dimensional chess.

Get in the game. Look at the whole board/landscape, think three or four steps ahead, consider the future consequences of current moves, and then make your play.

4. Prepare to fail.

Do not fear failure, prepare to manage through failure when it happens, because it will.

5. Value differences.

Embrace, mine, amplify the cultural, philosophical, and experiential differences that people have to offer. Be open to the views and ways of others.

7. Take your time.

To excel at work, it is imperative to do more than just work. Getting outside, hearing music, volunteering, spending time with family and friends all will give you the distance and perspective that will help bring often undervalued clarity to your work.

Shop Costello's new bacteria-killing lights below:

Ellumi 12 Inch Antibacterial LED White Under Cabinet Light $91
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Ellumi 18 Inch Antibacterial LED White Under Cabinet Light $150
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Ellumi 24 Inch Antibacterial LED White Under Cabinet Light $144
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Ellumi 9 Inch Antibacterial LED White Under Cabinet Light $72
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Up next, meet the woman disrupting 88 years of the tampon industry. 

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