Student Spotlight: Carolyn Yarina and CentriCycle
CHANGING THE WORLD WITH ENGINEERING DESIGN
We spoke with Carolyn Yarina, a 2013 University of Michigan chemical engineering grad, about how a class project she started during her freshman year turned out to be a lifesaving organization that she’s launching full-time after graduation.
1) If you could describe your college experience in one word or phrase, what would it be and why?
Discovery- My college journey, for me, has been about discovering who I am, what I am passionate about, and what I’m capable of. I came in to college with a passion for changing the world but I had no idea how- I assumed I would get a degree, graduate, and go work for a larger company. Over the years I have realized I am an entrepreneur, I’m passionate about using engineering design to solve tangible worldwide problems, and I have the ability and network to launch CentriCycle and change the world.
2) You’ve been involved with CentriCycle since your freshman year. Can you tell us a bit about it and how it all started?
At CentriCycle, we are developing simple, portable medical technology to improve healthcare in the developing world. Our mission is that healthcare should not be stationary, and we are launching in India with our first device, a manually powered centrifuge. A medical centrifuge is a device that rotates at high speeds to separate blood. This is critical because blood separation enables the use of readily available rapid diagnostic tests for diseases such as hepatits B and C, typhoid fever, syphilis, and malaria. It also extends the transportation life of blood from 2 to 8 hours, which is critical if blood needs to be transported or preserved for further testing.
CentriCycle started as most of the best experiences I’ve had: by chance. I had signed up for a freshman engineering design class, ENGR 100: Engineering Design for the Real World, by happenstance because I had asked someone during my orientation what was the best ENGR 100 class and they told me this class was the best but also the most difficult. Then I was assigned 4 random partners, and we were given leave to choose any project. We emailed M-HEAL (Michigan Health Engineered for All Lives) and they happened to send us this need and existing solutions. In that class we designed our first centrifuge, chopped up bicycles outside of our dorm rooms, and used our own blood to test it in the University of Michigan hospital.
After that it was a decision for myself and my partner of 3 1/2 years, Alex Thinath, that we didn’t want our idea and hard work to die in the classroom. We started as project leads through M-HEAL, created a business in the Social Venture Practicum (ENGR 490), travelled to India and were inspired to make CentriCycle into a business. Last summer I worked for a similarly minded company, Embrace Innovations, in India that designs simple, affordable infant warmers for low birth weight babies. I fell in love and knew that this is where I wanted to be working and utilizing my skills.
3) CentriCycle has turned into something really amazing. What has the process been like? What advice would you have for someone who might want to do something similar?
The philosophy I follow is do what you will regret the least and learn the most. It is a bit of a strange philosophy and something that I use as a guideline more than “follow your heart” or “follow your passions” because in my life there are numerous other paths I could have taken that could have made me happy or I could have been passionate about. For awhile I thought I would go into alternative energy. CentriCycle is clearly something I love and am passionate about, but part of the decision was that I knew that if I didn’t do this and throw my self 100% into making this work, I would always wonder “what if?”. Also, there is not a setting I can imagine learning more or being stretched in so many new ways.
The process has really been step by step and looking back it seems logical (even if they might have been hard decisions at the time). We were a class project, then a student org, then we took a class and became a business-minded student org, then we went to India and completely revamped our product and business plan, then school ended and we became a company. What allowed us to get this far is using the available resources, not allowing the silos of the university schools to hold us back, finding good mentors who could tell us when we were going down a wrong path, a willingness to completely scrap years of work if we thought a fresh start would make it better, and finally, perserverence.
If I had to give three pieces of advice:
- Visit your customers first and understand them as early as possible. We waited too long to narrow our focus and visit rural India- that 2 week trip was worth over a year of work.
- Prototype and try out everything- business plans, products, leadership strategies, pitches. You don’t know what will work until you try and you will get much better feedback if you have something to work off of. Your pitch is terrible? It doesn’t matter. Just get up there, say something, watch expressions and make it better next time. Same goes with the whole company. Think you might not be able to run a company and follow your idea through? You’ll never know until you try.
- Take all advice with a grain of salt. What works for one person may not work for you. There is no easy answer and so it is a matter of finding your own path.
Truthfully, it was because Moses [Seelio's CEO] has always been a strong mentor and he asked. I was one of the beta users back when Seelio was TruApp. I thought it was a great concept and an interesting way to include things like my research, artwork, and clubs in a more visual way. I have always thought that pictures are the best way to show a concept. There is a reason a presentation with pictures or infographics tells more than just someone talking. I think the idea of Seelio is to jazz up a resume in order to turn if from a monologue to a presentation with pictures.
In the past, I have used Seelio to showcase some of my work, but recently I have created a page for CentriCycle and am starting to look for potential hires from the Seelio pool. I think it might be an interesting way to find people who will be a good fit as the first employees of CentriCycle: people who are passionate about using technology and business design to change the world and have the drive to be willing to move to India to do so.
5) What work in your Seelio are you most proud of?
Without even thinking, it is CentriCycle. What CentriCycle is, is intertwined at this point with who I am.