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Tech Innovators: Kate Stephenson of Dyad Engineering

Tech Innovators: Kate Stephenson of Dyad Engineering

This month’s profile features a very talented professional, one of the more fascinating women in technology. Kate Stephenson is the owner and founder of Dyad Engineering, which bills itself as an “innovation and engineering consulting firm dedicated to effective design and tech strategy for new medical products.”
Kate’s expertise is wide-ranging and includes breakthroughs in ophthalmology, pediatrics, 3D and digital design of patient-specific devices, and more. We had the chance to sit down and chat with Kate about how she got started in the world of health engineering and how her education and personal interests became the building blocks for her successful business today.

From dollhouses to durable medical equipment

Kate Stephenson comes from a long line of machinists, including her father and grandfather. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to learn that her interest in building things emerged at a young age. She recalls being just 4 or 5 years old when her obsession for princesses and dollhouses turned into something more akin to engineering.
“I made very elaborate dollhouses,” she says. “I raided my dad's garage and used all of his power tools to build them.”
“I also made very elaborate costumes,” she adds. At around 12 years old, Kate put together a full Marie Antoinette costume out of 17 different pieces of fabric, including an embroidered infrastructure with boning. This first example of Kate’s drive and attention to detail is something she looks back on fondly as a sign of her need to know how things work. “I always said, ‘I want to make this thing. Now, how do I make it?’”
Tiny Piano Made By Kate

Pursuing higher education

Her curiosity followed her to Stanford University after high school, where Kate explored a variety of subjects including a pre-med concentration, while paying her own way through school and participating in Division I sports. By the time she reached the midpoint of college, she had embraced her family’s legacy of building things. She left Stanford with an engineering degree and a love of science and clinical medicine, ready to make her mark on the world.
Kate’s first step was in a high-tech startup, and her first product was no larger than a sugar cube. “The number-one thing that got me hired was the 10 years of miniature building and dollhouse experience because I was very, very good with a set of tweezers,” she says, wryly.
Still, Kate missed working in medicine so she returned to school a few years later to get her master’s degree from Stanford.

Asking the hard questions

Not quite ready for a doctorate, Kate returned to the workforce where, over the course of the next 7 years, she collaborated on over 18 different product designs. The breadth of her work was notable, as she took on projects in digital systems, electronics, software, and biocompatibility. Despite the opportunity to work on new designs all of the time, Kate still craved a challenge and began asking some very difficult questions:
  • Why are certain devices never made?
  • Why are pediatric devices so horrible?
  • Why are women's devices still horrible?

Back to school – for a third time

That's when Kate realized a Ph.D. was in her future, and the then-wife and mother of two young children returned to school a third time. During her Ph.D. program, she immersed herself into 3D printing and digital technologies, and she further explored the questions that no one really seemed to be answering.
Key among them, “How do you support nontraditional innovators in medical technologies?”
This question became the thesis for not only her Ph.D. but her entire life. Kate started to draw parallels between her time in the startup world, especially those startups with big medical ideas. She sought to determine just how it may be possible to innovate for things that don't have a good traditional business model.

Forming Dyad Engineering

After a series of post graduate hurdles, including the loss of her traditional job, Kate faced another tough choice: Where do I go now? Lying in bed one night, she came up with an idea.
She shares her thinking at the time: “I've got kids, I've got challenges, I've got financial needs. And right now, the only way that I'm going to meet all of those things is if I go into high-value consulting.”
In 2019, Kate started Dyad Engineering, her one-person consultancy. She hired a lawyer to help her get started, and she read every book she could find on consulting. “It was basically the crash course, MBA.” Nine months of persistent phone calls and LinkedIn networking netted her first client, one of the top pharma companies in the world.
What does she think of where she is now? “It has been a wild ride, a crazy journey,” she admits. “But it is work I love.” Her career also gives her the flexibility she needs in her current lifestyle and the current pandemic-fueled marketplace.

Using her knowledge of very, very small things

One may assume that going from working with startups on very detailed projects to running an entire company took a change in perspective. Kate shares that her attention to the intricate is what makes her the right person for the larger job.
She gets paid to keep track of the minutia. Her clients need her to look at medical trends, how they are changing and evolving, and how to pull out those trends at timely and important points for her clients.
Kate cites her ability to speak the language of multiple stakeholders as one way she’s able to get big jobs done. Having a foot in both the business and engineering worlds has helped her grow her own business while she understands her client's nuanced needs.
The multiple roles she plays are natural for her and something she embraces. "I'm either a very distracted engineer, or I'm a very detail obsessed strategist,” she says.

Kate’s advice for future tech innovators

What does a one-woman consultancy firm have to say to those who also feel a spark toward making the world better through engineering?
“Do what works for you, and get to know what that is,” Kate says. She admits that there have been many times she has worried about whether she should be a manager in a larger company before striking out on her own, or if her straight-to-the-executive route was the best path. She even questioned whether her company had value with just one person. She says she should have been asking, “Is this what really works for me?”
She continues, “So, if you are the kind of person who wants to stay in startups, don't freak out over people who are saying you need to go work for a big corporate company for so many years. If you thrive on being around large groups of people and a really structured environment, don't feel bad that you're not a wild, crazy person who wants to work out of your garage.”
Healthcare Device

What’s next for this leader?

Kate’s journey has been equal parts industry research and personal discovery, and she never seems to shy away from altering her path when it suits her and her family best.
She explains, “The seven years I was at a design firm, that's when I had my two kids, and I needed to be in a place where I could come in, do my job, and leave at the end of the day. That's very different from where I am now, where I've got a 14-year-old and a 10-year-old. They're kind of going off doing their own thing.”
Now, it's not uncommon for her to work past 1 a.m. or take a last-minute flight across the country. She acknowledges that part of being successful and fulfilled is recognizing that there are different points in her life where she needed to pivot. Frequent check-ins with her goals, as well as understanding her overarching plan, have always been a part of her career development.

Seeking a supporting role

She would often ask, “What do I want to be doing in another 3 to 5 years? Am I doing something that's gonna get me there?”
Kate says her future could include a book, since she’s wanted to be an author for some time. She’s also looking forward to developing some resources to get into angel investing. Her journey has introduced her to many amazing founders who are doing something she believes in, but they aren’t likely to get traction with a traditional startup financing method. This is especially true for women launching startups.
She says, “There is so much amazing tech out right now that’s not being invested in.” Kate would love to be a part of the funding that helps those future influential women in tech go out and get the job done.

Learn more

Dyad Engineering offers strategy, facilitation, research, and education for a variety of industries, with a focus on the planning and execution of new health-related tech. From determining product feasibility to investor pitch coaching, Kate's understanding of health technology and her experience in the startup world can help companies of all sizes.
Dyad has a track record of reviewing patents, discovering new manufacturing processes, and more. You can reach Kate through her website and read about her work on her blog.
About the Author: Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP Tech@Work. Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping consumers and small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.

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