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When the Scatological becomes Logical: Working at OpenBiome

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Clara Kerwin ’16, current PP55 Fellow at OpenBiome

Clara Kerwin ’16 grew up in the small town of Ashland, Oregon. She attended Princeton where she majored in Politics with a certificate in Global Health and Health Policy. Clara is fascinated by the intersection of medicine, public health, and international development. Accordingly, she has studied the political and health care systems of a variety of countries including Nepal, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Here she shares how she’s motivated by the entrepreneurial spirit at OpenBiome.

One of the most striking, and somewhat paradoxical, aspects of working at OpenBiome is that we’re taking something (i.e. feces) so utterly mundane and ubiquitous, and transforming it into a potentially revolutionary treatment.  I was first attracted to OpenBiome based on the simple ingenuity underlying OpenBiome’s mission.  Who would have thought that the scatological may, in fact, be the logical solution to a slew of health conditions including infections, allergies, chronic diseases, mental illnesses and more?  Well, the individuals who first founded OpenBiome (Mark Smith ’09 and James Burgess ’09) did.  And it is their relentless ambition that has inspired me to start thinking about problem-solving in a more entrepreneurial way.

I am by no means an entrepreneur.  I never had my own lemonade stand in elementary school.  I never dreamed of opening my own business.  And I still don’t really think I ever will.  But at OpenBiome, I have gotten to see first-hand how a business is built, and I think many of the lessons contained in our everyday office dynamics are valuable in any workplace environment.  OpenBiome is a young company, and even over the past six months, I feel like I’ve been witness to some pretty encompassing transformations.  I’ve gotten to see the office space go from mostly empty to brimming.  Many of my team’s go-to websites have been switched up.  I joke with my colleagues about what big change next week will bring.  And it’s true that nearly every day small improvements and innovations are implemented which encourage efficiency and growth.

I’m sure similar alterations can be seen in most workplaces, however, I have never been in an environment where talent and creativity are so impeccably balanced.  While many business ventures may have an underlying profit-seeking motive, OpenBiome (and the people who work here) are inspired by something else.  Being surrounded by people who come from diverse backgrounds and are unabashed in voicing their unique perspectives has pushed me to take my own ideas seriously.

Clara Kerwin '16
OpenBiome petri dishes

Lately, I’ve been listening to this NPR podcast called How I Built This.  This series consists of interviews with the entrepreneurs who founded various companies from Spanx to Airbnb to Zumba. One of the reasons I like this podcast so much is that many of the individuals who made it big were actually amateurs — they never went to business school, they didn’t have much money, they had no idea where to start.  Nevertheless, they all recognized a space in society that needed filling, and they had the grit to go for it.  My time at OpenBiome has given me a close-up look at how the entrepreneurial spirit can work on both macro and micro levels.  Certainly, OpenBiome itself epitomizes many of the traditional attributes of a “start-up” culture.  But I’ve increasingly begun to appreciate that there’s still room for innovation and radical thinking a couple feet down on the totem-pole.  As my OpenBiome experience continues, I hope to keep exercising my own entrepreneurial muscle.

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