Name: Catherine C. Swanwick, PhD
Job Title & Company: CEO, Catlilli Games
Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. Robert Wenthold, NIDCD; PRAT Fellow through NIGMS
What was your career progression like after your postdoc?
Near the end of my postdoc, I wanted to look into details to gain experience away from the bench. I ended up getting a position as a Scientific Writer for a non-profit lab called MindSpec in McLean, VA. This was a good fit for me because I was a neurobiologist and I studied synapse development and regulation at the NIH, so I was able to contribute to the scientific conversations. I started doing bioinformatics research for them, but after a couple of years, I decided I wasn’t getting enough people interaction.
Even though I love research, I am more of a people person and I am more of a big picture person where I like to see the direct impact on people’s lives, so I found a job doing science education at a children’s science center. It was kind of like the Little Gym but for science, so we ran a lot of after school programs, fieldtrips, workshops, taught home school groups. I was there for two years as the Director of the Life Sciences Program. I wrote the entire curriculum for ages 3-14 for biology, chemistry, anything in life sciences. I also taught about 14-15 classes per week. It was a pretty intensive teaching boot camp. I worked really hard and since it had such a large age range, one hour you would be teaching three year olds about density, for example sinking or floating; then the next hour, you would be teaching middle schoolers about wave properties. You really just had to be ready for anything. I invented a lot of the curriculum on the fly based on what was or wasn’t working. I was used to the scientific world where I planned everything out very carefully and teaching wasn’t like that at all. I had to learn to improvise, teach different ages and simplify high-level concepts. I really enjoy bringing that cutting edge research world to kids.
While I was there, one of the things that I loved to do was to make games for my classes. I found it to be the most effective way of teaching kids and getting them to learn without realizing it. I would make up games that weren’t trivia games, but would use scientific concepts for the basis of the game. So, as you are playing it, you learn vocabulary and how things work. I had a colleague who did the same thing and he is a brilliant game designer, who has been really passionate about games his whole life. We started making games together that outside people noticed, like the Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences. After this, we realized there weren’t that many STEM applied games. There are math and trivia games, but not many games focusing on life sciences.
We decided to create our own company and together we co-founded Catlilli Games. The name is a combination of our names because my name is Catherine and his last name is Nardolilli, so that is how we got Catlilli. We formed it in January 2015, so we just celebrated our one year anniversary.
How has it been starting your own company?
I’m not a business person at all, but in many ways my training as a postdoc was like small business training because you learned how to manage people and how to budget as well as how to supervise and organize your time. Running a lab is like running a small business.
I have learned that it is not just science skills that you learn at the NIH, you learn a lot of things like management that are applicable in many jobs. I have learned a lot along the way, but my postdoc at the NIH really gave me a strong foundation.
So, I do the business part and my co-founder, Jon does the game design. It has gone really well because Jon has so many ideas and can just churn out games. In July of last year, we were accepted to George Mason University’s game institute. It is called Virginia Serious Game Institute, which isa business incubator for game companies. The other companies make computer games and we are the only tabletop game company. The mission is to make games that teach people and to make learning fun. The other companies focus on a variety of topics, but at Catlilli we focus on K-12 STEM.
We have residency at George Mason, so we occupy office space and we have business mentorship. It has been life changing for our company. We have quarterly deadlines within our year to help us create business plans and get IP patents and things like that. After a year, we graduate from this program but will most likely stay in residency at George Mason.
How did you learn about this opportunity?
I heard about it through the George Mason Enterprise Center, which help small businesses start. They told me about the game institute because I had never heard of such a thing. Apparently, this is the only one in the country but there are some in England that they modeled themselves after. There are world class computer game designers here, so it is really just remarkable. We applied and I didn’t think they would take us because we didn’t make computer games, but they did and they are really excited about our mission and they think it fills a space that isn’t being hit yet.
Since we’ve been here, we have actually been collaborating with the other companies and have been working to turn our tabletop games into apps that can go along with them. They have really liked working on this because the game mechanics are all worked out before moving on to the digital version.
How do you market your games?
We do a lot of events at museums and at schools and then we’ll sell the games. We also sell a lot to teachers and to home school families. In our first year, we haven’t produced a lot because we have been testing to make sure they are right. After we graduate from the institute in July, we are hoping to get investors to mass produce these games and go for a national market.
What has been the most rewarding part of this new venture?
My dream was to have my own lab. I love academia, research and the lab. I never wanted to go to industry. But, being in this position is like having my own lab — only my lab makes board games.
It is almost exactly the same thing, so it is really fun. We are making board games so we have to design them and plan them and test them and there is a lot of scientific method and analysis as well as communicating results to people. I still feel like I’m using that analytical part of my brain, but I also feel like it is toward something that is immediately applied and useful to people, providing more instant gratification. When I show the games to teachers and kids, it seems like everybody really enjoys them and I see that they learn a lot. They will come in not knowing anything about genetics and then they’ll play one of our games and they will leave talking about dominant and recessive genes and the combinations and what that means. That makes me really happy, especially since I feel like I haven’t wasted my training and I am still doing something that makes a significant impact on people’s lives.
What has been the biggest challenge in starting your own company?
I have no business training. I have had to learn how to write a business plan and do finances and all the really fine details. It has been a steep learning curve but I have really great business mentors at Mason, so that has been comforting. It is still a challenge because it is out of my realm.
What are the most important skills which have enabled you to be successful?
I think communication skills because when I was a postdoc, I loved presenting and writing. I enjoyed synthesizing information and presenting it to people. Knowing and connecting with your audience has gotten me far. When we applied for George Mason, I had to come for an interview; on paper I didn’t look like a good candidate. I am a scientist with no business background and I didn’t make computer games. But, I feel like I convinced them that I was passionate about this and dedicated to STEM education. I think that is what got me into the program. My ability to impress upon people that this is a really important issue and we need to connect the cutting edge science world with the education system and I am uniquely suited to do it.
What advice can you give to a postdoc who would like to pursue a similar path?
A lot of postdocs have the ability to have their own small business. If they are interested at all and are creative and have that initiative, the best thing I did was to volunteer in FELCOM. When I was at the NIH, I was in FELCOM and I co-chaired the Career Development and Social Committee. That taught me so much about how organizations work and how people interact with each other, as well as how formal meetings go. I learned so much from getting outside the lab and getting involved in committee work. That type of experience gave me a lot of practical skills.
What are you the most proud of?
We have gotten two awards recently. We were selected in December by the Washington Post as a semi-finalist in their pitch contest. It was kind of like Shark Tank in a way. They picked ten young start-up companies out of 200 nationwide and we were one of them. We had to go downtown to the Washington Post office and give a one minute pitch to try and win $250,000 in advertising.
Out of all the talks that I have ever given, that was the most stressful ever. I was in front of a crowd of 300 people and there were cameras on me. It was stressful, but giving talks at the NIH – so many posters and so many powerpoints – was really good preparation. I kept telling myself it is just like a science talk and it is just one minute.
Even though we didn’t win, it was really exciting and we got a huge amount of exposure.
Last month, we were chosen as a finalist for the Duke University Startup Challenge. I went to Duke as an undergrad and they have this competition every year since 1999. There is one for undergrads and one for alumni, so we are in the alumni competition. So, we were chosen to be in the finals and we launched a campaign on Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing campaign. We are competing to raise money against other Duke alumni and faculty.
Any last bits of advice?
I wish more postdocs would make the connection between lab and business. I feel that if more postdocs realized this, then they could certainly launch their own biotech startup or whatever it might be. Now that I think about it, George Mason has biotech incubator for businesses that do bench lab work and are trying to get off the ground.
But, I love to work and I am used to that research life where you just work, work, work. I take all of the skills from the lab and I use it here. I have learned how to be self-disciplined through doing my PhD and then doing my postdoc project and I don’t need somebody standing over me telling me to work. I credit a lot of these lab skills with teaching me how to be independent.
My biggest advice is just to not be in the lab all day, especially at NIH where there are so many amazing opportunities that you can’t get anywhere else. Whether it is through volunteering or seminars, get out of the lab.