Interview with Claire Watts03.08.2023
A conversation with Claire Watts, CEO and Co-Founder of ThruWave.
Please tell us about your scientific background.
I have always been passionate about science. In high school, I fell in love with physics. For my undergraduate degree, I majored in physics at a small liberal arts university, which was a safe space to explore science. There was a lot of mentoring; I got into the lab early in my college days. That continued my passion. I received my PhD in physics at Boston College where I experienced all things in novel imaging. After that, it was a natural path to join Matt Reynolds’ lab in the Electrical Engineering department at UW as a post-doc in 2015. I already knew at that point that the traditional academic path was not for me; I was not going into this post-doc with the idea of pursuing an academic professorship. That was one of the things that attracted me to Matt’s lab – he had all these industry connections. He had started three companies before I got there. We were on the same page that, at the very least, he was going to introduce me to a lot of industry contacts in Seattle.
Please tell us your entrepreneurial background story.
In Matt’s lab, I researched millimeter wave (mmWave) imaging. We quickly realized that this research was ripe for commercialization. We officially started ThruWave in 2017 with another post-doc, Andreas Pedross-Engel. ThruWave makes the invisible visible with 3D mmWave imaging. What that means is that we have created a solution where we can, at very high throughputs, image cartons and packages in warehouse environments and create a 3D image of what is inside the box. We then have analytics that pull out important metadata based on what our customer needs. We can count items, look for defects and abnormalities, or verify kits. Currently, we are a team of eight in Seattle. It is crazy how much we have grown in the past five years, but it has been a lot of fun. I started as a co-founder, was the VP of Operations, and am now the CEO of the company.
Could you talk more about your initial journey to becoming the VP of Operations instead of a CEO or CSO role?
Matt was our original CEO. That just made the most sense. He had more experience in terms of the financial, pitching, and fundraising aspects. I learned a lot from being one of the first three members of the company. One of the things that surprised me the most about joining ThruWave is I did not realize the aptitude I would have for customer relations and the logistic aspects of project planning and deployments. That was different than my academic career where it was more individual contributions to research projects. It was actually exciting to be more on the operations end. A former CEO of ours said at that time that no matter what your role is within the company, you will always be a founder. That is something that can never be taken away from you. Let your skills lead you to your position but always have that ownership that you helped create the company. That is very powerful.
Currently, you are the CEO of ThruWave. How did that transition happen, and how have you grown in that role?
We brought in our previous CEO after my other co-founder wanted to pass along the position – he was with us for about 18 months before stepping down in December 2022. It was a mutual decision between him, the board and the founders, and it definitely made the most sense for the company. Our previous CEO had a ton of experience with large enterprise deals, but realistically that was a bit overkill for where we were at as a company. We decided that a return to founder leadership was the most strategic. I stepped into the CEO role and Andreas, my co-founder, stepped into the CTO role. I have been working intimately with all our customer deployments, so I have a good handle on pain points and customer ROI. Our previous CEO and I had also been doing investor pitches together, so it was a natural process for me to step in and take over that role.
Stepping into the CEO role has been challenging, but also provided a lot of room for growth as a leader and in my management style. Probably the hardest part has been letting go of the technical tasks that I was so involved in from the beginning. I’m lucky I’ve had a great team that I can trust with all the important details so I can focus on sales and fundraising.
What was your experience in fundraising?
Matt was initially the one pitching. Andreas and I helped with the pitch deck. For the first few years of the company, it was more on the back end that I was helping with the fundraising effort. When you are a hardware and solutions company, investors and potential customers want to come in and see your product at work. It is not enough for us to have a video demo. Through these demos, I was talking with investors and selling our product to potential customers.
Now that I’ve stepped into the CEO role, fundraising and talking to potential investors is a huge part of my job. This is a part of the CEO role that I really enjoy. As one of the founders, I really believe in our tech and the commercial viability of our product. I think I have a great perspective as a founder, someone who knows the tech in and out, and my background with customers. It allows me to speak about ThruWave from many different perspectives.
What are the biggest differences between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur? Was there anything surprising?
Even though I knew I was not going to pursue the academic route, I had a traditional post-doc – I had a linear research path and was focused on contributions such as papers and academic conferences. One thing that has been different at the startup is the need to pivot and focus on many different things while taking on several distinct roles. The thing that surprised me is my natural ability to talk to customers and potential investors. My academic career prepared me more for this than I anticipated. During conference presentations and defenses, you get good at explaining your technology and answering questions at a level where other people can understand. It was a surprise to me how much I liked working with customers.
Do you have entrepreneurial mentors or sponsors? How did the relationship start, and what has it brought to you?
UW CoMotion, the technology commercialization office, was a huge help in learning how to be an entrepreneur. Not only did they give us some initial funding so Andreas and I could start working for the company full time, but they have a lot of resources for first time founders – information that is very Entrepreneur 101. But I would never have done this without Matt’s mentorship. As I mentioned, Matt had started three companies before ThruWave. Not only did he know good technology and the process of fundraising, but he is a teacher at heart. He was very patient with us. Andreas and I were coming from this scientific background, and he was able to teach us a lot about the business aspect. With Matt, I was allowed, for lack of a better term, to ask the naive questions. He was instrumental to where I am now at ThruWave.
What differences have you noticed in your experience as an entrepreneur versus those of your male colleagues?
I think the largest difference is that women, young women especially, are not what people picture when they think of tech entrepreneurs. There is often this initial reaction or surprise – sometimes the first time that someone meets you, they do not know quite what to expect and can be slightly dismissive. Often that can be overcome by talking about your technology and company. It can be tough entering those conversations knowing that you are not the expectation the other person had in mind.
I think there is this common thought that women tend to have imposter syndrome. But we should be careful on focusing that this is an internal attitude that women have and ask ourselves what part of these reactions are a very real understanding of how people are treating us. It is not just this internal attitude adjustment; what are we doing to change the ways people are treating women in this field? To say that these women just need to be more confident is actually gaslighting women who are being treated differently. I think it is a balance – there is an internal aspect but a real way that people treat women entrepreneurs.
What life hacks had you put into place to allow you to pursue entrepreneurship?
I am incredibly lucky that I live in Seattle with my family. I have a network of support that exists outside of work and formal mentorship. It is important to have support outside of work. The whole idea of work-life balance is incredibly important. I have tried to find balance, but it can be difficult when trying to start your own company. My life hack is I try to exercise once a day, even if it is only 10 minutes while taking my dog out for a walk. It centers me and is time that I take for myself. That has helped balance the stress.
What was the best advice that you received? And to counter that, did you receive any advice that you would not pass along to another aspiring female academic entrepreneur?
Some good advice that I received was don’t be afraid to pivot. I think for any founder, you have ownership over your technology – it is your baby. It is easy to get attached to this vision. But ultimately, the second you start to sell your technology, it becomes not your own anymore. It is important to listen to customers, investors, and end users. Use that opportunity to pivot in a direction that you may not have predicted. For ThruWave, our initial technology was to look inside walls and be this super-stud finder. During our market research, we got approached by a large e-commerce company that wanted to use our technology in their warehouses. We had to shift – we are not looking inside walls; we were looking inside boxes. Even if it is painful, you need that willingness to let your technology shift to what makes most sense for your company.
Some bad advice is this sense that when starting a company that you need to eat, sleep, and breathe your company. You have to be present 24/7. There is some of that when starting a company, but I think to survive and stay sane, it is important to be away, try other things, and not let it completely overtake you. Being miserable does not equal being productive. That was a notion that I tried to fight. It is possible to have a life and also be a really good founder. This could be internalized from the way that we treat tech startup companies. There is this notion, especially if you are a female founder, that you need to work twice as hard. This is less from a particular person but internalized from the ether, but it is deep none the less. I still fight against it every day.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?
This goes back to where the word deter can be viewed in both an internal and external sense. Personally, I was not confident enough to do this without Matt being a more experienced co-founder. That was an internal confidence issue for me. I think when you look at the number of women in STEAM, including the number of women of color in STEAM, we should not just blame internal attitudes. I would have had a lot more confidence if I saw more female founders. I would have felt more willing and excited to fundraise if I knew I was not going into a room full of men. It is a bit of the chicken and the egg problem. I am not saying I know how to solve it. I just know that I would have felt more confident and comfortable seeing the field more diverse.
What are some of the biggest takeaways from your experiences? What advice would you give a current female academic trying to commercialize their technology?
One of the biggest takeaways is to talk to as many people as possible about your idea. Learn your elevator pitch. If you are at a party, a brewery, or a university event, give it. The more that you hone your idea and say it aloud, you learn things and never know if you can be talking to a potential partner, investor, or customer. All that feedback, especially very early on, is important. Crowdsourcing your ideas is very valuable. With how many times I have said that ThruWave makes the invisible visible at a party, people probably get tired of it. More specifically in starting a company, the one thing that I learned is that the people you choose to take this journey with you are almost as important as the technology itself. Choose people that you trust and respect, and that respect you. I have been so lucky at ThruWave with Matt and Andreas, and we hired great people. A company is a sign of its people, and it is what they do with the technology that can make it special or not.