Women We’re Watching: Sabrina Kenemy of Tech Start-Up Tap
Smart phones have undoubtedly transformed the way we live our lives, becoming the go-to for crafting work emails, Googling everything and even doubling as a camera to snap Instagramable moments.
The woman to thank for revolutionizing digital imaging? Sabrina Kenemy, who co-invented the camera-on-chip (CMOS) technology at the core of every single smart phone and digital camera. She was also the co-founder and CEO of Photobit Corp (which commercialized the CMOS sensor technology) and most recently co-founded TAP, a high tech start-up that’s reinventing input technology through advanced wearables.
While this tech entrepreneur is on fire, it wasn’t until she dropped out of nursing school and took a math and science class on a whim that she fell in love with the industry—ultimately discovering electrical engineering and making a complete career shift (something Sabrina says is never too late to do).
Sabrina’s impressive career as a women advancing tech one invention at a time, lifelong passion for saving the planet and ability to maintain a strong vision when the going gets tough make her a woman we’re watching.
Your career as a female in technology is quite impressive! You actually started your career in nursing school. What led you to shift gears to tech?
I did start out as an intensive care registered nurse at a teaching hospital in Burlington Vermont. I enjoyed the work very much, but, after watching two cohorts of medical students complete their programs, I realized that I was still doing the same work, and couldn’t advance with just my Associates degree.
So, I decided to return to school. I took a science and math class as an experiment to see if I wanted to move in that direction, and ended up loving it and doing very well. I enrolled in Columbia University, starting as an undergraduate, where I discovered electrical engineering, and continued all the way through graduate school to get my doctorate. I often tell people that it’s never too late to change to a new career. A career lasts a long time, and spending a few years to find a new direction is a great investment in your future.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a female advancing the tech world?
An important, and positive, thing for girls to know is that the engineering and science world is—by and large—a meritocracy. I encountered no limitations when I was working as a research engineer. This unfortunately may change as you move into management. You can face problems in two opposite ways; on the one hand, certain senior positions may be less accessible for you. On the other hand, when you do advance, men will sometimes falsely attribute your achievements to having received preferential treatment, rather than to your ability.
I also found that, at least in my time as CEO of Photobit, the venture capital community was openly biased against CEOs from all sorts of groups; females, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, while elevating specific male ‘types’ who they considered to be more bankable.
You co-invented the camera-on-a-chip technology, which is at the core of every smart phone and digital camera. What does the behind-the-scenes look like, in taking an invention from lab to marketplace?
The process was extremely challenging both from a business and technical standpoint. From an engineering standpoint, we had to battle through enormous problems of perfecting and developing a very early stage technology to bring it to the point that it could be commercialized.
With each advance came a slew of difficult problems that we needed to solve. On the business side, we had to battle through a huge amount of skepticism and push-back from the entrenched companies in the field. Long after the basic technological hurdles were overcome, we still had trouble winning customers for this amazing new technology.
On both the tech and business fronts, the most important thing that we did was to maintain a strong vision and belief about what we were offering to the industry and to the world—this is what kept our team together, allowed us to build trust with our investors and customers, and eventually made us successful.
Tell us more about your most recent endeavor as the co-founder of TAP. How did you get the idea, and what has that experience been like for you so far?
TAP is a really exciting project—it is the first venture since I sold Photobit that was compelling enough to lure me out of retirement. Tap is a wearable keyboard that allows you to write text or control any digital device just by tapping your fingers on any surface.
The TAP project is the brainchild of Dovid Schick, an inventor and entrepreneur who I’ve collaborated with since my days at Jet Propulsion Labs. He was working on the problem of how we will interact with new wearable technology, such as smartwatches and augmented reality glasses. TAP solves this problem by eliminating the need for a physical keyboard that requires a dedicated surface or a touch-screen display. This technology has virtually unlimited potential, and I believe that it will change the way that we think about keyboards in the same way that CMOS sensors changed the way we thought of photography.
But to me, one of the really compelling things about it is the potential to improve the health and wellness of people in the near future. For the past hundred years, humans have been hunching over their keyboards—whether they are on laptops or phones or on your desk—and we all suffer problems with our posture which lead to pain in our necks, shoulders and backs. TAP allows you to write in any position that you want—without using your eyes—and without hunching your shoulders over your keys.
What was it like to come out of retirement to work on TAP?
The experience of working again after enjoying my retirement has been a mixed blessing. I love the challenge of getting this great technology past its infancy and into the mainstream, and I love working with the great team at TAP. Also, one of the unique things about this project is that we get an amazing amount of positive feedback from users. At every trade show that we go to, we are deluged with people who want to try this great new thing, and the reactions that we get are so enthusiastic and positive that it is overwhelming. On the other hand, I appreciate the time that I had when I was not dealing with the constant stress and struggle of a start-up.
What goals do you have for your company and yourself in the next three years?
The next three years at TAP will be the critical time of migrating this technology into the mainstream. We have ambitious goals in the areas of technology, business development and marketing, and I think that you will be seeing a lot of us in these coming years.
For myself, I have to admit that I have goals that go beyond my work at TAP. I am a lifelong environmentalist, and I feel that my skills and energy must be turned in that direction in this critical time. While I will continue to work with pushing TAP forward, I also plan to devote more of my time to the essential work of saving the planet.
Over the years, you’ve received several awards including L’Oreal-UNESCO Helena Rubinstein “Outstanding Women in Science” award and NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal. What has been your proudest moment in your career thus far?
There have been many things that I feel were great achievements for myself and my team, but I want to focus on something that entrepreneurs don’t always talk about. At the end of 2001, I sold Photobit to Micron. People often think that selling a company is easier than building it, but this is not always the case.
The Micron transaction took place in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble, which was a catastrophic event for technology companies, and made raising money—and certainly selling—a company such as Photobit close to impossible. Crafting that transaction took months of almost ‘round-the-clock’ work, which challenged all of my skill and determination. It saved the company, and is why the Photobit designs are still the leaders in the industry.
What advice would you give young women who want to start a career in tech?
My advice for both men and women is to pursue an undergraduate degree in any of the STEM disciplines. From there, all possibilities are open. You can start by working in a technical capacity and then move into management or business development if you’d like a less technical career. You can pursue a higher degree either in a technical field or in business or finance and join the tech industry that way.
If this is not feasible, there are other ways in. If you are a self-starter and don’t mind working hard, join a start-up where you will be tasked with a wide variety of jobs and ones that might be “beyond your level.” Work hard, be open to learning new skills and you will rise within the company.
At WELL, we believe wellness comes in all forms. What does wellness look like for you?
For me, wellness is about self-knowledge, and self-empowerment. Understanding oneself allows you to live life choicefully, with grace under pressure, and with complete presence and engagement in what you are doing. Being empowered, to me, is about being true to yourself, and being connected to your compete self, from your intellect to your sexuality.
Personally, I have a daily Ashtanga Yoga practice, which keeps me centered and grounded as well as strong and limber. Women in business are innate multitaskers, and I think that everyone—especially women in business—can benefit from finding some physical practice that grounds us and brings us back to our bodies.
Interested in more successful women changing their industries? Read about this CMO’s desire to bring CBD to more mothers, and this co-founder’s goal to make fragrance more about accessibility.