As she reached for a gallon of milk at the grocery store, a clerk came by to spray down the shelves right in front of Christina Drake.
It was the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, as stores everywhere struggled with methods of satisfying conditions to remain open.
In this case, it was the smell of bleach that almost made Drake sick.
“I was sitting there trying not to swallow because I didn’t want to start coughing,” said Drake, who is asthmatic. “I was in such a bad mood checking out and I thought, ‘Why isn’t it disinfected (already)?’”
When she returned home, she went straight to Google: “How does bleach work?” “How does hydrogen peroxide work?”
The more she learned, the more she saw an opportunity.
Drake has since been working on Kismet Technologies, a company that uses nanotechnology to create a liquid solution that transforms surfaces into self-disinfecting ones for a certain period.
The innovation’s timing has helped Kismet run off a string of victories, with a recent $5 million seed round followed up by a $1 million National Science Foundation research grant.
“It just came out of my own frustration with disinfection and watching everyone try so hard to disinfect surfaces,” Drake said. “I thought, ‘Man, there has not been any really good innovation in disinfection since … 40 years ago.”
Kismet has developed a proprietary nanotech-based coating initially meant to decrease a rise in infections in healthcare-related environments, like hospitals.
However, its application could eventually be extended to restaurants, cruise ships and schools.
Kismet plans to use the funding, in part, to navigate the complicated application processes seeking crucial certifications from both the Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
That process can sometimes take years.
“This is the daunting part,” said Kismet President Shari Costantini, who came on in June 2022 as cofounder. “Just the not knowing and going down this pathway. Neither one of us was in the chemical manufacturing business before. There is a level of complexity here.”
Help from the community
After finding some early success, Drake had an adviser suggest a cofounder that would complement her skillsets.
That’s when she was introduced to Costantini, who had 18 years of experience in building businesses in the healthcare space.
“That’s not something you can learn overnight,” Drake said. “You learn by doing. It’s sales and thinking about sales structure, customers and putting in infrastructure in place as guard rails for what we are doing.”
Kismet Technologies moved into a 10,000-square-foot office near the Orlando International Airport early this year. The company now employs 15 as it pushes forward in Central Florida.
The $5 million seed round includes contributions from strategic investors, family offices and the Florida Opportunity Fund.
The money will help Kismet develop its patent-pending product, which allows surfaces to remain disinfected for months at a time. The solution works against some of the more severe illness-causing germs.
At its core, the solution being created by Kismet makes a form of hydrogen peroxide on demand.
“We are very mission-driven,” she said. “If you can do tech like this, you can do a lot of good. Getting this product to market will change infection control in a way that positively impacts people.”
The company has drawn its outside supporters, a fact that helped Drake validate her idea early on.
Kismet has benefited from a network of entrepreneurs who provide valuable feedback regularly.
That has helped Costantini and Drake know when they were on the right path – and when they might have to course correct.
Costantini said Drake has qualities that most good entrepreneurs have.
“She is very tenacious and resilient,” Costantini said. “When I think about what it takes to be an entrepreneur, those are very important.”
A ‘perfect’ connection
Drake credits her introduction and connection to Constantini to advisers she has had in the region.
At the time of the introduction, Drake faced several challenges, including seeking real-world product validation, raising money and seeking approval from the EPA.
Ray Villegas, who at the time had been brought on to the UCF staff as the Business Incubation Program’s first program manager for mentorship and first customer connections, introduced her to entrepreneur Richard Harem.
Harem had been heavily involved in the Entrepreneurs Alliance of Orlando, alongside Costantini.
“I don’t think Richard or I can take credit for the synergy they produce as the ‘dynamic duo,’” Villegas said. “But the timing of their introduction was perfect.”
Since she has been building the company, Drake has been riding a wave of positive news.
She appeared on a Forbes 1000 List.
And, on top of the fundraising, she had an opportunity to pitch to one of the original sharks, Kevin O’Leary, in his StartEngine pitch competition.
The feedback has been invaluable.
“It helped us learn what parts of the business looked good from the outside,” she said. “We loved being able to get feedback from people who knew and told you the truth about whether your baby was ugly.”
Champagne on ice … for now
The company has taken the responses to heart.
Drake says that every milestone crossed just makes them focus on the next one.
However, once Kismet becomes a scalable business, it will be time to take it all in.
“That will be the ultimate validation,” she said. “That’s when we will finally take a deep breath. That’s when we will high-five and break out that bottle of champagne.”