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7 Bay Area Innovators Making Waves This Year

Laura Eckstein Jones | March 19, 2021 | Lifestyle Feature

The next wave of innovators has arrived, bringing a flood of fresh energy to the Bay Area.

BRIT MORIN

PHOTO BY BRITT ANY DAWN PHOTOGRAPHY; WARDROBE BY SCANLAN THEODORE

In the past year, Brit Morin has done more than most of us could achieve in a lifetime. “I launched Selfmade, started a venture fund and built a school,” says the tireless entrepreneur. Morin started her career at Google straight out of college as a bright-eyed, tech-obsessed 20-year-old, where Marissa Mayer was her manager and mentor, and job responsibilities included developing Google Maps and search functionality. At Google, she discovered something interesting. “I noticed that no matter what, the top search queries were how-to oriented and they skewed female, women wanting to learn how to do things, but the search results were really bland and sterile.” Those findings inspired Morin to start Brit + Co—an online community for women that’s now ranked as one of the largest digital media companies for women in the world—in 2011. When COVID hit, the Mill Valley resident launched Selfmade, a 10-week course to help females start their own businesses. “The goal is to get 10,000 women to start companies in 10 years,” she says of Selfmade, which has enlisted women like Gwyneth Paltrow and Netflix CMO Bozoma Saint John to teach courses. In addition, she started a $100 million venture fund and opened a pod-based school that she hopes will change education for the better. “It’s a new model,” she says. “I think this is going to go beyond COVID.”

What drives you to do what you do?

The female empowerment thing comes from my mom, who has dealt with depression her whole life. Being the very ambitious daughter of someone who didn’t believe in herself pushed me in the polar opposite direction. But it also pushed me to instill in every single woman I know that they are pretty enough, good enough and smart enough to try new things.

How has your experience shaped you?

No one was going to teach me in a textbook what I needed to learn in tech because it’s literally changing monthly. Frankly, Google was my MBA. To be given a $50 million budget at age 25 was crazy, but it gave me the confidence to launch my own business and so on and so forth.

You’ve already accomplished so much. What else is on your bucket list?

I want to become one of the best female venture capitalists because of the investments I’ve made. But also, I want to find and create companies that better the world and advance women forward. I don’t know that there’s a delineation of a bar for that. But we’re pretty far behind. So any progress is good progress.

DR. DAVID RABIN & KATHRYN FANTAUZZI

DR. DAVID RABIN & KATHRYN FANTAUZZI PHOTO BY KEITH CARLSEN

Dr. David Rabin and Kathryn Fantauzzi are partners in business and in life. The San Francisco- and Monterey-based duo are behind Apollo Neuroscience , a new tech company that recently launched the Apollo, a wearable device that delivers intentional vibrations—low-frequency sound waves—via an app to help combat stress. Aft er years of testing and trials, the Apollo debuted in January 2020, just as the worldwide pandemic began. “We launched in January and sold out within two weeks,” says co-founder and CEO Fantauzzi. “It was a crazy time to launch a product but, also, I can’t think of a more important time in recent history to launch a product that helps people cope with stress. It helps fortify the body.” To better explain how wearing the Apollo affects the wearer, Rabin uses music for comparison. “Music is extremely effective at changing the way we feel,” he says. “We listen to loud, fast music to boost our energy, and calm, soothing music to wind down or meditate or go to bed. Apollo is the music that we compose based on the neuroscience of how the heart, lungs and the nervous system work together. It’s composed for your skin as a listening organ instead of your ears.”

Who would benefit most from using the Apollo?

KF: Anyone who’s suffering from stress, who would like to help retrain their body to be more resilient to it. It’s really meant to help people regain balance and restore that equilibrium.

Are you meant to wear this all the time?

KF: You can’t overuse it. It’s very safe, just low-frequency sound waves that you feel instead of hear. Healthy people get a lot of benefit because so many of us have trouble sleeping or have excess stress. But we built this with vulnerable populations in mind, so it’s not addictive or habit forming. Kids can use it. The elderly can use it.

Can wearing the Apollo help people suffering from addiction?

DR: In clinical trials, people told us that they stopped using things like opioid painkillers, Xanax, Valium and more and were able to voluntarily taper themselves off these medicines using Apollo. The reason they were able to taper off was because when they felt the withdrawal effects of the drug, they could reliably click on their wrist or leg, and that would calm their bodies and remind them that they’re safe. Now they have something else to rely on that doesn’t have side affects. It was amazing.

SOPHIA WANG

SOPHIA WANG PHOTO BY BRENDAN MAININI/COURTESY OF MYCOWORKS

Climate change as an escalating concern has brought many positive changes in the usual way of doing things, especially in the fashion world. Powerhouse retailer The RealReal has glamorized luxury secondhand clothing, with new boutiques opening every few months, and the industry as a whole is taking steps to reduce unnecessary waste. MycoWorks co-founder Sophia Wang has taken things a step further with the creation of Reishi, a leatherlike material made from mushroom roots via the company’s proprietary Fine Mycelium process. “The foodstock for mycelium is agricultural and lumber byproducts, which means our process uses abundant, plant-basted biomass, rather than the resources to create animal-based or synthetic materials,” says Oakland-based Wang, who’s quick to point out that durable and versatile Reishi is not vegan or mushroom leather. “It’s a new class of premium material for the fashion industry... [and is] uniquely positioned to scale and to have a major impact on the luxury fashion and footwear industries because our approach has always been to put performance and quality first,” she explains. “Brands and consumers are not going to sacrifice performance for sustainability. Performance leads to adoption, and widespread adoption leads to impact.”

How do you think Reishi will make a difference?

We grow Reishi to our brand partners’ specifications and with their final applications in mind, enabling brands to design products from the material on up. It’s a level of control that isn’t possible with animal leathers, which allows for a wider range of design possibilities, minimizes waste and ensures consistent quality.

How is Reishi different from vegan leather?

It offers unparalleled strength, durability and versatility because of the Fine Mycelium process, which is entirely distinct from the way other mycelium materials are produced. Sheets of Reishi can be embossed, stitched and fabricated just like traditional cowhide leather with the unique benefit of customizability.

What inspires you to do what you do?

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring a new material technology into the world. I am not only in service to the remarkable living resource of mycelium and the endless material possibilities it offers, I am also in service to the growing team of people at MycoWorks who are working to scale this technology for the wider world’s benefit—not to mention the international community of artists, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs who have joined this emerging field of research and experimentation.

KATHRYN LASATER

KATHRYN LASATER PHOTO COURTESY OF CHEQUEOUT

It’s undeniable that the retail landscape is changing. The convenience of online shopping makes it almost irresistible, but what’s gained in convenience is lost in connection to the unique and interesting local shop owners along the way. Chequeout, a network connecting shoppers to a curated selection of premium goods and merchants that offers quick, easy and secure payment options, is remedying this issue. Founded by Presidio Heights-based Kathryn Lasater — who held previous positions at business consulting company Sapient and Swift Shopper, a mobile self-scan checkout app for supermarkets—launched the platform in March 2020. “Chequeout was almost an accident,” she says. “I did a last-minute popup on Chestnut Street in 2018 featuring my favorite local small retailers during my tenure at Swift Shopper. I needed users to download our app, so instead of food items I replaced them with higher-end home goods.” It was an immediate success. Now, Chequeout—which Lasater describes as a trunk show/high-end QVC/pop-up meets-online shopping—is thriving, and has been since the pandemic, as people can shop local goods from Sue Fisher King, FOUND by Maja, Simon Breitbard Fine Arts and more remotely and with ease. “Our platform enables us to have multiple merchants and designers on a single call,” says Lasater. “It is one simultaneous shopping cart, and the money goes straight to the merchant. It creates a great direct-to-consumer relationship.”

What’s been your proudest career moment?

We had a 70-plus-year-old elegant Southern woman on one of our early Hudson Grace Zoom calls in Georgia. She was able to download our app and shop using our technology. She loved it. Th at was a proud moment. It showed that we were successful in what we are trying to build. We wanted to provide a mobile app that was simple and efficient to use for any audience—the complex magic is all behind the scenes. I also wanted to mention the enormous support that I have received from other female founders—women who believe in what I am doing. It is an amazing network, and I am so incredibly proud to be included.

What have been some of your toughest career challenges?

Launching this company. I thought that I knew what a startup was, and I used to say to investors at my old company that I was hungry—but I did not know what that meant until Chequeout. Th is is my baby, and it is scary being out there alone without a safety net.

What keeps you going?

I have a co-founder and investor, Meredith Dunn, and the two of us eat, breathe, dream, sleep Chequeout. We are out pounding the pavement every day, and my job is to talk to as many people as I can and perfect our product, network and platform. I have many highs and lows... and for every 50 ‘nos’ or ‘Come back to us in a few months’ that we receive, there will be that one ‘yes’... and that is what keeps me going and going.

RIKARD STEIBER

RIKARD STEIBER PHOTO COURTESY OF RIKARD STEIBER

We all know Benjamin Franklin’s widely repeated phrase, “Nothing is certain but taxes and death.” Despite the statement’s truth, death is a topic we rarely discuss or prepare for in American society, something that’s grown to be even more of an issue with the expansion of our online lives. “Absolutely no one has any idea what’s happening to their digital accounts when they die,” says Rikard Steiber, a longtime tech executive who’s aiming to remedy the problem with GoodTrust, a company he launched aft er losing his father and a good friend at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic. Aiming to protect the digital legacy of your loved ones, the smart service allows you to delegate management of your accounts to those you trust. “You can register your online accounts or social media, upload the most important documents, you can record last goodbyes and more,” he explains. “It’s a smart system, so that in addition to uploading documents, you can say who has access to them and when. It’s essentially taking the pain out of sorting the digital legacy of a loved one.”

Does GoodTrust allow you to delegate your online accounts to different individuals?

Yes. Responsibilities and information can go to your partner, your kids or whomever you decide.

How can GoodTrust help sort out social media accounts and other websites?

We can help make Facebook a nice memory page so the person doesn’t send out awkward birthday reminders. Same thing with LinkedIn. Maybe you close that down so you don’t send work anniversaries. We can also help you grant access to things like domain names or assets you want your family to have. So instead of the surviving spouse trying to contact hundreds of different online sites—there’s really no easy-to-reach customer service at Google or Facebook—we can represent you on your behalf for those different sites.

Is it challenging trying to get people to plan for their own death?

It’s super hard. I’m going through doing a trust and will with my family now, and it’s a painful process. So that’s what we want to do with this planning service that gets you to understand that if you don’t do anything, important things will be lost forever. We can make it very easy for you. If you just want to share the PIN code to your phone, you can do that and have a fail-safe at least.

JOE GREEN

JOE GREEN PHOTO BY TONY MAESTO/COURTESY OF TREEHOUSE

On the surface, psychedelic experiences and community-focused housing may not have much in common. But for San Francisco-based Joe Green, the two are intrinsically linked. After spending his college and post-university years working on community organizing and politics, all combined with tech (he was roommates with Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz at Harvard and is connected to many other leaders in the tech world, including Sean Parker), Green turned inward, spending time at spiritual retreats. From there, he became interested in MDMA and psilocybin’s positive effects on mental health, helping to raise millions in an effort to legalize it for medical use in treating PTSD, addiction and more. “Bill W., who was the founder of AA, said publicly the LSD is what cured his alcoholism,” says Green, who also champions another psychedelic effect. “A lot of people come out of a psychedelic experience understanding that everything is connected.” Th is idea of connectedness inspired Green to team up with Prophet Walker on Treehouse, a growing community-focused co-living complex—filled with lots of shared common spaces and an ethos of neighborly appreciation—that recently opened its first apartment building in L.A. “Whether it’s to nature or to other people, to live in connection is what makes most people happy.”

What’s your idea of utopia?

It’s a society designed around every person feeling loved, safe and able to live their deeper purpose. Today, technological progress has generated material abundance, but it is neither shared equitably nor making us happy. In a utopian world, we would redesign our society to recognize this abundance and meet everyone’s needs—not simply material but emotional and spiritual.

How does that tie into your work with psychedelics and Treehouse?

Many religious traditions teach the path of transcending the illusion of separateness, that suffering comes from believing we are in competition with other people and nature. Psychedelics, through powerful and oft en mystical experiences, help to break down the walls that separate us. Treehouse, in a completely different way, breaks down the walls through community and connection.

What drives you to do what you do?

I think the primary drivers of human behavior are love and fear. From a young age I have been afraid of eventual nonexistence, which has motivated me to make a dent in the universe, to be remembered. When I am able to recognize the fear and gently put it aside, I find I am happiest acting from my love of connecting people, telling stories and designing communities for people to thrive.



Tags: technology

Photography by: FROM TOP: PHOTO BY BRITTANY DAWN PHOTOGRAPHY; WARDROBE BY SCANLAN THEODORE; DR. DAVID RABIN & KATHRYN FANTAUZZI PHOTO BY KEITH CARLSEN; SOPHIA WANG PHOTO BY BRENDAN MAININI/COURTESY OF MYCOWORKS; KATHRYN LASATER PHOTO COURTESY OF CHEQUEOUT; RIKARD STEIBER PHOTO COURTESY OF RIKARD STEIBER; JOE GREEN PHOTO BY TONY MAESTO/COURTESY OF TREEHOUSE