On October 6, 2020 the virtual newsletter Paper Bag Daily interviewed the CEO and founder of Cooler Heads, Kate Dilligan. Below is a transcript of that interview, which covers Kate’s personal experience with breast cancer, the creation of Cooler Heads, and more. The bolded sentences indicate that the interviewer is talking and the sentences that are not bolded indicate that Kate is speaking.
Each week we feature female founders doing unbelievable things, all while overcoming insurmountable challenges. But none could be more true than this amazing woman we’re featuring today. A founder who took a personal hardship and built a company that not only has the potential of capturing a $5.4 Billion market, but supporting those fighting for their lives in a way like never before. Meet Kate Dilligan, Founder and CEO of Cooler Heads.
It’s hard to talk about Cooler Heads without talking about your story, Kate. Something changed your life forever in 2016.
I found a lump in my breast on a business trip in 2016. My doctor was telling me how serious it was. It was either stage 2 or stage 3, they couldn’t tell me for sure. But it would require chemo, surgery, radiation, and then oral chemo.
It seems impossible to be able to process that. What went through your head?
I was in shock. I luckily had a friend who went to all my first appointments with me and she also happened to be a lawyer so she asked all the questions I couldn’t even begin to think of.
So you’re about to begin chemotherapy and your friend actually discovers a unique side effect management therapy that will save your hair.
Yes, my friend had come across something called cold cap therapy. It’s a medically induced hypothermia so hair follicles are protected from chemo. Essentially, it’s making your scalp cold to protect your hair.
Which is something I didn’t even know was possible. But you did it and didn’t lose your hair during chemo?
Correct. On several occasions people asked me why I still had my hair. Or they would see me with the cap on in the infusion center wondering what it was. They would tear up and say I really wish I had that choice. I was one of the few that did it.
And when you say you were one of the few that did it, as in cold cap therapy, it’s because it wasn’t an easy process?
Yes, or cheap. I spent $8,000 and I had to have someone to help administer it. Which is why not many people do it. Both the cost and amount of work that goes into it which then not only dissuades patients, but also doctors from even mentioning it as an option.
Wow. And all while going through this physical and emotional battle to save your life. (We are happy to say that Kate is now in remission!) Once you beat cancer, when did the idea for Cooler Heads come to you?
During that time, I was also in the middle of a career change and unsure what I was going to do. While having coffee with a friend, I mentioned that I wanted to help educate cancer patients about cold cap therapy. But he just looked at me and said, “Hey, why don’t you just build a better one?”.
And that was it?
I thought about it, started to socialize the idea. I had been in tech, in software, but I had no idea how to build a med device. And then I realized you just have to have the capacity to learn.
That’s a great point. And at times I don’t think we give enough credit to one’s personal experience and how much that plays into knowing the customer. What was your big first step?
I was introduced to a professional services engineer firm. I said, I want you to build this, how would you do it? I invested $30,000 of my own money and essentially their task was, can we make this? And it turns out we could!
How have you reimagined cold cap therapy?
We’ve built a wearable device that’s portable so it’s also more convenient. I knew my business model before I even knew if we could build the product. A good wig costs $800, so I wanted ours to be comparable. Now, all chemotherapy patients have an accessible, affordable option if they want to keep their hair.
That’s amazing. And something you told me has stuck with me. That it’s not just about the vanity of keeping your hair. It’s much deeper.
It is much deeper. I always say three things. Privacy. Agency. Identity. Privacy as in controlling who knows. As many men use cold caps as women. They don’t want people to know they are sick. Agency is about giving patients some control back. And as for identity, seeing someone you recognize in the mirror when you brush your teeth.
Cold cap therapy is first for Cooler Heads with the plan to start selling the product in Q3 of 2021. What’s beyond that?
I realized for all my professional or academic success that I had no idea how to be a cancer patient. Our mission is to build products cancer patients need to thrive during and after treatment. We can’t change the reality of someone facing cancer treatment, but we can make it a lot less scary and easier to manage.