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  • Writer's pictureRenée Watson

Meningitis to Melinda

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

From nearly loosing a child to being given a shout out by Melinda Gates, this year has truly been a rollercoaster. Like most Founders I spend most of my time pushing ahead, not looking back but amidst the endless entrepreneurial success stories I read online it feels like the right time to reflect and share a real story of a year of extreme highs and lows.

My 2018 started in the jungle of Laos, it was my 40thbirthday wish to stay with my family in a treehouse in a gibbon sanctuary. And so I sat watching monkeys play in the canopy of Nam Kan National Park. It was bliss. I had successfully closed a quarter of a million pound funding round to set Curiosity Box up for its next stage of growth and had hit our Christmas targets. 10 days later none of that mattered anymore as I sat next to my 10 year old daughter on an emergency bed in Laos Friends Hospital for Children (LFHC) squeezing her hand as she braved a lumbar puncture with only topical anaesthetic. We’d been out in the mountains prepping for a trek to some remote villages when the signs started to appear – photosensitivity, high temp, headache and severe lethargy. There was no rash (that only happens in 30% of cases) but when Anika told me her spine hurt I was pretty certain it was Meningitis. The 4 hour drive back to Luang Prabang on terrible, bumpy roads with my daughter slumped in my arms was possibly the worst 4 hours of my life. Fortunately, the treatment we received from LFHC, which is such a beacon of hope for the children of Laos, was exemplary and after 7 days of IV antibiotics Anika was fine and we were all ready to return to our own home.

On my return a fellow science enthusiast flagged up a post that Melinda Gates had shared naming me as one of 6 “women in STEM to watch in 2018”. Having worked on a Gates Foundation Malaria research project earlier in my career, I’ve always admired Melinda for her down to earth approach to getting stuff done and I’ll admit I had a bit of a moment spluttering “She knows my name!”. Interestingly this was the beginning of what has become something of a year of lists. I have no idea how these lists come about but it’s clear that people like a list, they get shared online and they do seem to arrive right at the moment when I feel like I could be doing so much more/better. The two other lists I’ve made this year that stick in my mind were by Goldieblox and Adafruit – both organisations I have long admired…some might say stalked, for their amazing work bringing science and engineering to life in people’s imaginations and homes.

Despite the shout outs I have been plagued by the imposter syndrome this year. In fact the bigger Curiosity Box gets the bigger the stakes feel. I remember having an almost out of body experience hearing myself say “I’m a terrible business person” in a meeting and at the same time thinking “why am I saying that, I don’t want them to know!?”. This hasn’t been helped by slower than hoped for growth, and cashflow issues that my mentors assure me are normal but still wake me up at night. It’s funny how the perception of start-up success is so often a long way from the reality the founder feels. Yes, Curiosity Box IS doing great. I think our top 5 successes this year have been:

· We’ve reached lots of kids – ~75,000 this year through our events, school visits and boxes;

· Our team has grown from 3 people to 14 and wow what a team they are!;

· We’ve found more opportunities to influence decision making about education and diversity in STEM;

· We’ve built partnerships with some brilliant organisations like Engineers Ireland, The Edina Trust and IQubed Korea; and

· We’ve launched two new product lines: The Curiositots Box for 4-6 yr olds and our STEM Day in a Box for schools.

The challenge remains that this kind of business is expensive – manufacturing a product that is ethical and eco is pricey and the operational side is intensive so the volume of boxes we need to be selling to be financially viable is large. I also don’t want to get into the “Raise Big or Bust” culture that pervades the start-up world. I want to build a stable and sustainable business that does good, and I want it to be successful because people believe in our vision and love what we offer, and that takes time to build.

Ah time, my nemesis! I’ve struggled to give my family the time they deserve this year, particularly my son whose transition into secondary school has been reminiscent of a skier going too fast on a slalom track. He’s done such a sterling job of hanging in there despite being the shortest kid in his year (my fault), being kind but naïve (me too) and trying to keep confident despite being dyslexic in a school system that values all the things he struggles with most.

My hubby has picked up loads of stuff, both literally (so that you can still get the door of our house open) and figuratively. The poor guy has been grunted at and kicked as I sleep like a bear with a bee up its nose and has had far less attention of every kind than he deserves. Don’t get me wrong, he still drives me nuts when he can’t remember anything in our family calendar but he has seriously stepped up, all while making new medicines for bloody cancer!

I’ve not been there when my family back in Aus has needed me. When pop died, as my grandparents increasingly struggle with dementia and when my sister had her first baby. I did get back for a flying visit which coincided with a pesky spot on my ear being diagnosed as cancer (fortunately a basal cell carcinoma that is easy to treat with chemo cream but seriously people wear your sun cream and hats!) and sales starting to bump up thanks to Christmas gifting… Grandparents, you rock!

We’ve somehow skimmed through the tight spots with only a few grazes on our bum and I’m sitting here at CB HQ thankful for all the people who have pulled together for the sake of our vision, who have supported me with well-timed hugs, sharing of our product which is INVALUABLE for a start-up and independent business and a pretty much endless supply of chocolate. I’ve had to build up some scar tissue this year; notably a pretty large “fear of failure” scar and a “you can’t be all things to all people” callous. But I have my children to love, my friends to laugh with, my mission to give 1 billion children an amazing experience of science is clearer than ever and I am giving far less of a shit about what people think which can only mean one thing…If 2018 was a rollercoaster, 2019 is going to be a space mission!

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