Behind some of the most important innovations in energy, finance, healthcare, and even interplanetary travel, you'll find Knox alumni hard at work.
Last spring and summer, as the nation faced the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and sustained protests in support of racial and social justice, word had already begun filtering back to Knox about the many alumni taking action in ways large and small, from physicians adapting on the fly to new protocols to community activists working to meet the educational and health needs of schoolchildren whose lives had been disrupted.
Their experiences reflected an idea that President Teresa Amott has frequently expressed when talking about the value of a liberal arts education: It is endlessly adaptable. It inspires creative thinking about complex problems. It prepares graduates to meet the moment.
Akwasi Asabere ’05 Thinks We Can Virtually Eliminate Cancer
by Jane Carlson
Imagine a world without cancer. With advances in prevention and early detection, the day could be coming soon where many cancers—as well as other diseases with a strong genetic component, such as hypercholesterolemia, a factor in heart disease—can be virtually eliminated before they ever develop.
This isn’t the stuff of science fiction. Akwasi Asabere ‘05, who earned a master’s degree in cellular and molecular biology and a Ph.D. in genomics at Yale University after graduating from Knox, currently leads business development efforts at Helix, a San Francisco-based company that is working to make genetic testing for a variety of health conditions more readily available to health systems and consumers.
"If we can do this right, we will live in a world where you have enough information about the inherited genetic conditions you have that you can prevent them or mediate them."
Take colon cancer, says Asabere—currently the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, but also one of the most easily preventable with early screening. Right now, genetic testing can quickly identify whether an individual possesses genetic mutations that are highly associated with colorectal cancers. Once that individual and his healthcare providers are aware of that risk, they can implement a plan for enhanced screenings to detect potential tumors at the earliest stage of development.
“If we can do this right, we will live in a world where you have enough information about the inherited genetic conditions you have that you can prevent them or mediate them.”
The challenges of the work are in advancing acceptance of genomics with health systems and insurers, Asabere says. “Everyone understands the utility of genomic information, but people are still resistant to the idea due to cost and no out-of-the-box simplified approach to doing this,” Asabere says.
Enter Helix. The company has developed a clinical-grade assay that can quickly identify 59 separate “medically actionable” genes in a single sample to locate mutations that signal a higher risk for certain cancers, heart disease, and other conditions. Further, Helix has made that testing scalable enough to survey thousands of participants in a short time—helping health systems recruit, sign up, collect, and share results with thousands of people in just a few months. In one pilot project with a health system in Nevada, Helix surveyed 20,000 participants in six months and identified genetic disease indicators in more than 250 of them—the vast majority of whom had not yet developed symptoms that would have triggered additional monitoring.
This same technology, it turns out, also offers a vital new tool to control the spread of COVID-19. Last summer, after receiving emergency FDA approval for its molecular COVID-19 test, Helix was tapped by the National Institutes of Health to become a testing “mega-lab” for COVID-19. Since October, it has been delivering next-day results for around 50,000 individual samples every day, with the capacity to test as many as 100,000 per day. Now it’s going even further—the company is using its sequencing lab to identify and monitor the spread of new mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
"Knox forced me to think about things in a non-structured way."
Asabere always knew that he wanted to pursue a career in the sciences, but back as a high school student in Ghana, he had little interest in moving to the United States for college. He was a student at a specialized high school for pre-med students when he first heard about Knox through the U.S. Embassy’s education coordinator.
“I fell in love with the things that Knox was doing, the programs they have, and the diversity they had on campus,” he says. As an undergraduate, he majored in biology and biochemistry, but the experience of taking courses outside his discipline again began to change the way he saw things.
“Knox was the first time for me [to study] things like philosophy and music,” Asabere says. “It forced me to think about things in a non-structured way.”
That broad curiosity continued after he left Knox. When he completed his graduate studies in genomics, he supplemented his science education by pursuing certification in entrepreneurship through a program at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business that teaches innovators to formulate, develop, and innovate their ideas.
“Over time I realized that while I had a deep-seeded love of science, the commercial side of it also appealed to me,” Asabere says. “The liberal arts actually make it easier for you in the business world. It’s not a skill set but the tools to solve the issues.”
For Asabere, his Knox experience went well beyond academics. It helped him grow in countless ways, providing formative lessons and a community of people interested in his personal and professional development.
He began a long friendship with former College president Roger Taylor ’63 that began his first week on campus, with Asabere teasing that someday he would take Taylor’s job. He credits chemistry professor Diana Cermak with keeping him humble and biology professor Judy Thorn with helping him find his way early in his career when he had doubts. He is also still grateful to Becky Canfield in the Office of Intercultural Life for helping him acclimate, cooking him meals and checking in on him throughout his Knox career. “She was the first person who said that this kid from Africa did not have a coat that was well-suited for an Illinois winter,” laughs Asabere.
More than 15 years later, he’s glad he made the decision to attend Knox. “It was more than just being in a place for classes, but building a family around the experience.”
Carol Craig ’89 Wants to Put the First Woman on the Moon
by Jane Carlson
“We absolutely have to get back to the moon and Mars,” says Carol Craig . “We are going to run out of resources.”
That sense of urgency drives the mission of Craig Technologies, the company she founded in 1999 after serving as a P-3C Orion Naval Flight Officer. Headquartered on Florida’s Space Coast in a 20,000-square foot facility and employing 300 people, Craig Technologies has been heavily involved in engineering, testing, and manufacturing mission-critical systems for customers from Boeing to Lockheed Martin to NASA.
From helping to facilitate design of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space vehicle, a reusable “space plane” that will travel through low-Earth orbit to the International Space Station, to developing their own Craig-X flight test platform that enables companies to develop and test hardware, experiments, and electronics outside the International Space Station on an accelerated schedule, Craig and her team provide the framework and encouragement for clients and employees to move people and cargo from low-Earth orbit to, one day she hopes, Mars.
“We have done so many cool things over the last 20 years,”Craig says. “I love to see people succeed because of the support or the assistance that my company gives them.”
In May 2020, Craig Technologies was selected to contribute to NASA’s mission of returning humans—including the first woman—to the moon and beyond, as a subcontractor for the Dynetics Human Landing System. Craig Technologies also finalized plans in December to build a satellite constellation that will enable smaller companies with emerging technologies get to space faster and cheaper.
“Studying the liberal arts is the reason I can write, it’s the reason I can speak, and it’s the reason I take risks.”
Craig, who calls herself an “accidental entrepreneur,” came up with the concept for Craig Technologies at her kitchen table after serving three-and-a-half years as a flight officer in the Navy. She brainstormed ideas for a career that she really wanted, and to this day returns to a humble place for inspiration.
“If you walk into my house, you’ll see me working at the kitchen table,” Craig says.
A Galesburg native, she chose Knox College after taking classes there as a student at Galesburg High School. At the time, she wasn’t quite ready to take flight from home.
Craig excelled in the diverse Knox environment, pursuing a dual degree through Knox’s 3-2 engineering program—earning a B.A. in computer science at Knox and a B.S. in computer science engineering at the University of Illinois. While she spent hours reading and working on computers in the basement of Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center, she also broke records on the track team and earned a music scholarship.
Craig said she was not academically stellar during her years at Knox, but the broad-based experience and the camaraderie she felt among her classmates, teammates, and professors was foundational to her growth as an entrepreneur and helped her develop the skills to point her scientific knowledge toward business applications.
“I participated in everything,” Craig says. “Studying the liberal arts combined with engineering is the reason I can write, it’s the reason I can speak, and it’s the reason I take risks.”
The late John Boyd, Professor Emeritus of Physics, cultivated Craig’s love for computer science at Knox. She said her college athletic experience also made her more competitive, as did encountering gender discrimination in a male-dominated field.
“It’s only made me more determined to succeed,” Craig says.
“I don’t know if I was ever a good engineer, but I can take somebody’s idea, support it, and turn it into a business.”
Craig said she was a “bit geeky” growing up when it came to reading, science and math. Now she looks back on her two favorite authors, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, as inspiration to her professional interests, and she abides by the Bradbury quote: “Jump off your cliff and build your wings on the way down.”
“I didn’t even think about the connection until a few years ago, but I was fascinated by robots,” Craig says. “I think it was a building block.”
Craig later earned a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst after serving as a P-3C Orion Naval Flight Officer and before founding her first company.
“I don’t know if I was ever a good engineer,” Craig says. “But I can take somebody’s idea, support it, and turn it into a business.”
There aren’t many people who have started companies organically like Craig, without big investors, and she has poured everything back into her company, while leveraging every opportunity to keep things going. But within the last year, Craig started looking at her business and considering possible expansions with more help from investors.
“I realized I’ve got all the makings of a satellite company,” she says.
With her new company, Craig is focused on 3-D manufactured satellites, integrating multiple customer payloads and deploying them. Because of this lofty goal, Craig said she is seeking larger investments in the company in the hopes of providing a nest egg for her children.
“My next goal is that I can have something in the bank that will take care of my family so I can finally sleep at night.”
Hardika Shah ’92 Is Leading the Fight for Financial Inclusion in India
by Jane Carlson
Growing up middle-class in Mumbai, Hardika Shah ’92 says she was always aware of the tremendous divide between those who had the money to pursue their dreams and those who did not. Shah’s own parents had to make sacrifices to enable their daughters to attend college in the United States—an uncommon choice for middle-class families in 1980s India.
Those sacrifices led to tremendous opportunities for her. After earning a degree in computer science from Knox—a bargain she made with her parents to study something “sensible” while she pursued a liberal arts education—Shah became a management consultant for Accenture, traveling the globe and steering multi-million-dollar technology projects for Fortune 100 companies. Along the way, she earned an MBA in a joint program between Columbia Business School and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Then a trip back to India made her realize how, despite the country’s many economic reforms, small-business growth was still severely limited by lack of access to funding. Families and small businesses could not get the capital they needed to grow their businesses without putting up land or property as collateral.
“It brought me back to my own upbringing where entrepreneurial ambitions of many were not realized,” Shah says. “Years later, people were still struggling with financing issues even with otherwise rapid growth, liberalization, and the opening of the economy.”
In 2011, Shah moved back to India permanently—after 23 years away—and founded Kinara Capital, a socially responsible financial technology firm that provides collateral-free, cost-flexible loans to the small business entrepreneurs who are considered the backbone of India’s economy. The micro-small-medium enterprises (MSMEs) contribute to 30 percent of the national GDP and 45 percent of India’s exports. There are more than 63 million MSMEs in India that employ more than 120 million people.
“Knox teaches you to always stay curious, analyze and problem-solve using a myriad of technical and soft skills.”
Envisioning a financially inclusive world where every entrepreneur has equal access to funding, Kinara Capital provides loans in the range of USD$2000–$25,000 to those unable to qualify for formal lending without putting up property as collateral. Kinara has built an end-to-end digital process with proprietary risk assessment methodologies. With data-driven decision-making, Kinara has enabled the process of loan inquiry to loan disbursement within one day, while the industry standard is a month.
Headquartered in India’s tech hub of Bangalore, Kinara Capital now has 110 branches across six states in India, including Andhra Pradesh Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Union Territory of Pondicherry.
“Never did I imagine that I will be back in India,” says Shah, who serves as the CEO and traveled frequently (pre-Covid) to meet customers face-to-face. “The thing that makes it all worthwhile is the impact and the individual growth stories of our customers. I value entrepreneurs for their ability to take a chance, and every entrepreneur also deserves a chance to thrive.”
Kinara’s many success stories show small manufacturers of everything from aerospace connectors to Diwali candles, as well as businesses in the service sector, who have been able to increase their workforce, production, and reach after struggling to get loans via traditional lenders. Kinara Capital has been praised by its customers for deep understanding of small-scale business, personal service, and quick turnaround of funds.
Closing in on a decade since its founding, Kinara Capital has disbursed more than USD$271 million across more than 50,000 loans. The impact is astounding. With nearly a million lives touched, the direct result of Kinara’s work has led to sustaining 175,000 jobs, creation of 71,000 new jobs, many of which went to first-time workers and to women. Entrepreneurs on average report an income increase of 20–25 percent, which has led to about USD $100 million generated in incremental income.
“That’s the span of what we have done until now,” Shah says. “Our goals are bigger than that as we reach our 10-year milestone this year.”
As a founder and CEO in the financial industry, Shah is a pioneering figure in a field that has very few women leaders. Kinara is a majority women-led company, including Shah’s sister, Khyati Shah ’99, who serves as the senior vice president of corporate marketing, a role which she took on after spending the majority of her public relations career in Silicon Valley.
In 2020, Kinara was the only women-led finance company from India named by the Financial Times as one of the Top High-Growth Companies in the Asia-Pacific. And, Economic Times has named Kinara Capital among India’s Growth Champions in 2020 and 2021.
Shah said the coronavirus pandemic has been a “sucker punch” for business, and the credit gap has grown even larger. Yet, she remains unnerved thanks to her liberal arts background which has given her the confidence and adaptability to take risks and to solve complex problems—such as leaving her job and investing her own money to get Kinara Capital off the ground—and to forge ahead during difficult times.
“Knox teaches you to always stay curious, analyze and problem-solve using a myriad of technical and soft skills,” Shah says. “The curiosity got sparked at Knox, and it’s found its way into everything I’ve done, including Kinara Capital. Even to this day, I’m forever thankful for my Knox experience.”
Sam Veague ’05 Sees a Bright Future in Solar Energy
by Jane Carlson
When Sam Veague ’05 was a kid, the idea of using energy from the sun to generate clean electricity was a “cool technology” that “sounded like the future,” he says.
Fast-forward a decade or so, when Veague entered the job market only to discover that this cool idea was still largely off in the future. “Other than some very early adopters, it really wasn’t an industry.”
Veague went to work as a sales engineer for a large electrical manufacturing company, dealing with power plants and commercial construction projects. The job put him in touch with companies in the early days of solar development and enhanced his interest in exploring solar solutions. From there, he worked as sales manager for HatiCon Solar and led development of solar racking products before joining Ecolibrium Solar, a startup focused on designing rooftop solar-mounting systems that could be easily installed on residential and commercial buildings.
Veague spent six years at Ecolibrium Solar in a variety of roles, from general manager of the company’s residential segment to leader of its sales and marketing team as the company developed from startup to a mature business. In 2017, with Veague serving as Ecolibrium Solar’s chief operating officer, the company landed on the Inc. 500, a list of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States. In 2018, Veague was named chief executive officer, focused on scaling the company for growth and leading a turnaround for profitability by expanding products and diversifying the customer base.
“I liked being a small team at Ecolibrium, but this gives us a scale to take what we do and expand it.”
Meanwhile, as Veague was head-down growing Ecolibrium Solar, the solar industry as a whole experienced a period of substantial expansion, finally moving toward the future Veague had imagined in his youth. By 2020, major players had started to emerge, including a company called Unirac, which acquired Equilibrium Solar last summer. Veague says the move makes the company one order of magnitude larger while continuing the mission of making solar power available to a wider variety of customers.
Since the acquisition, Veague has been leading the integration, as Unirac adds Ecolibrium's flat roof, residential rail-less, and metal roof productions to its portfolio of solar photovoltaic mounting systems.
“Together we have a wider range of solutions and an even stronger team,” Veague says. “I liked being a small team at Ecolibriuml, but this gives us a scale to take what we do and expand it.”
Veague’s progression in the emerging solar industry draws on a diverse background, from engineering and product management to sales and marketing to technical communication and business development.
Veague says Knox taught him to "think in a different way.”
Knox provided the foundation for Veague’s success in environments from sales to engineering to business development, while advancing in a field that not only was constantly evolving—but didn’t even exist until recently.
At Knox, he completed an independent study on renewable energy with Chuck Schulz ’72, George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Physics. For that work, Veague analyzed the potential of a variety of energy sources, from solar to wind, which furthered his interest in exploring the options and impact of renewable energy.
But Veague says that experiences outside his discipline were just as important—such as taking a sociology of film course during a mini-term one December. It was more than a mental break; it was an opportunity to focus on something entirely different and build communication skills that he still draws on today.
“It was a great chance to shift my mind away from technical study and think in a different way,” Veague says.
As a graduate of the 3-2 dual-degree program, Veague earned a bachelor of arts degree in physics at Knox and a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering at Washington University in five years.
With the engineering degree condensed into two years, the Knox part of his education was about exploration and making connections between disciplines.
“Knox puts as much focus on learning other areas of study and those thought processes as it does on your major,” Veague says.
Veague served on the Student Senate at Knox and as a student representative on the Curriculum Committee.
He says working closely with administrators such as former Dean of the College and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lawrence Breitborde to approve any new courses on that committee gave him leadership skills and the ability to consider different perspectives in making decisions.
When Veague found himself stepping into the role of CEO, he followed a similar approach—working to understand the needs of various stakeholders from customers to employees while engaging board members and investors.
“The thing about Knox is that it’s so open to explore what you want to learn,” Veague says. “You’re learning for learning, and not for a vocational outlet.”
According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, solar energy has experienced an annual growth of 49 percent in the last decade alone.
There are now more than 300,000 jobs in the solar industry, more than in coal or other power industries—an increase of more than 100 percent since 2012. Though the industry is now booming, it still has a significant amount of room to grow, with just a small percentage of buildings using solar energy now.
“We’re just barely scratching the surface of where we can put solar panels.”