Meet June Lai, the CEO, and scientist behind the high-performance and award-winning manufacturer of protective and stylish smartphone and smart tablet cases, Catalyst.
Consumer technology is no doubt changing, as the race towards mass adoption of artificial intelligence (A.I.), augmented reality (AR), and blockchain technologies continues. But the stories that still go unnoticed are those narratives of how these technologies have come to be.
Every year, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) puts on the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, attracting tens of thousands of consumers from all parts of the world. It’s products galore for the everyday tech enthusiast.
But for CEOs, C-Suite executives, and other badass entrepreneurs, it is a very different experience. In recent years, we have seen an increase of women in technology, which in my opinion, should have been highlighted and emphasized way more than it has been–a story for another time.
Two years ago, I was introduced to Catalyst, an award-winning manufacturer of the world’s most protective and stylish cases for smartphones and electronic devices, to which I still use their product line today.
However, it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit that I really took a deeper interest in the company and how as a major provider of accessories, it has managed to stay afloat, despite the massive damage the global pandemic has caused for the tech sector.
Which brings us to one of the most powerful women in tech right now, June Lai, the CEO of Catalyst, who oversees R&D at the company.
Catalyst’s story began back in 2010, when Josh Wright, an award-winning industrial designer, discovered a need for a product that didn’t yet exist but was required for every consumer who owned a smartphone and/or tablet, specifically for those who were engaged in high-performance activities, indoor, outdoor, and underwater.
Today, Catalyst is considered to be a globally recognized powerhouse in its space, with a presence in 70 countries (U.S., Canada, UK, Germany, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and the GCC), with 100’s of SKUs and a design team that creates some of the most innovative accessories on the market for electronics.
But I was interested in Lai’s backstory, who is a woman in tech and a brilliant scientist who has helped Catalyst succeed well beyond their competitors.
“…Before women were encouraged to pursue careers in STEM, I had a strong ally in my mother, who was also very gifted with numbers and a strong personality,” Lai said. “She encouraged and pushed me to feed my curiosity and work towards a career that challenged me—one where I could put the full range of my gifts to use.”
Andrew Rossow: Thank you for speaking with us today, June. For readers, can you tell them about yourself and your background?
June Lai: Where do we start? I’ve been a scientist, a financier, accountant, climber, pilot, featured extra #3 in an advertising video that we paid for—but now I’m the Founder and CEO of Catalyst, a global consumer electronics accessories brand sold in 70 countries in major retailers like Apple, Best Buy, Verizon, Target, Virgin Megastores, JB Hifi, Yodobashi. I am now in the business of inventing unique patented products that combine world-class design with performance.
A Catalyst for Growth
Today’s communication driven environment has revealed just how integral mobile phones have become in consumers’ lives. The increased consumer awareness about the importance, need, and value of protecting our smartphones is a key growth driver as the global mobile phone protection market continues to expand.
Our “mobile economy” has carved out a niche for smartphone protection as new advanced technology becomes mainstream, typically with Apple and Google’s product lines. But why is that this market is one that many seem to forgo, even as COVID-19 has forced the world to go digital?
“Eleven years ago, we recognized a gap in the market when it came to the level of protection available for smartphones,” Lai explains. “We (my climbing partner and now business partner, Josh Wright) wanted to capture the beauty of our climbs in Hong Kong, but at the time we were using the fragile iPhone 3G. The scenery is absolutely amazing. However, it was too risky to take expensive devices into rugged environments.”
Wright, an award-winning industrial designer, helped Lai design and develop the most rugged and waterproof everyday cases on the market, according to the founder. “Our R&D process to solve problems lead us to truly understand and become the experts in this field. It started with one case over a decade ago to address a personal pain point.”
Lai emphasizes that these are complicated products to make that come off as “deceptively simple.” She referenced Catalyst’s waterproof case for the iPhone 11— “it has 46 component parts.”
Removing COVID-19 from the picture, the catalyst for growth in the tech sector over the past two years continues to thrive off consumer’s ever growing reliance on the technology they invest into to help make their lives more efficient and convenient.
“The innovation and R&D across the industry is driven by this reliance,” Lai says. “The tech we use and have come to rely on gets faster and smarter year over year, and it is the ‘need’ we have for these conveniences and efficiencies that continues to drive growth in the sector. Growth has come from widespread adoption of smartphones to wireless headphones and smartwatches, and improvements in network capabilities.”
What Can We Expect for 2021?
Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a significant disruption in the consumer technology sector; one in which many companies will work to recover from for years to come. “The COVID-19 outbreak created a massive disruption of supply chains and manufacturing around the world–overnight.”
But according to Lai, we should expect to see that consumer adoption of 5G will drive further growth. “As that demand for technology grows, so does the demand on parallel markets that support, protect and complement the technology. This is where Catalyst has carved a niche and built a globally recognized brand for itself. When people are making significant investments in the technology they use and rely on every day, they want to make sure it’s protected. The quality of our designs and products, as well as our ability to innovate new products, has always set us apart.”
The company has also expanded beyond mobile tech by injecting it into healthcare. Lai says that it has waterproof cases for iPad and iPhones are already being used in hospital settings and industrial markets because of the ability to clean devices. “Our products actually allow you to follow best practices according to CDC guidance to clean all surfaces of our cases by washing them with soap and water and disinfect them using 70% isopropyl alcohol or 70% ethanol EPA-approved disinfectants.”
Lai says the company also recently launched the Total Protection Case for AirPods Pro, which is completely waterproof, cleanable and can be disinfected against coronavirus using a 70% alcohol solution. And for every purchase of our Total Protection Case for AirPods Pro and several Catalyst waterproof cases in the USA through 2021, Catalyst will donate $1 to CDC Foundation.
Additionally, it added a line including KN95 Non NIOSH-Approved Filtering Facepiece Respirators, Catalyst Face Shields, Face Masks, Comfort Extenders and more to make sure front line workers, businesses and communities have enough of what they need to keep everyone safe.
2021 Bodes Well for Women in Tech and Science
Lai attributes her passion and drive to her mother, who she says encouraged and pushed her to feed her curiosity and work towards a career that challenged her.
“I would not have imagined the path my career has taken me on, but the journey has been incredible,” she says, beginning with her biochemistry MBA at Simon Frasier University, in which she did two co-op work terms.
“The first was in academia in environmental toxicology looking at remediating oil sands wastewater, and the second was at Nventa Biopharmaceuticals Corp (formerly Stressgen) in Victoria, BC, Canada worked in molecular biology research cloning genes & purifying proteins to generate recombinant DNA combining heat shock proteins to target antigens to trigger immune responses to virally-induced diseases.”
After her MBA, Lai went on to work for investment banks, covering the healthcare, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical industries, eventually transitioning into business development in specialty pharma.
“I have a number of degrees and certifications, but I have to say, my love of adventure rivals my love of learning. I am an avid rock climber (as much as I can be right now) and a recreational pilot. I’ve also always been a bit of a gadget geek…which brings me to the last decade of my career.”
But even at a young age, Lai says she was a problem solver. “I possessed a natural curiosity to figure out why things happen, how they happen and how components of the world around me work. That curiosity was coupled with a gift for math and science, which gave me a structured process to learn how to solve any problem.”
Taking into account 2020’s disturbing revelations of our country’s systemic bias, including gender inequality, racism, and social injustice, Lai emphasized that gender inequalities in the sector did not play a role in how the company chose to move forward.
“There was an urgency to focus and frankly, the companies that were strategically positioned, diversified and nimble were able to survive the pandemic. Catalyst was one of those companies. As a matter of fact, when COVID hit, we designed and put in motion a plan to use what Catalyst does best: to enhance our protective product offers to the healthcare and industrial markets. Not one employee was made redundant during COVID. We shifted our resources to educate consumers on best practices for protection, and how current products can aid in proper hygiene for electronic devices. We quickly designed and/or sourced more than 12 new medical and industrial PPE products, which are at different stages of introduction into the market to help protect healthcare workers and the public.”
Indeed, the increasing statistics behind women in tech is only growing. “Women have been making their mark in the technology field for years, and today, there are more women in tech field than ever before – encouraging future generations to follow,” Lai said. “When I was growing up, modern tech was in its infancy and there were very few women pursuing careers in technology. There are still times when I am the only woman/minority in the room. But I am not shy, and what I have to offer is powerful. I show up to contribute and am respected by my colleagues.”
Certainly, a milestone has been achieved, which Lai agrees with, that there has in fact been a generational evolution for women in tech, where young girls and women today don’t think twice about their ability to have an impact and change lives through their contribution to the industry. “They actively engage their talents in the field without hesitation.”
Lai ended our interview by praising her colleagues. “The 25 people in my office are like family. It takes every one of us to keep Catalyst moving forward, and maintain the reputation we’ve built for quality, innovation and brand integrity. Our team is diverse, talented, and nimble so when a global crisis hits, we shift to contribute in a way that helps fill a critical need for PPE.”
For the Hong Kong-based company, its entire operation was affected almost immediately by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. “We had shortages in essential PPE in Hong Kong in January, so we sourced masks and hand sanitizer for our staff. We shipped PPE to all our partners around the world ranging from the Philippines to the USA and made available IgG/IgM rapid immunoassay test kits to all staff and their families.”
Written by Andrew L. Rossow.