Most Cornellians spend their days in classes, exploring campus with friends and working on assignments. But Karina Popovich ’23 has something else to add to that list. A start-up founder of Inertia and Makers For Change, Popovich spends time writing $100,000 grant proposals and planning Instagramable pop-ups around New York City.
“What we try to do is create a new experience with STEM,” Popovich said. “There is not enough awareness about what STEM could look like in the non-traditional spectrum.”
Popovich is in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and has a strong passion for STEM, specifically 3D-printing. She uses her entrepreneurial skills to expand accessibility and interest in STEM for people who may not have the opportunity to explore the field on their own.
Childhood Spent Hustling
Popovich’s parents immigrated to New York City from Ukraine in 2000, a few months before she was born. Her mother cleaned houses and her dad was an electrician. At home, Popovich had a knack for playing with screwdrivers, pliers and really any tool that could help her take something apart and put it back together.
“My dad brought home a lightbulb, showed me how to connect batteries to it and make a closed circuit, and then we made that lightbulb light up as my science fair project,” Popovich said. “Throughout the whole process I was amazed that I was able to make magic happen, but in reality it was science.”
In middle school, Popovich was the best in her school for robotics. For high school, Popovich attended Brooklyn Technical High School, majoring in mechanical engineering while interning at a maker space, researching artificial intelligence at New York University and participating in Girls Who Code.
But Popovich was not only interested in STEM; she always had an entrepreneurial interest. In elementary school, she sold pet snails at the park. In high school, she re-sold Yeezys and Supreme products. There, she also started her first non-profit organization where she built computers and sent them overseas to a school in Tanzania, so they could have the tools for a computer science course.
“I was always hustling because I always wanted money, and I had a drive towards success and I had a lot of hunger for it,” Popovich said.
PPE With Makers For Change
Popovich bought her first 3D printer freshman year of college, hoping to tinker with it in her spare time. So, when the pandemic resulted in everyone getting sent home, Popovich saw an opportunity.
At the beginning of the pandemic, personal protective equipment was in limited supply across the country, unable to properly supply hospitals. Healthcare workers were desperate for safety equipment to keep them protected against COVID-19.
“I think a lot of people were just so freaked out at the time that they wanted any sort of protection they could get a hold of,” Popovich said. “People knew me as the 3D printing girl, and I got a bunch of texts saying, ‘Hey, why aren’t you 3D printing PPE? We hear that this is happening, give it a shot.’”
After taking a few weeks to contemplate the idea, Popovich went to work.
“I 3D-printed my first face shield and I donated it to a neighborhood nurse,” Popovich said. “I actually donated 20 and then gave it to her. That same night I got pictures from her whole unit thanking me for these face shields because they had absolutely no other way of acquiring PPE.”
For Popovich, it became clear that for the next few months, it was important to focus on face shields. She decided on face shields since they are simple to assemble and safe to use. To grow her team, she posted comments on Reddit proposing the idea of 3D printing PPE and offering to teach people how to print and provide plans.
Popovich said she felt that many people weren’t familiar with 3D printers, which is why people were not producing PPE at home.
“When you think about printing PPE, it’s a daunting task because you are about to print something and give it to someone and hold the responsibility for it if that thing breaks, fails or hurts someone,” Popovich said.
After she taught people how to go about printing face shields, her team grew to 350 people, all collectively printing PPE.
“I think a lot of why they came is because we were offering to help them learn how to start,” Popovich said. “We were giving them a place to start, rather than throwing resources at them and telling them ‘figure it out.’”
Once Popovich realized that the need for PPE dissolved, she still wanted to continue her company in some light. This sparked Makers For Change, pivoting the focus to education.
“I wanted to empower high school and college students to be able to use 3D printing technology for good,” Popovich said. “So I basically created Makers For Change for the sake of empowering people to see problems in their communities and be able to use technology to solve them.”
The students she impacted were able to utilize their new skills to provide resources to their communities. Either through local community organizations, churches or day care centers, they were supplied with 3D-printed solutions. Some people got creative too, printing toys for children’s hospitals and animal prosthetics for animal shelters.
Popovich’s current venture is her start-up Inertia, which she has been crafting for a year and a half.
“The whole idea here is we are trying to make STEM accessible by making it more colorful and more vibrant. We are also showing how cool 3D printers are, and that they are not necessarily an unattainable technology,” Popovich said.
Inertia is able to accomplish this goal by developing interactive pop-up exhibits around New York City. The latest exhibit was hosted at Chelsea Market, where Popovich and her team demonstrated key concepts in 3D printing to participants, who had the opportunity to design a 3D rocket ship with their name on it and watch it get printed. Around 1,500 people visited the pop-up in 10 days, and around 900 people printed rocket ships.
“Most 3D printers are in maker spaces or places where you need special access to them. They are where people don’t readily see them and see what they are capable of,” Popovich said. “So bringing out this technology, talking about it, answering questions, telling people that 3D printers are only $150, it just helped to break down a bunch of myths and barriers that people had when they thought about what STEM or 3D printing was.”
According to Popovich, there is not enough awareness about the possibilities in STEM.
“Most people associate STEM with something that is bleak and lackluster and not colorful and not really accepting of people with different interests and identities. So that’s really what we are trying to change by having these super colorful, fun and engaging exhibits,” Popovich said.
Popovich lived in Ukraine from when she was two to five years old and visited the country every summer.
In the midst of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Popovich is devastated to see her family’s country and its beautiful cities get destroyed into pieces.
“It really sucks [that] we live in a world where you think it is modern and humanitarian and we are fighting a war like we would 100 years ago,” Popovich said. “At the same time, being so indecent about it with killing kids and destroying hospitals. To me, it’s just very baffling that we are regressing.”
Popovich believes conversations about the war should continue, especially through asking more questions to better understand the situation.
“I encourage [people] to pull force and explore the situation and learn more about what’s going on,” Popovich said. “Talk about it and educate the world around you because I think if people don’t talk about it, we’re not going to reach the awareness that we need to be able to see change happen.”