In the first several months of my daughter’s life, I found two electronic devices essential. One was my iPhone, for taking a thousand pictures of the baby in the same position or texting during late-night feeding sessions. The other — just as needed but a lot less loved – was a Medela Symphony breast pump.
Sitting on the couch hooked up to a breast pump for a couple hours a day gives you a lot of time to think about how crappy pumping is. Will the experience ever improve the way other technology has? (No, I’m not the only person who’s wondered this.) There’s a need for it and also a market opportunity: The global market for breast pumps was valued at $652.2 million in 2011 and is expected to reach over $1 billion by 2018. Will we ever see a small, smart and connected breast pump?
A brief explainer, for those who aren’t familiar with breast pumps: The goal of pumping is to get breast milk out of your body without the baby actually being there. The electric pumps on the market today work by vacuum, sucking the nipple into a valve and removing air so that milk is forced out.
Pumping takes a lot of time — like 30 to 45 minutes, three to five or more times a day, depending on how old your baby is and what else you’re feeding it.
“The biggest complaints for moms stem from an uncertainty as to whether or not they’re successful” at pumping, Stephen Flint, the VP of research and development for Medela Inc. — the market leader for all types of breast pumps in the U.S. — told me. “We hear moms say, ‘I’m not generating enough milk. I don’t think the pump is working properly. I don’t feel like I’m getting enough milk,” Flint said. “And the current pumps still don’t really answer that question … Moms are on their own in determining whether they’re getting the results they want.”
So Medela is working to make its breast pumps more connected and to reduce the amount of uncertainty that is associated with pumping. “This is where tech becomes very helpful,” Flint said. The ultimate goal is for the breastpump to become a connected device, “integrating intelligence into the whole system … so the mother knows that things are working as they should.”
Flint wouldn’t give me specific details about upcoming Medela products, but the outline of a concept became clear. A pump could be connected to a smartphone app. The app would track pumping time and output, upload that data to a database where it could be compared to that of other Medela pump users and then determine patterns and tips for an individual user. If a mom tends to pump for 30 minutes at a time, for instance, but almost always produces the bulk of the milk for a pumping session in the first 15 minutes, the pump or app could give her the okay to stop sooner. It could also help her determine the ideal times of day for her to pump.
Some moms already manually log pump time and output using either pen and paper or an existing smartphone app. But that’s time-consuming and it can be hard to know how to respond to the data you get. “Breast pumping is a pretty big burden,” Flint said. “We are not pretending that this is something moms are excited to go do. We don’t want to use technology to complicate the situation further, but to eliminate all of this extra work that mothers are having to do, because it’s already an inconvenience.”
It is also, of course, an opportunity for Medela. So how soon might we see a connected pump? It takes seven to ten years to bring a completely new pump to market. But if you’re talking about “a more intelligent and integrated system, there’s a chance you could see that much sooner…I’m very optimistic that we are very close to a major change in the way we approach these things,” Flint told me. “For the first time, we have a much more technologically savvy generation that has expectations of us to provide solutions, combined with the fact that many of these technologies are reaching the point where they’re available for us to seriously consider them in products.”
Is there room for startups?
Breast pumps in the U.S. are classified as medical devices, and Ron Sallade, Medela’s director of professional product management, told me it takes at least $5 million to $10 million to bring a new pump to market. The cost and lengthy FDA approval process alone are enough to dissuade many startups from getting into the breast pump game.
Sallade believes that the Affordable Care Act, which covers certain breast pumps at no cost to the mother, could actually be a hindrance to breast pump innovation: “I think what you’re going to see in the short term is a lot of focus on taking costs out of what we already have. While Mom might be willing to invest more, the power of free is tremendous” and payers will look to lower costs as much as they can. “It’s an environment to commoditize,” Sallade said, and expressed the concern that “everybody’s going to be focused on cost and not on elevating the experience and innovating…it’s a risk and a challenge.”
To look at things from a more optimistic standpoint, though, perhaps a new generation of moms – technologically savvy and expecting a breast pump as their due – will exert enough market pressure to force more innovation, faster. Perhaps the iPhone of breastpumps will be created by a pumping mom.
“I was finishing my Ph.D in biomedical engineering when I had my son,” Susan Edmonds told me, “and I experienced firsthand how horrible pumping was.” Pumping at work in a room full of men, she had to wear a cover. She began to wish for a breast pump that could be worn, discreetly, under a bra. That led Edmonds and her husband, a mechanical engineer, to found the Boston-based Kohana Inc., a company working to build a new kind of breast pump.
Vacuum-based breast pumps “take air out and suck your nipple in,” Edmonds explained to me. “The second you shift and your nipple comes out a little bit, you lose the suction and have to reposition.” But you can also get milk out of a breast by squeezing it. Hand expression is highly effective, but it’s also tiring and inconvenient. Edmonds and her husband envisioned and built a “breast-sized blood pressure cuff” that would fit around a breast and compress it rhythmically to express milk. Their “Gala Pump” is powered by a rechargeable battery, and milk flows into a custom storage bag that is stored in a pouch on the bra.
Eleven women have now tested the newest prototype of the Gala Pump. All used it successfully to remove milk, and most found it more comfortable than a vacuum-powered pump. A prototype is a good start, but Kohana is nowhere close to raising the millions of dollars that it would take to bring the Gala to market. To date, the company has raised $75,000 in grants and awards, and a design and engineering firm, has put in about $45,000 worth of work and time in exchange for equity. Kohana is now trying to get investors on board. Down the road, crowdfunding might also be a possibility: Kickstarter forbids FDA-regulated medical devices like breast pumps, but Indiegogo allows them.
We are a long way from a breast pump that is comfortable, quiet, discreet, connected, effective and affordable. And a product that can only be used by lactating women is likely not top of mind for predominantly male startup founders and VCs. (While we’re on that topic, as someone whose daughter drinks both breastmilk and formula, I’d love to see new types of baby formula get as much attention and funding as adult food replacement Soylent, but that’s a topic for another time.) But there are millions of those lactating moms out there, and they’re waiting for a better solution. So let’s hope this is the next hot wearable.