When Janica Alvarez returned to her biotech research job after her third maternity leave, in 2011, she found herself back on a familiar path--to a lactation room, where she would suffer through the pain of pumping all over again. So in 2013, she and her husband, Jeff--who at the time was leading product development at a surgical robotics company--gave the Draconian apparatus a high-tech makeover. Now San Francisco area-based Naya Health sells the intelligently designed Naya Smart Breast Pump, which has an accompanying app that automatically tracks pumping sessions, feeding schedules, and milk supply.
From air to water.
When Jeff took his wife's pump to the garage hoping to end her misery, he realized the suction wasn't powerful enough and the breast shields were too stiff. "The thing needed to be completely re-engineered," he says. He replaced the hard plastic in the breast shields with softer, more pliable silicone. And because air does not produce enough force to move the mouth on a silicone flange, Jeff--who had been researching hydraulics for a work project--turned to water. With Naya, warm tap water goes in a fill port on the flange. Not only does this stimulate gentle suction, but the warmth soothes the breast.
"The goal was to re-create a baby's mouth sucking, because it's a very efficient process," says Janica. The duo studied ultrasounds and spoke to lactation consultants and pediatricians until they could mimic those mechanics. "We understood it's not a linear sucking force like a Dyson vacuum cleaner--and that's how most pumps out there are--pulling and putting a lot of pressure on the woman's breast," she says. Instead, the designers created a system that, like a baby, simultaneously compresses and sucks. The flange pulls on the nipple to extract milk, and it engages more surface area of the breast tissue, resulting in a more natural feeling for the mother.
Perpetually in beta.
On the first model the company sold, in 2016, the silicone used for the flanges had a natural grayish tint. It looked stylish, but made it difficult for moms to center their nipple in the flange, which is crucial to the functioning of the device. The current iteration has a clear silicone flange, based on customer feedback.
Pricing a pain point.
While nursing moms prefer a hospital-grade pump--which is effective but costs around $2,000, and is therefore often rented by women--many end up purchasing a mediocre one for around $200. While the Naya Smart Breast Pump retails somewhere in the middle, at $999, instead of designing an open-system pump like typical commercial ones--in which the motor can become contaminated if used by multiple women--the Alvarezes designed theirs with a hospital-grade closed system. The hefty price tag is easier to swallow since individual users can resell the Naya when they're finished with it, or they can rent one for $99 a month directly from the company.
"So many products are for the baby," says Janica. "We are focused on making the mom's life easier." She was determined to check off everything on every nursing woman's wish-list: more milk faster, fewer parts to wash, more comfortable and gentler on the breast, less noisy, lighter to carry, and cleaner design.
The co-founder couple eventually raised $6.5 million from a mix of female and male investors, including a male ob-gyn. Last year, the company sold more than 1,000 units directly to consumers and launched a Kickstarter for its Smart Bottle. More recently, it landed its first retail partner, Pottery Barn Kids.
Searching for investors.
Disrupting a $1.2 billion breastfeeding accessories market should have been an easy sell to investors. But sexist comments--like "How can she run a startup as a mother of three small kids?"--along with a lack of enthusiasm from a majority-male VC community made fundraising a very long, uncomfortable haul. "Many of the men simply didn't understand what they were looking at, and felt like they couldn't evaluate it properly," says Janica.