Silicon Valley reinvents the breast pump.
On a recent Monday, four women gathered at a swanky coffee shop in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood and politely asked an unshaven engineer to move down so they could access an outlet. After plugging in, they slipped what looked like portable mini mist fans under their shirts.
If the engineer had been paying attention — instead of taking a break from his coding to scroll through a Wikipedia page on the head coach of the Houston Rockets — he might have been able to make out the wheezing sound of breast pumps at work, or noticed that four nearby bustlines had each grown an inch.
“I work, don’t have an office, have a 7-week-old at home, and don’t want to pump in the bathroom,” said Chloe Sladden, former VP of media at Twitter and a founding investor with #Angels, a women-led venture capital group. Amid ubiquitous laptop shoulder bags sat her tote, decorated with floating pairs of painted boobs.
The other women, who had gathered to test-drive the latest product from a startup called Moxxly, nodded vigorously. Instead of having to take off their shirts and affix two Xena: Warrior Princess–style cones onto their breasts, the Moxxly Flow, pump attachments set to hit the market this fall, allowed for discreet, under-the-bra, hands-free pumping. Two of the pumpers, including Sladden, are also investors.
Sladden adjusted her silk shirt, which draped loosely over her newly enhanced bosom. “It’s about time we focused on this part of motherhood,” she said.
The first mechanical breast pump, modeled after bovine milking machines, was invented in the 1920s, and little has changed about the fundamental design. A cone — or flange, as it’s called — is placed on each breast. A collection bottle is screwed into the bottom of each flange and dangles off the boob like a particularly unflattering nipple tassel. Long plastic tubes connect the flanges to a mechanical pump that suctions out the milk. What this means in practice: Women have to find a private corner, remove their shirts, and watch their nipples get rhythmically suctioned for 20 minutes until they’re fully milked. If Mom would like to do something with her hands besides hold the cones in place, she needs to wear a sort of medieval corset, i.e., a tight-fitting pumping bra.
“It’s just undignified and unjust,” says Cara Delzer, CEO and co-founder of Moxxly.
Delzer, who graduated from Stanford’s business school, was working in product marketing at eBay when she had her first child in 2013. “I’d be in a meeting, then 30 seconds later find myself with my shirt off,” she recalls. “I had a really supportive team, I had pumping rooms, the best setup anyone could have, but still it was untenable.” To men who might not understand the situation, she likens it to having to take your pants off for a half hour before hopping into a boardroom to deliver an important presentation.
But the logistics were just one issue. Another was packaging. The free pump her insurance company provided arrived in a cardboard box with a dry user manual. “It made me feel like I was a patient, not a woman,” Delzer remembers. She wandered the aisles in baby stores and found countless products marketed with the baby in mind. Why wasn’t there a brand out there that appealed to her?
In 2014, she partnered with two other Stanford graduates — designer Gabrielle Guthrie, who’d reimagined the breast pump for her master’s thesis, and Santhi Analytis, a mechanical engineer who worked with Guthrie on a breast pump redesign at a hackathon. They were accepted to Highway1, a hardware startup accelerator in San Francisco, where they began developing the prototype for what would become the Moxxly Flow: first, duct-taping existing parts together, then moving to 3-D printing. A timeline of the Flow’s evolution looks a bit like the March of Progress. With each iteration, the bottle gets more upright, the flange a little prouder.
Then one of the greatest challenges came to a head: raising capital. According to Transparency Market Research, the breast pump market is set to reach $2.6 billion worldwide by 2020, but as Delzer learned, “VC is a game of pattern recognition. And there’s no pattern here.” She’d often find herself in pitch meetings slipping parts under her bra and awkwardly explaining to a room full of VC partners — 93 percent of whom are men — the indignities of the pumping life.
After dozens of pitch meetings, she managed to secure enough funding from well-known investors like Slow Ventures (which counts Evernote, Dropbox, and Pinterest in its portfolio) and Scott and Cyan Banister (the husband-and-wife team that sits on the boards of PayPal and Postmates) to bring Moxxly to market. “These other large [pump] companies have this relationship with insurance and health providers that is baked in, and they’re not incentivized to be more human-centered or focused on the modern woman,” says Enrique Allen of Designer Fund, which invested in an early round. “We often look for market opportunity where there are big, sleepy incumbents who don’t have a mobile strategy or a way to reach a new audience in the way that Moxxly does.”
But, Allen admits, his lactation learning curve was steep. “I didn’t realize nipples could get so sore,” he says. “I definitely have more empathy now.”
Other companies have seen the market opening as well, and Silicon Valley is finally — in industry parlance — disrupting the hell out of the space. The Willow, set to come out later this year, is a wearable pump that fits entirely inside a bra. It looks so sleek and Jobsian, you’d almost expect it to play Drake when you press the power button. The Naya pump uses water-based suction instead of air, which they claim is quieter and more comfortable. Babyation, coming at the end of this year, is designed so the collection bottles don’t hang off the breasts.
For all their improvements, however, the new pumps don’t come cheap. At under $100, the Moxxly Flow attachment is one of the least expensive options. The Naya retails for a whopping $999, while the Willow, whose price is still being decided, is in the ballpark of $400 for the pump, which doesn’t include the cost of each single-use collection bag. So until insurance companies embrace pump 2.0, many women will have to stick with the free, bovine-esque milkers.
The Moxxly offices are located in an old factory in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. Next to a 3-D printer and some special rulers that measure nipple and areola size is a cardboard box of “old test boobs.” It’s the domain of Jake Kurzrock, a mechanical engineer with a handlebar mustache who, in a past life, worked in fungal genes and fertilizer.
“First, we were using a stress boob for testing,” he said, pulling out a novelty stress ball colored to look like a Caucasian breast, with a baby bottle nipple crammed in the middle. Next to it sat an African American companion stress breast. “We tried these cutlets, too,” he said, slapping some mangled silicone bra inserts onto a worktable, invoking a Hannibal Lecter–ish experiment gone wrong. “Then I just went on Amazon and got a breast used by cross-dressers. You can get really nice ones, like hundreds of dollars. We got the $40 one. It worked fine.” He used it to make a mold for breasts they’d eventually affix to a dress form named Seraphina.
Several factors come into play when constructing a piece of hardware that needs to work across varying body types. There’s the fact that nipple shape and size vary by ethnicity (cocktail party factoid: Asian nipples tend to be longer). Plus, the rate and angle at which milk flows through the breasts differ for every individual (the Moxxly team found that, for modeling purposes, warm skim best mimics human). All calculations then have to account for, as one Google spreadsheet put it, “possible sagginess.” The result of all this research? “It makes boobs less fun,” Kurzrock said.
The women at the coffee shop, who’d collectively pumped enough ultralocal milk for several lattes, would likely disagree. As Sladden threw her bottles into her boob-print tote, one of the other women recalled the day she unthinkingly wore a shift dress and was forced to get virtually naked for her pumping sessions. Another remembered being on a work camping trip, topless and sliding down in her car’s front seat, away from the prying eyes of co-workers who meandered outside. Those humiliating pumping days — for this particular set of women, at least — seemed to be behind them.