Breast Pumps Don’t Have to Suck*: an #ANGELS Exit

As a mother to three young children, I am intimately familiar with the breast pump. I’ve tried four different models. I’ve pumped on airplanes, in cafe restrooms, while driving, in closets, at a Cuban hospital (to donate milk), between Gannett’s Annual Meeting of Shareholders and our board meeting, in #ANGELS bi-weekly meetings, and in Twitter’s wonderful mother’s rooms. I’ve hauled a cooler the size of a Fiat full of milk and ice through airports (until I found the delightful Milk Stork). I love my pump because it gives me the freedom to be out in the world, and I hate it because the time, operations and mental load of pumping can feel like jail.

Why does pumping have to look so ridiculous?

And the pumps themselves! I couldn’t stop cry-laughing with sleep-deprived horror the first time I pumped: was this really the best we could do? The design was one step up from a cow milking machine. Few women want to look like Madonna in Gaultier at their work place, even if sequestered in a closet, mother’s room or their office.

Madonna was actually pumping underneath that get up.

Breast pumps tap into powerful emotions, fulfill an essential health need, are a daily necessity, and the product manifestation of the critical challenge of integrating motherhood into work and life. What an opportunity to build a brand and product to help mothers thrive through that transition! What an opportunity to build a loyal user base for smart parenting products by solving one of the most painful entry points (women who pump spend between 90 and 120 minutes per day pumping in multiple sessions, often tracking it on their device — a huge opportunity to engage with a captive consumer). With all the advances in hardware and sensors, health software and user-focused design, this gap felt like a failure of the entrepreneurship market, and an indicator that not enough mothers were in positions of influence.

So when Gabrielle Guthrie took on the breast pump as the focus of her master’s thesis project at the Stanford Design Program at the same time as my maternity leave from Twitter, I couldn’t wait to strip down, hook up and show her everything that wasn’t working. Milk production is a complicated endeavor as women unfortunately often see it as a proxy for their performance as a mother. Gabrielle and her teammates conducted sensitive, comprehensive and insightful user research: they started with a map of the major milestones and challenges in women’s lives, and found that motherhood, work and pumping was one of the most profound hurdles. (Whoever came up with “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” clearly never pumped!)

It was perfect timing that brought Cara Delzer (CEO), Santhi Analytis (CTO) and Gabrielle together to form Moxxly in 2014: within the same few months, Gabrielle graduated, Cara left her role at eBay to focus on breast pumps, and Santhi finished her PhD in ME/Robotics at Stanford. A team was born. Their mission: to give modern moms the best breast pump experience that technology, design, and empathy can deliver.

In early 2015 I jumped at the chance to invest in their needs-based approach, refreshing brand voice and vision for using hardware, software and data to make parents smarter and more productive. Their first product, Moxxly Flow, is hands-free, works with your existing bra and fits under your shirt (dignity!), and will soon come with an app that tracks your milk flow, let-down and volume in order to save you time, optimize your production and lessen the mental load of being a mother.

It was one of my very first angel investments as part of #ANGELS, and one of our first exits: Moxxly was recently acquired by Olle Larsson Holding, the parent company of Medela, the dominant player in the US and European breast pump market.

Though Moxxly will remain an independent brand, by joining the parent company of Medela, Cara, Gabrielle, Santhi and team will be able to achieve their vision of “building awesome products for badass women” faster, with more resources and a broader reach.

Medela created the first non-hospital electric pump, bless them. It hit the market in 1991, which means it has been just 26 years since women had to choose between breast milk for their babies or their jobs. No wonder we still have a way to go to achieve parity in the workplace for working mothers — we’ve barely just gotten a subset of the tools and technology necessary to alleviate the challenges of being a mother at work. (At some point in the future, I hope someone will be similarly shocked at how long it took for paid parental leave, available in similar durations to both men and women in order to seed parity in parenting from the get-go, to be widely available.)

In addition to Moxxly, there has been an explosion of start-ups tackling the breast pump in the past several years (I love Naya’s video, “If Men Breastfed”), as well as many other female-focused health pain points, from fertility tracking to egg freezing to fertility & genetics to breast cancer risk to period management. It makes me hopeful that the entrepreneurial marketplace, and the capital that backs it, has recognized the opportunity to serve this massive, underserved user segment and may start to acknowledge other underserved users. I can’t wait to see how it will make all our lives better.

*h/t MIT Media Lab