Does the Breast Pump Still Suck?

Eight Awesome Outcomes of the MIT Media Lab Breast Pump Hackathon

by Catherine D’Ignazio


You may have heard about the MIT Media Lab’s “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon in September. It was named one of the top 20 reasons to love Boston by Boston Magazine. It was featured in Forbes, The New Yorker, CNN, and Fast Company. It was discussed on the BBC World News, NPR, CBC, and WNYC. It went viral on social media, where users applauded the effort, offered their ideas, criticized the winners, and debated whether breast pumps should or should not suck by definition. For a very short introduction, this Boston.com video does a really nice job of telling the story.

A lot of the media attention focused on the hackathon winners, and they are awesome — but they’re not the whole story. Hackathons often get criticized for producing little in the way of real-world impact. It’s understandable. Teams may have just met. And scaling an idea from hack to impact is tough, as we learned from hackathon speaker and judge Beth Kolko.

Scaling an idea from hack to impact is tough

Despite these challenges, there is a lot of forward momentum from the breast pump hackathon. Five months post-hackathon, here are the most exciting ideas, intersections, and collaborations:

1. Three of the winning teams have merged to enter the MIT 100K Competition

A new “superteam” has formed around the Kohana/Compress Express prototype that uses compression instead of suction technology.

Members from Helping Hands (2nd place winners), Second Nature (User-Focused Design Award), and Compress Express (Pioneer Award) have joined forces on a compression-based bra system. The team members hosted a follow-up mini-hackathon at the Media Lab on October 25. They recently decided to focus their efforts on Susan Thompson’s compression “Gala Pump,” which she has been developing for the past two years. Thompson led the Compress Express team at the hackathon, where she presented her prototype, a pump that uses compression instead of vacuum-based suction. This new “superteam,” called Kohana, was recently selected to present at a competitive start-up showcase for VC investors. In addition, Kohana has pitched to the River Valley Investors Angel group for $250K in seed funds; has met with the director of Mass Medical Angels, Richard Anders; and had preliminary discussions with other angel investors and industry partners.

2. A Smart, Nurturing Breast Pump Powered by an Arduino

Students at the MIT Media Lab are creating a personalized, software-driven pump.

Members of the other hackathon teams also remain active. Max Metral, of the PumpIO team(third place winners at the hackathon) joined Naia Health’s advisory board to help them bring their new pump design to market. And Dan Goodman, also of PumpIO, has joined forces with hackathon organizer Tal Achituv and Bundle team member Savannah Niles to further prototype PumpIO into an open platform for breast pump research and development as part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Wellbeing Initiative at the Media Lab.

Goodman, Achituv, and Niles’ pump is called “Athena” after the Greek goddess of wisdom. It’s powered by an Arduino and can be operated through a smartphone. The Athena emulates the motor operations of popular pumps on the market; its innovation is to make the pump parts interoperable, allowing users to mix and match elements from different pumps. This allows the user to try out how different popular pumps work prior to having to purchase.

The team has also been working on improving and personalizing the user experience of pumping, and making the experience less isolating. Their app gives women encouragement and provides information on volume pumped, and invites them to give advice to other women who have posted challenges in the app’s system.

3. Exciting Inventions and Add-ons

Tal Achituv and Eran Jassby are working on a small add-on that can make nearly all breast pumps shareable in a hygienic way. You can download and print this add-on here.

Some hackathon participants are making progress on ideas that never saw the light of day at the event itself. Tim Brothers, a member of the first-place Mighty Mom team, is working on developing a noise muffling accessory for the breast pump. And Tal Achituv and Eran Jassby are working on a small, inexpensive add-on to facilitate the hygienic sharing of breast pumps and the development of a more vibrant secondary market for used breast pumps.

4. MIT Classes Are Taking on the Challenge

The Ruma Pump prototype by Team Orange in MIT’s 2.009 Product Engineering Processes capstone class.

Immediately after the hackathon, talented undergraduates decided to pitch the breast pump as the final project they would prototype and take to market. Two groups — Team Orange and Team Silver — worked with Helping Hands at the mini-hackathon and took apart numerous breast pumps to develop schematics and models. Ultimately the breast pump wasn’t chosen for their final project, but Xochitl Mellor, a senior in mechanical engineering, is continuing to work with the Kohana team on the MIT 100K Accelerator. Mellor is also planning a bachelor’s thesis focused on compression breast pump technology, receiving mentorship from the Kohana team, and hoping to take faculty member Alex Slocum’s Mechanical Device Design class to work towards a publication or patent from her research.

There is also a new class called Hacking Infant Health, taught by organizer Tal Achituv with hackathon speaker and judge Nancy Holtzman, and hackathon participant Naomi Bar-Yam. Bar-Yam is executive director at Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, one of 15 milk banks in the country that help save the lives of newborn babies and improve outcomes for others. The class, taught during MIT’s Independent Activities Period and open to MIT students and members of the public, will pair teams with design challenges such as controlling temperature, pasteurizing milk, and connecting donors and receivers.

5. Momentous Personal Decisions

Liz Slavkovsky, a member of the Helping Hands team, decided to return to school for mechanical engineering as a result of the Breast Pump Hackathon.

The hackathon was a transformative personal experience for some participants. As a direct result of her participation, Liz Slavkovsky, a member of the Helping Hands team, decided to return to school in January to finish a mechanical engineering bachelor’s degree that she started a decade ago. If all goes well, she plans to stay on for a master’s.

6. Visualizing What Women Want from Their Breast Pumps

A visualization of the most frequently mentioned three-word phrases from more than 1,000 open-source, user-submitted ideas for how to improve the breast pump experience. By Catherine D’Ignazio.

Before and during the hackathon, breast pump users and experts submitted over 1,000 ideas for how to improve the device. From these, the hackathon organizing team created an open data store of user ideas and related data on GitHub to help innovators analyze and create visualizations to support their case for change.

This visualization shows how we used natural language processing to group over 1,000 user-submitted ideas for improving their breast pumping experience into “trigrams” — groups of three words that were often mentioned together. Stay tuned for a full exploration of the data in my forthcoming story.

7. Human-Centered Innovation for Maternal Health

Baby Pau is a lot bigger than this now! But he is still rocking the hair.

The organizers — myself, Alexis Hope, Alexandra Metral, Tal Achituv, David Raymond, Che-Wei Wang, and Taylor Levy — have been working to reflect on, share, and disseminate the design strategies that we used for the Breast Pump Hackathon and explore how we might use those to innovate in the field of maternal health more generally. We are working with Alberta Chu of AskLabs to produce a short video documentary about the hackathon. Together with Willow Brugh and Ethan Zuckerman of the Center for Civic Media, we are writing a research paper on the design and impact of the Breast Pump Hackathon for the Journal of Peer Production’s special issue on Feminism and (Un)Hacking. Metral discussed the hackathon on the podcast One Bad Mother. Hope and I presented on the hackathon at Microsoft’s Social Computing Symposium in January. And you can watch Lina Colucci, co-director of MIT’s Hacking Medicine, as she talks about the breast pump hackathon at TEDxBrussels.

How do you steward forward momentum and track the impact of a weekend of intensity?

We have plenty of questions and plenty of items on the agenda. How can we set up opportunities to “hack” the policy, education, and social practices that must accompany technological innovation? How do you steward forward momentum and track the impact of a weekend of intensity? And most of all, how can a hackathon be a better listening space? Whose voices are represented at the hackathon? Whose problems get solved? Who is empowered to create the future?

8. Our Next Step: Maternal Health Hackathon — Send Us Your Ideas!

At the Breast Pump Hackathon, speaker Mar Hershenson exhorted us to redefine the common understanding of maternal health to mean:

(1) not just women (include men, partners, and babies)

(2) not just women not dying but also helping women, children, and families thrive

In keeping with this idea, we are pleased to announce our own next step. We are working with MIT’s Hacking Medicine group to organize several high-profile prizes for projects that address maternal health challenges for their Grand Health Hack this spring. As before, we are sourcing ideas and challenges in advance of the hackathon so that we can ensure that teams work on problems that really matter.

What?! Why don’t we have more scientific understanding of the post-partum period? Image by Katie Hinde in Hinde K. 2015. Motherhood. in: Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (eds.) R. Scott and S. Kosslyn, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

What is your policy, education, or technological idea for improving maternal, neonatal, or family health? Should we reinvent the pap smear, the mammogram, the speculum, the stirrups? Should we incentivize scientific research on the post-partum period which we know shockingly little about (see above image by Dr. Katie Hinde)? Should we hack family leave policy so that new parents can actually spend time with their newborn babies? Should we create an app to educate midwives in remote regions? A low-cost breast milk pasteurizer? Or a portable ultrasound device to use in low-resource situations? Should we do more global breastfeeding advocacy or work on access to prenatal care? Drop us a line and we’ll make sure your ideas get heard at the hackathon.


Catherine D’Ignazio is a research affiliate in the Center for Civic Media. She is also an assistant professor of civic media and data visualization at Emerson College and a fellow at the Engagement Lab. Her background is in the arts, data visualization, and software development. She likes making magical, fun things with social impact. Learn about all of the Innovation and Maternal Health Coalition at MIT members (including hackathon organizers Tal Achituv, Alexis Hope, Taylor Levy, Alexandra Metral, David Raymond, and Che-Wei Wang with advisory support from Willow Brugh and Ethan Zuckerman) here: http://breastpump.media.mit.edu.