Comstock's magazine 0319 - March 2019 - Page 80

n WOMEN IN HEALTH I n Brazil, nursing mothers feel comfortable taking out their breasts, asking questions and working with physicians and nurses to solve lactation problems. This was a revelation to Anna Sadovnikova, an M.D. and Ph.D. student in nutritional biology at UC Davis, who interned in two dozen human donor milk banks in Brazil in 2014. She saw Brazilian mothers learn a slew of massage tech- niques to combat issues like nipple pain, low milk production and failure to latch. It was a far cry from what Sadovnikova saw in the U.S. Through her research in mammary gland biology and breast- feeding medicine, she had heard from new moms distressed by hospital staff who relied heavily on breast pumps. Though often necessary, most pumps can’t mimic the complex movements of a baby’s mouth, which massage tissue and combat common prob- lems that arise for nursing mothers. It also makes for healthier outcomes, Sadovnikova says, because hands-on techniques re- sult in the milk’s increased fat content and volume. But, she adds, the average health care professional in the U.S. doesn’t feel com- fortable or confident enough to support moms who want to nurse. “It’s that physical connection between the health care pro- vider and the mother, and the mother and her own body, that’s what I felt was missing in the U.S.,” she says. In 2014, she cofounded LiquidGoldConcept, a breast health and lactation education company. One of her first ideas was an app called MomKit, designed to teach mothers various tech- niques to alleviate, improve or prevent common breastfeeding problems. As a founder, she was passionate about the impor- tance of breastfeeding on infant and maternal health. She won a few startup competitions to develop proof of concept. She was in talks with breast pump companies about integrating their brands with her educational material. But she struggled to find investors. Every time she pitched her breastfeeding education products, she found herself dealing mostly with men. In 2015, during a workshop at UC Davis, she pitched to about 50 mentors; only one of them was a woman. Over- all, she says selling investors on an educational tool was difficult. “Many venture capitalists were looking for ... a product that I could sell directly to the mothers,” says Sadovnikova, who is certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Ex- aminers. “But I had to ask myself: Is this really a faulty business model, or are most financial firms filled with dudes who don’t understand women’s health issues?” Ultimately, Sadovnikova took the feedback and expanded LiquidGoldConcept beyond the app, but her experiences build upon a long history of women’s health issues viewed large- ly through the eyes of men. In 1985, the Public Health Service Task Force on Women’s Health Issues concluded that the lack of women’s health research had “compromised the quality of health information available to women as well as the health care they receive.” It wasn’t until 1993 that the Food and Drug Administration even began allowing women to be included in 82 | March 2019 trials for new drugs. The arena of women’s health is long over- due for a nuanced perspective. Throughout the Sacramento region, both the public and private sectors are making moves to rethink approaches to women’s health. Entrepreneurs, public officials and health care specialists have made moves to expand and diversify their ap- proach to maternal health and infant health, with targeted ef- forts to support women of color, women with low incomes and other groups that have gone under the radar for too long. THE RISE OF FEMTECH Sadovnikova has since begun selling Lactation Simulation Models through LiquidGoldConcept. The simulators are worn like a vest, giving mothers the opportunity to experience com- mon breastfeeding issues and learn various lactation skills. Her buyers are hospitals, nursing schools and community support groups like the Women, Infants, and Children program. Now angel investors and venture capitalists make offers, but she would rather maintain control of the business. “Sometimes it pays to go a little slower and bootstrap,” says Sadovnikova, who now has a 5-month-old son. “Every decision about spending money is that much more vetted by the team. Every dollar becomes so much more valuable. It’s taken a very long time, but we’re becoming a credible, trusted resource in the breastfeeding community.” With market potential estimated to hit $50 billion by 2025, female technology (“femtech”) focused on the health and well-being of women has been booming in recent years, fore- shadowing the future of health care that isn’t so male-centric. Products include fertility solutions, period-tracking apps and smart breast pumps. This surging market brings overdue attention to women’s health, which has been historically underfunded and underval- ued — a long-standing gender bias that advocates of women’s health attribute to investors being predominantly men who don’t take women’s issues seriously. Just 7 percent of venture capitalists at the top 100 firms are women, according to a 2016 CrunchBase Women in Venture report. For early-stage ven- tures, female founders raised an average of $77 for every $100 a male-founded team raised since 2010, TechCrunch reported. Sacramento native Dr. Neil Ray is working to make inroads in hospitals with his femtech product: a sensor that tells physi- cians if a baby is struggling in the womb during labor. He says the idea for his Mountain View-based medical device startup, Raydiant Oximetry, came from “professional dissatisfaction” with how women were being cared for during childbirth. “I saw this firsthand as a physician and as a new parent,” says Ray, a pediatric anesthesiologist. “We are using a technolo- gy to monitor babies that’s 50 years old.” When a woman goes into childbirth, there is a brief moment during which the baby doesn’t receive oxygen. In 99 percent of cases, it’s a benign event, akin to holding the breath. But some