Why Have So Many Breast Pump Startups Flamed Out?
Despite years of hype, these entrepreneurs are finding it’s nearly impossible to survive
Janica Alvarez and her husband, Jeff, were supposed to revolutionize the breast pump. The pump—a hulking, painful, ugly device—serves a very precise purpose: to extract milk from a mother’s breasts when she’s not with her baby. It’s a heavy, noisy machine that armies of postpartum women drag to work and hook themselves up to multiple times throughout the day — shirts crumpled, milk dripping, unwieldy flanges dangling — all so they can keep their babies nourished and their milk supply alive.
Alvarez, a mother of three, quit her job as a biotech researcher at Genentech, as did her husband, a product developer for a surgical robotics company, to build a smart breast pump. To develop the design, the couple relied on their own knowledge of hydraulics and robotics, along with sonograms of breastfeeding babies and the advice of lactation consultants and pediatricians. The Naya pump had soft cups for the breasts, along with water-based (rather than air-based) suction technology, which worked together to more closely mimic a baby’s mouth. The device automatically tracked how long women pumped and how much milk they extracted. The co-founders claimed their product pumped 30% more breast milk and was quieter, lighter, more comfortable, and easier to clean than traditional breast pumps. To any woman who had ever endured pumping sessions huddled in a lactation room between meetings, the Naya sounded like a dream.
After launching in 2013, the couple raised $6.5 million from investors. They later landed press coverage in Bloomberg Businessweek, the New Yorker, Inc., and California Sunday, with headlines like “Silicon Valley Reinvents the Breast Pump.” But behind the scenes, they kept hitting walls. Their product got hung up in the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for a number of years, which was costly. Naya also had a hard time convincing moms to pay $999 for its product. (The most common commercial model runs $300; women with insurance can typically get basic pumps at no charge.)
In 2017, after struggling to raise more venture capital money, Naya’s co-founders decided to turn to Kickstarter, where they beat their…