MIT Hackathon: Make the Breast Pump Not Suck

I was lucky enough to get to attend the MIT “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon this last weekend.  It was a great experience: I’ve never been to a hackathon before, and while I hear that this wasn’t quite a typical experience (one attendee commented that this group was 40% men, 40% women, and 20% babies, and it was totally true—there were tons of babies and toddlers and even a handful of older kids).  The format was pretty neat: they had some inspirational speakers who talked about why this is a big issue and an important problem to solve, and about the biggest issues with current pumps.  They also had thousands of comments from users printed out, which they color-coded by issue and posted on the wall so everyone could read them, visually classify the problems, and get inspiration.   After the inspirational talks, 18 people (including me) gave “rocket pitches”, and then we organically formed teams over lunch, combining ideas and making teams with diverse backgrounds and skill sets.  We ended up with a team of 12: users (and spouses), educators, designers, educators, and engineers (some with no previous exposure to breast pumps or lactation), which made for enthusiastic discussions and experience sharing.

It was really a whirlwind experience, since the official event was 10-6 Saturday and Sunday (already only 16 hours) and the first two and last two were occupied with talks and final pitches/judging.  We made a video to explain our idea and the inspiration behind it, and I enjoyed the experience of video editing with iMovie in the 15 minutes before the deadline.  It was completely insane, but it was also awesome to do ten little clips (all but two of them in a single take!) and be able to email them to each other, pull them into iMovie, and sort them into order with little title cards to make a (low-budget but) awesome pitch.  I *do* wish I’d had a few more minutes to fix the spelling errors…

We actually ended up pitching several related ideas: the Mighty Mom Utility Belt itself, the ZipTube, and the sensors for smartphone data collection and feedback.  We got the bottle level optical sensor working in a demo (narrated by me, because we were really not sure whether you could hear the pump well in the video—you totally can, those things are loud), and got a prototype of the belt itself:

My sewing skills could totally use some work, and my sewing machine badly needs service, but I got this made in about two hours after I got home on Saturday night and helped put the kids to bed.  I’m pretty pleased with that!

The other cool product our team created is the ZipTube.  One big problem with a wearable pump is how to get the milk away from the breasts so it can be stored.  We went round and round with a variety of ideas, searching existing products for inspiration.  The Freemie solves this by *not* moving the milk—it’s stored at the breast—but that has some obvious drawbacks, particularly with overflow. Tubing to get the milk away from the chest is obnoxious, though, because it has to be cleaned—and anyone who has cleaned a breast pump and all its little parts, or a bottle, or a sippy cup knows that milk is *really* sticky.  Two of our members were inspired to make the tubing cleanable, and made a prototype zip-open tube with a soldering iron and ziploc bags.  It’s so crazy, it just might work.  Better materials are needed so it can be dishwasher or sanitizer-safe, but it fixes a lot of the issues that have limited innovation in the pump industry.

I actually didn’t stay through the end of the presentations, because it was dinnertime for kids (and me!) so it was a total surprise when our de-facto team leader, Erin (who cleverly collected all our email addresses and without whom we totally would not have gotten nearly as much done) sent us mail that we’d won! (In fact, only about a third of our team was able to stay through the end, and the first comment to the “we won” email was “won which?” since there were some audience favorite categories, and that would have made sense since our video, I think, is pretty funny.)

The experience since the hackathon has been unreal.  Tons of media have been interested in talking to us, and several of our members have been interviewed (including me! I’m quoted in the New Yorker!) by local and national publications.  We’re not sure what happens now—part of the prize is that two of us get to go to California to pitch the product to VCs, so we need to figure out who goes and what exactly we’re pitching.  Even if I don’t get to do anything else on this project (and I expect to help improve our prototype before someone goes to California—we reserved some of our prize money for parts to make it a better demo) I’m so pleased that this topic is getting press and thought-hours!


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