Maternova: Using Technology & Innovation to End Maternal Death
by Beth Pitts, Editor, August 31, 2012
A terrible fact: in the 21st century developing world, pregnancy remains a leading cause of death amongst women of childbearing age. One woman dies every 90 seconds in the context of trying to give life. In a country like Niger, this means 1 in 7 women will die 'a maternal death.'
Mission-driven for-profit Maternova, the first global portal for innovation in global maternal and neonatal health, is looking to change shocking statistics such as these. With a focus on tools and protocols, Maternova makes it easy for doctors, nurses and midwives to track innovation and to buy technologies and kits to use overseas.
In this interview, we speak to Maternova Founder Meg Wirth (pictured left) and VP of Business Development, Allyson E. Cote (pictured right).
Meg has worked on women's health throughout her career in areas as diverse as starting a home visiting program for teen mothers in Appalachia to monitoring and evaluating a major Safe Motherhood initiative in Jakarta and South Kalimantan, Indonesia. An innovator at heart, over the last several years she co-developed the strategy for the first global health social venture capital fund with a focus on women's health in low-income countries. A S.E.VEN fellow and a Cartier Women's Initiative finalist., Meg co-authored the UN Millennium Project’s final report on child and maternal health. She has a BA from Harvard University and an MPA in international development from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.
Allyson has over fifteen years in the development field and her award winning expertise lies in high level client acquisition, strategic and channel partnership development, account management, and marketing. Prior to Maternova, Allyson acted as a founding Vice President team member of Shape Up, Inc. as well as acting as COO for Alessandra Gold, Inc. She holds an undergraduate degree in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, and is currently working towards an MBA in Advocacy & Policy.
We spoke to Meg and Allyson about the technology at the cutting edge of maternal health; about their entrepreneurial journey; and the rewarding business of saving lives.
TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Maternova and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?
MW & AEC: Founded in 2009 by Meg, Maternova was the result of years of research, policy and fieldwork in the field of maternal and newborn health. Frustrated by the lack of information sharing for the latest low cost innovations, and their slow emergence in distribution channels, the company was launched with the plan to fill the void that costs lives daily.
Maternova, Inc. seeks to revolutionize the way live-saving products are discovered, accessed and distributed. The company has built the first online marketplace focused on accelerating the adoption of innovative products in the $15B maternal/newborn health industry. We aggregate suppliers and customers in one marketplace and offer branded and private label obstetric and newborn technologies to organizations equipping frontline health workers. Allyson joined Meg in early 2012 after exiting another successful start up company.
TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?
MW & AEC: Currently there aren’t any direct competitors in this niche marketplace. We see some great non-profit models and we see pockets of innovation, that ultimately become partners or manufacturers managed by Maternova. We’re very fortunate to be the first well recognized global brand for a variety of innovations and information in one centralized location.
TNW: Tell us a little about the technology which is currently at the cutting edge of maternal health.
MW & AEC: We are tracking three kinds of low-cost pressure devices that wrap around a woman’s body, and that will ‘buy a woman time’ and save her life in event of massive bleeding after childbirth. We are also tracking innovative ways to stop hemorrhage internally as well as new kinds of pharmaceutical options.
On the IT side, we’re creating a robust online experience for our clients and members. We have the global marketplace, but we’ve just added an online collaboration platform. This will allow us to harness people’s trusted networks. You can join, connect, and even locate your colleagues in the field. We also will be hosting some exciting clinical studies and product trials. Our platform allows users to create product reviews in real time, share best practices, and make suggestions for product improvement. But we also want to keep it engaging, so we’ve added in some gaming dynamics and social networking. Finally, by coupling social incentives and real rewards, participants will be able to earn products for their locations.
TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?
MW & AEC: That’s an excellent question! Being a startup company is exhilarating, and you need to be more nimble than a gymnast to adapt to such a dynamic environment. We operate on a smaller budget than most. In doing that, you need to be able to have keen creative problem solving strategies. We all wear a lot of hats, and multi-task 24/7.
Prior start up experience is key, because only scrappy mission driven people embark on such an uncertain path. A great sense of humor is also a prerequisite. We have a lot of fun and love what we do.
For us, the reward is in a job well done. Whether that’s ensuring supplies make it on time, to creating a tech savvy product demo video (the blooper reel is a riot), we make it work because we have to.
TNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?
MW & AEC: Our first customers have been independent clinicians and small but powerful midwifery groups like Midwives for Haiti. Maternova gained its first deep traction in grassroots marketing and personal connections. The first customers were not difficult. Word of mouth certainly goes the distance, to 170 countries specifically. Anchored by Meg’s ridiculously impressive body of work, the credibility was instant, and contagious. People have flocked to us as their primary source of innovation news. We work hard to keep information ahead of the curve. We share it readily too. Social media has helped us spread our message and Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have become trusted communication channels.
TNW: Who are your customers and partners now?
MW & AEC: As we grow, we make a determined effort to keep our original client base. They helped launch us, and we are incredibly grateful. Their trust has allowed us to pursue other partnerships. Right now we’re actively servicing 50 customers. Additionally, we’ve entered into partnerships with the larger NGO’s, brokers, and government/ministries of health.
TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?
It’s true you can never appreciate the sweet without having tasted the bitter. If we had to sum it up, and without trying to be trite, it’s simple - don’t give up. Believe in yourself and your mission.
It’s always a good idea to take the help that’s offered to you. We have a simply astonishing Advisory Board who have selflessly given their time to help craft our course of action. Having a variety of inputs from Advisors with different skills and deep domain experience is critical.
TNW: What is your top tip for balancing motherhood with a career?
MW & AEC: Have a good network of friends you can rely on. We are are both mothers, and it can be a challenge even for seasoned pros. Your business is important, but your family is everything. Allyson also is a huge fan of ‘Five Ingredient Fix’ on The Food Network...creating delicious, simple, and nutritious meals is a huge timesaver! Streamline your routine during the week, and don’t be too hard on yourself.
TNW: Do you have any pet projects as an entrepreneur?
MW & AEC: Sure, we both do. Meg is on the Board of a local community gardening project in Providence, RI and has quite a green thumb, from which the city is the direct beneficiary. Allyson is a staunch animal protection advocate who works on a national basis creating legislation for animal rights. It’s important to find projects that nourish your soul and allow you to rejuvenate.
TNW: If you could get on a soap box and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?
MW & AEC: Yes, the world needs to take notice that women are shaping its future. We’re doing a fantastic job too.
There’s so many inspiring women in all kinds of influential and maverick roles. The NextWomen has many of them featured and participating on it. Ladies, we salute you!
The Pipeline Fellowship is leading the way but we need exponentially more women angel investors who are passionate about impact investing—and we need them today.
TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?
MW & AEC: We were named one of Bloomberg Businessweek’s Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs.
TNW: Do you have plans to expand internationally? Which countries and when?
MW & AEC: Yes we do! Our main goal is to save women's and newborns lives. We are getting a lot of traction from Asian countries at the moment and so we are looking at expanding partnerships in the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia , India and Pakistan. African countries we are targeting include Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya. However, it is important to note that we are truly global and seek to remove a lot of the middlemen—if the country allows the import of the particular medical device or product we sell, we can send products anywhere in the world and have already interfaced with 25 countries!!
TNW: Do you envision an exit, how and when?
MW & AEC: Honestly, I suppose it will happen eventually, but right now there’s so much we want to accomplish. Maternova is just hitting it’s stride after a lengthy ramp up period. It would have to be an acquisition to precisely the right organization, who will hold true to our mission.
We’ve already had some initial inquiries but it’s premature. If the right organization doesn’t present itself, we’ll keep going until we solve this global epidemic, or drop dead, whichever happens first. We’re betting on the first choice.
TNW: What has been the most rewarding experience about founding and running Maternova?
MW & AEC: Saving lives is a pretty rewarding business.. We are awed on a daily basis by what women face giving birth around the world and the health providers who care for them are our heroes. We’ve also met some amazing people: Inventors, global experts, and supporters make it all worthwhile.