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Kohana wins MIT $100K Accelerate with overhaul of the breast pump

Runner-up is RapidSOS, for improving emergency response accuracy

February 24, 2015

Marzyeh Ghassemi, Susan Thompson, and Katherine Ong of Kohana

Marzyeh Ghassemi, Susan Thompson, and Katherine Ong of Kohana

Loud, uncomfortable, and inefficient breast pumps have long been despised by new mothers. So three moms started a company to build a better one.

The co-founders of Kohana, Inc. took home the $10,000 prize at the Feb. 20 MIT $100K Accelerate contest for their new approach to the billion-dollar market. They also received runner-up recognition for the audience vote.

“They all suck, literally and figuratively,” said Kohana co-founder Katherine Ong. “All of them rely on strong backing suction to remove milk, and as a result you’re stuck with a loud motor, lots of small parts that are hard to clean, and an intrusive and embarrassing design that makes many moms feel like they’re dairy cows.”

Kohana was formed at an MIT hackathon, born of frustration with breast pump technology that hasn’t changed in decades. Ong and co-founder Marzyeh Ghassemi are PhD candidates at MIT. The third co-founder is Susan Thompson, who received her PhD from Johns Hopkins University. All three were mothers of young children while pursuing their degrees. And all three lamented design flaws in breast pumps while trumping the nutritional value of breast milk over formula.

Their prototype, called the Gala Pump, uses compression, rather than suction, “and it’s more comfortable because it’s mimicking a very natural motion of hand expression that people have been doing for centuries,” Ong said. The pump offers greater comfort and efficiency over traditional breast pumps, and operates more discreetly because it is quieter and can be worn under clothing.

Accelerate is the second of three annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition events. The $100,000 grand prize is given at the Launch competition in May. The 11 teams selected from 170 applications for Accelerate spent the MIT Independent Activities Period honing their ideas through mentorship, target customer outreach, and prototype development. Later, at the Accelerate contest, they squared off through five-minute pitches before a panel of judges.

The Kohana team spent the Independent Activities Period in an institutional review board-approved study with 30 women, testing an early prototype, measuring expression of breast milk, and developing a pressure sensor to measure milk flow at the nipple. Their early results show a 100 percent positive response from tested mothers, and a 30 percent higher milk flow rate. Through social media, the team opened a dialogue with mothers and found 90 percent already use the compression techniques their Gala Pump mimics, and were impatient for a product to go to market.

The Gala Pump will have regulatory hurdles before going to market, Thompson said. The team will use the prize money to fund a clinical trial and improve its prototype.

Faster, better emergency response

RapidSOS, a company building smartphone apps for emergency response, won the audience vote for $2,000 and the judge’s $2,000 runner-up prize.

Founder Michael Martin said 911 systems are still largely grounded in copper wire technology from the 1960s. This can result in delays and deployment decisions based on insufficient information during life or death emergencies.

Currently, Martin said, 911 calls from a smartphone go to a dispatch center based on cell tower location, often miles away, and only after a two to four minute conversation is it routed to the appropriate local emergency dispatcher.

“All while someone is shooting at you or you’re having a heart attack,” he said. “Millions of 911 calls fail. Fifty percent of all mobile 911 calls have inaccurate or no location system.”

“We think the way it should work is one push button on your phone, connecting through any medium—Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellular—transferring all the data on your smart phone into the right dispatch center using all the redundancy of the cloud,” he said.

RapisSOS has interviewed hundreds of emergency dispatchers, and is developing a suite of applications beyond 911 calls, including emergency notification based on geographic area.

Keynote speakers share discomfort of startup life

In a keynote address, Gimlet Media co-founders Matt Lieber, MBA ’12, and Alex Blumberg shared the moments most entrepreneurs would prefer to forget. Blumberg, a former producer at This American Life, and Lieber, a former NPR producer, founded the podcast network in 2014.

The two shared clips from their StartUp podcast series to convey the uncomfortable and emotional side of entrepreneurship. The recordings included stammer-filled failed pitches to venture capitalists, and a recording of Blumberg’s wife laughing out loud at an early company name idea. Most jarring, they recorded their own conversation about percentage of ownership in the company they were starting, complete with the tension of awkward pauses as each valued their contributions very differently.

“One of the continuous lessons is that it’s very emotional,” Blumberg said. “It is very easy to overvalue your idea. And it’s very easy to undervalue how hard it’s going to be to execute that idea.”

“Ideas aren’t worth that much, it’s really about the execution, which means building a team,” Lieber said. “You may not see eye to eye on the value of what you bring to the team and what the other person brings to the team. But if you can’t have that difficult conversation successfully, it may be not the right team to start a business with.”