Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Lactation Innovations Chief Executive Officer Brittany Molkenthin about her entrepreneurial journey and her experience bringing an innovative new product to market.
NAN PRICE: Give us some background.
BRITTANY MOLKENTHIN: When I was a student at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing I originally thought I wanted to get my lactation consultant certification. I shadowed Heather Deluca, who is a lactation consultant at Manchester Hospital. We were working with new moms who were breastfeeding.
We had been working with one mother who was nursing all day. I didn’t understand why she was so upset and struggling so much. Heather explained the struggle was because she didn’t know how much milk her baby was getting.
I remember saying: Wouldn’t it be great if there was a solution so she didn’t have to nurse all day long? Heather said: Maybe you could create that one day. That little interaction planted a seed for the idea.
I’d also participated in an innovation program through the School of Nursing. We had to think in terms of the medical field, if there was one invention we would design to improve something, what would it be?
NAN: How did you come up with the idea for the device?
BRITTANY: I did a lot of in-depth research to determine why women struggled with breastfeeding. I discovered that, of the 81% of women initiate breastfeeding, only 25% continue breastfeeding six months after they deliver their baby. I wanted to know: Why was there this huge drop off?
After I did more research, I found that most breastfeeding women stopped feeding due to the apprehension and anxiety behind not knowing how much breastmilk their babies were receiving.
I collaborated with a team of biomedical engineers at UConn. We developed a noninvasive device that utilizes infrared sensing to quantify in real time how many milliliters of breastmilk an infant is receiving by measuring the breastmilk contents in the infant’s stomach.
NAN: When did you launch the company?
BRITTANY: Lactation Innovations was founded in June 2017. When I graduated from UConn I developed the company to further the device, since I had a working prototype and it was no longer just an idea in my head. My hope is to get this product out in the market and make it available for women and healthcare providers.
NAN: Have you always known you were going to start on company?
BRITTANY: No. I never thought I would launch my own company or thought I would be where I am today or develop an innovation.
NAN: What gave you that push?
BRITTANY: When I pitched my idea at Shark Tank-type event at UConn, Nerac CEO Kevin Bouley was one of the judges. I remember he asked a lot of questions: Did you do market analysis? Do you think this is something beneficial? Did you think about all the research aspects of this device?
He told me the device could be applicable to researchers out there and it could further advance breastfeeding research tremendously. Kevin helped spark my entrepreneurial interest. That’s how I transformed the idea from something developed for a school project to actually creating a company and working alongside other students to further the device.
NAN: Kevin can certainly have that effect on people! Let’s talk about your team and who is involved.
BRITTANY: It’s interesting. The founding team is about seven people. A lot of them are the engineers who helped develop the device. Currently, moving the effort forward, it’s a single-person operated company—and that’s just me.
I have a huge board of advisory members and I’m also in collaboration Elizabeth Brownell, PhD, at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. She’s a Perinatal Epidemiologist specializing in human milk research and the Director of the Connecticut Human Milk Research Center. Elizabeth is also
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. She’s going to be my main researcher when I do the actual studies and trials on women and infants in the clinical field.
Also, I’m working with Synectic Engineering, a Connecticut-based medical product design company, which will be helping further the device so it’s clinical ready. So, I have a newer, more advanced team of engineers for the research aspect as we proceed further.
I have an engineering team and I’ve already collaborated with Children’s Medical Center, which is doing the trials. I’ve had expressed interest from IBM once I start collecting data. I’m also Arrow Electronics certified. I have a lot of things lined up, it’s just the funding.
NAN: How has that process been going?
BRITTANY: I applied for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). If I receive the grant, it will be a huge advancement for the company, and then I can begin working one-on-one with Synectic to develop the minimal viable product (MVP) prototype that’s clinical-ready. Once I’m able to do that, then I can start collaborating more with Elizabeth and designing our clinical studies.
NAN: Aside from funding, what other resources do you need most to move the startup forward?
BRITTANY: Looking to the future, I’m hoping to develop some form of partnership and be able get this device to market. To bring a medical device market is going to require an experienced team. The device is going to need to go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and that’s all going to cost a lot of money. I’m developing a medical device, I’m not opening a shop. The device must be tested on infants in the clinical field. It can have huge aspects for breastfeeding research, so it will require a partner that has done this before—brought a medical device through the FDA process and brought it to market. It can’t just be led by me.
NAN: Tell us about your device and what makes it innovative. Is there anything else like this on the market?
BRITTANY: Some devices in the market try to tackle this problem using scales or sensors that measure acoustics. But there is a lot of inaccuracy. What makes our device innovative is that it uses real-time measurement for accuracy.
A sensor is placed on the infant’s abdomen over their stomach and then transmitted via Bluetooth or wireless to a handheld device to an app. This information enables moms to see results in real time and record how much breastmilk their baby is receiving at each feeding. It’s designed to be a lot more accurate and simple to use.
NAN: What is it really like to be an entrepreneur?
BRITTANY: What’s most exciting for me is that I’m young—I’m in my early 20s and I’ve accomplished much more than I thought I was able to.
Looking at the day-to-day, sometimes I feel like I’ve made absolutely no progress. But I’ve hit huge milestones. The fact that I have a company and I’ve I formed all these relationships. I applied for a huge federal grant. I have a patent with the U.S. trademark office. Those are milestones I never thought I was capable of reaching.
A lot of people are excited about the device. It’s been extremely rewarding to meet people I admire—renowned physicians, researchers, neonatologists, and people in different branches in the government—and know they are interested in my product.
Also, when I hear mothers say they wish they had this device, or they offer to take part in the next trial, these are the women I’m doing this for.
NAN: That must be validating. You’ve definitely tapped into a needed market.
BRITTANY: It is. The breastfeeding supplies market is huge and it’s expanding vastly. To be developing something that huge hospitals and well-known researchers are working on and have it come from an idea I had in school is gratifying.
NAN: Do you have any advice for others who are launching a startup?
BRITTANY: Yes. One of my biggest pieces of advice is to be extremely thankful for the invaluable knowledge and guidance of mentorship. I look to and aspire to many people— Kevin Bouley, Elizabeth Brownell, Deb Santy at Innovation Thru Partnerships, and Arturo Pilar at Ciencia—who have given me so much rich knowledge, guidance, and mentorship. I take that, and I move myself forward.
NAN: Do you plan to give back and mentor others?
BRITTANY: Yes. I’ve spoken with other medical students in classrooms and I’ve been asked to do more. I also spoke at a class at the UConn Medical School where the topic was innovation and entrepreneurship. I was there to share my story and provide encouragement by sharing the message: Something you may have as an idea in this classroom may someday become a reality.
It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of money, knowledge, and patience. I had a few moments of doubt—especially while writing my grants—thinking I’m never going to be able to do this. I got a lot of no’s from people, or people who told me to come back in a year. But then I would have a yes or meet someone who would move me forward.