Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a weekly celebration of the Boston-connected women who are building businesses that drive change around the world. Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote, founders of Maternova, take this week’s honors for addressing Zika, the deadly virus putting women, girls and newborns at risk globally.
By SHELAGH BRALEY
With news of Zika virus ripping through communities around the world, and landing most recently on U.S. soil in Florida, fear continues to grow exponentially.
Since the World Health Organization declared Zika a health emergency in February, the numbers of pregnant women and newborns affected globally have increased 20 times, according to the WHO report, One year into Zika Outbreak.
Zika has been linked to a significant increase in newborn microcephaly—a terrifying birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected, due to improper brain development, according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine report.
There is no cure, and there is no vaccine, but there is Maternova—working on the front lines to source a solution, in the form of Zika-proof clothing for girls, women, and expecting mothers.
Maternova is well known to the Boston ecosystem as MassChallenge 2011 finalists, and founders Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote remain “deadly serious” about providing medical devices and diagnostics to improve outcomes for pregnant women and newborns around the world.
“How do women walking around in their everyday lives protect themselves (from Zika and other mosquito-borne illness), who are maybe washing clothes in a stream, or walking to market?” asks Wirth in an interview with FoundersWire. “The more we researched and heard from the field, the more the impact of malaria and dengue were very much on our radar. Then Zika came along. It has become very scary, so it just hit right where we were working,” she says.
The Providence-based team partnered with Alessandra Gold, a friend, former co-founder in Cote’s previous company and well-known designer from Brazil—a country more ravaged by Zika than any other—to create a line of protective clothing to stave off potential bites.
Zika attacks pregnant women in their first trimester—far more than the average population—but the virus often isn’t detected until after childbirth, or until nearly the third trimester, Cote says. “(Expecting mothers) are more likely to be bitten, it’s the increase in blood volume and hormones,” she explains, “so it’s that important. We need to get this solution into the field and we can’t wait.”
Maternova, known for sourcing crucial medical technology and distributing it to the neediest mother-and-newborn communities through its 15,000 partnerships, saw Zika as a dire situation. They also recognized that no one else was approaching a solution through apparel, which presented a unique opportunity.
“We actually do think of our Zika protection as a medical device,” says Wirth. “We’re already working on how to protect pregnant women from risks, and we had already been looking at rapid diagnostics in the field, so you could test whether women had Zika.”
Around that time, they discovered CAMTech (Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies), a collaborative platform based out of Massachusetts General Hospital that identifies medical challenges and fast-tracks impactful, commercially viable solutions, was hosting a Zika innovation hackathon in partnership with Grand Challenges Canada.
“None of the other ideas or teams were focused on apparel. We really focused on the idea of having something protective that women will want to wear,” says Wirth. “Just because you’re a poor girl in El Salvador doesn’t mean you don’t want to wear something stylish and attractive.”
The team was one of six that pocketed $19,000 American ($25k Canadian) in May, to set the wheels in motion—and the only one focused on apparel as a possible stopgap. Though fashion may seem a less lofty driver in the face of deadly disease, Wirth and Cote see it as crucial to removing barriers to adherence.
“(The clothing) had to be safe for pregnant women—the standard repellant is not safe for them,” says Cote. “So we had to source the fabric (with safe repellant imbued into the fibers). And now we have clothing that’s being specifically designed and manufactured as gorgeous and affordable, that’s going to save lives.
“We don’t want women to look like they’re being punished by wearing this,” she says.
They focused on Zika-proof clothing as a means of empowerment for those most at risk. “We are very good at taking technologies that are quite far along and proven, and helping them get to market in creative ways,” Wirth continues. “That’s exemplified in the Zika apparel, where we are putting together fashion, nanotechnology and our existing global distribution.”
The virus, carried by a type of mosquito called Aedes, is known informally as the tiger mosquito. This deadly pest has adapted to city life and rapid urban growth, where the population increase has outpaced the city’s ability to maintain infrastructure such as piped water and sanitation. Inside homes, they breed easily in toilet tanks, flower vases, even pet water bowls. Without piped water, the poor are especially vulnerable, forced to store water in containers, creating a deadly multiplier on mosquito proliferation in their own homes, and increasing their risk of infection.
“Pregnancy is a vulnerable time, even under the best of circumstances,” says Cote. “These poor women, it’s like roulette every day you walk outside your house. Unless you are wealthy, you don’t even have window screens.”
Maternova was chosen by Republic to fund its newest initiative on the just-launched crowd-funding platform. “Republic focuses on women entrepreneurs and impact,” says Wirth, “and we are one of eight startups they chose to launch with. We were asked to be part of their launch, which was absolutely amazing.”
Republic, built by AngelList alums and ushering in the new age of post-JOBS crowd-funding regulations, gives mission-focused founders information, community support, and access to high-profile advisors and high net-worth investors, according to its web site.
Maternova’s clothing line is already eagerly anticipated on the front lines, they say.
“We’ve already gotten requests to make community health worker uniforms that protect from mosquito-borne diseases, like for midwives going out into the community,” Wirth says. “The midwives really are the heroes in this whole thing, because they do the work of delivering the next generation in many countries.”
Maternova’s clothing not only repels Zika, but addresses other high-risk mosquito-borne illness, they say. “We heard from the field that they were terrified of Zika, and dengue has proven to be just as malevolent,” says Cote. “So our fabric protects against 40 different insects (including Lyme-carrying ticks). We are looking to be a single source of protection in an attractive way.”
Where Zika has just infiltrated the United States, Lyme has already had deep effects on the U.S. population, with more than 30,000 cases reported to the CDC each year. “Chronic lyme can be physically devastating, which is how we know (our clothing) would appeal to women here,” Cote says.
The company’s current plan is to manufacture in Brazil, introduce the clothing line here in the United States, to generate interest and support, then distribute lower-cost versions around the world. “U.S. women will not only appreciate the design, but also see and support the cause,” Cote says. “Motherhood is a common bond. The threat may not be identical—each population has a unique threat—but this will protect you.”
They are sourcing high-quality, wearable and functional fabric, Cote says, which ultimately will be a smart investment, because pieces can be washed more than 50 times without losing their protective qualities. “(Microcephaly is) a devastating consequence, because it’s something that cannot be fixed,” Cote says, “so we need to cut it off. We have to get these out into the field because not only do women need them, Meg and I have fought tooth and nail, and bootstrapped this. It’s something we are extremely committed to seeing through.”
With the advent of Zika, the Maternova team sees an opportunity to educate the population. “Maternal health and the wellbeing of pregnant women is what drives what we do,” Wirth says, “because we believe it drives societies. With Zika, because it is new and an immediate threat, it brings attention to maternal health across the foreground.
“For us, it’s a way to help and offer protection, not just for Zika, but for all vulnerabilities that affect women in the United States, Latin America and around the world,” she says.
“We can’t wait for a vaccine to come on the market,” says Cote. “That’s why the Republic campaign is so important—we can’t get it done fast enough at this point.”
Want to support this innovative company? Find out if you’re qualified to invest in Maternova through the Republic campaign HERE.