health tech

Cancer-focused founder delivers goods so patients thrive

SPECIAL DELIVERY: Dr. Ritu Trivedi-Purohit, the founder of Thriveosity (shown here on the terrace at WeWork Kinzie), has taken her medical practice to new heights, providing more comprehensive care for cancer patients, their care givers and loved ones through special, non-toxic care packages that address chemo side effects and more. FOUNDERSWIRE PHOTO BY SAMANTHA FRONTERA


 By SAMANTHA FRONTERA
@founderswire

CHICAGO—Dr. Ritu Trivedi-Purohit, a clinical psychologist with a specialty practice in oncology, found a need for her startup, Thriveosity, while caring for cancer patients and their families in their most vulnerable moments.

“I assist patients, manage all aspects of cancer care, including chemotherapy,” she says, “as well as assist family caregivers, support their loved ones and prevent burnout.”

Thriveosity, founded in 2016, delivers ThriveBoxes, what Trivedi-Purohit calls “cheerful boxes” to take care of those patients and their caregivers. She noticed a gap in cancer care, which has only widened over time as care has shifted from hospital-based to home- and community-based care, resulting in fewer opportunities to receive the kind of support they need from their primary medical providers.

“My patients were really struggling with managing their side effects,” she tells FoundersWire in an interview at WeWork Kinzie. “For example, patients often struggle with nutrition, loss of appetite and eating sufficient calories. Patients also experience changes to their hair, skin and nails. ThriveBoxes help them with recovery from their treatment.”

ThriveBoxes are monthly care packages specifically designed with the needs of loved ones in mind. Every care package features products to support the person during their journey through cancer. The company provides options to soothe these problems with handpicked non-toxic products.

According to the Lifetime Risk of Developing Cancer’s 2012-2014 data, approximately 38.5 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes. In 2014, there were an estimated 15 million people living with cancer in the United States.

Therefore, Trivedi-Purohit says, there is a large market for these types of boxes.

“Patients have to go through radiation,” causing a significant number of unavoidable, medicine-related issues, Trivedi-Purohit says. “And this gives them ways to have products to soothe their hair, skin and nail problems.”

The goal at Thriveosity is to support patients in the time immediately following their diagnosis and also during their treatments, introducing them to a cleaner, healthier lifestyle so they can begin their survivorship in a healthy manner. According to JAMA’s Oncology Journal, 40 percent of cancers have an environmental component. Trivedi-Purohit says, “Recurrence is also a real fear for patients. Providing comprehensive care benefits these patients at every stage of their cancer journey.”

The company’s five Thrive categories range from skincare, nutrition, aromatherapy, neurobehavioral and the basics. ThriveBoxes contain books and games designed to be fun and engaging while keeping a recipient’s mind active and stimulated. They include aromatherapy and essential oils, which have therapeutic qualities, natural skincare products, healthy organic food items and much-needed basic items.

“Our curation process is to offer functional, supportive, compassionate care,” Trivedi-Purohit says.

Thriveosity takes a holistic approach, which Trivedi-Purhit says differentiates them from their competitors. They are clinically trained to help manage all aspects of care, including emotional wellness. Some patients can experience side effects including “chemo brain,” dehydration and nutrition issues, which can all lead to re-hospitalization.

“A lot of the products we consume—using on our skin or ingesting—contain toxic ingredients,” Trivedi-Purohit says. “We need cleaner, non-toxic products.”

Trivedi-Purohit holds a master’s degree in community counseling from Loyola University and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology.  She maintains her practice in Park Ridge, Ill., treating patients with a variety of illnesses. But through Thriveosity, she can extend the continuum of care beyond traditional medicine.

“Support is what we focus on,” Trivedi-Purohit says.

The company offers a one-time box, because supporters often look for an alternative to get-well gifts and would like to offer a month of support.

They also offer one-, three- and six-month options, ranging from $50-$60. Although Trivedi-Purohit says they did not set out to be a subscription box company, they do offer monthly subscriptions “because patients need long-term support, ideally for 12 months.”

“So often, support comes flooding in immediately after a diagnosis and then can taper off,” Trivedi-Purohit says. “We are about supportive care, care for the length of time the patient needs.”


#workspacethoughts is an ongoing series made possible by WeWork, featuring the diverse founders building their companies in the Chicago area. WeWork provides workspaces designed for fresh ideas,  organic networking and month-to-month flexibility. 

CareAcademy raises $1.7M to accelerate eldercare training

CARING ABOUT GROWTH: Dr. Madhuri Reddy, left, and Helen Adeosun, co-founders of CareAcademy, have closed nearly $1.7 million in funding. FOUNDERSWIRE PHOTO


By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

BOSTON—CareAcademy is $1.675 million closer to educating the world’s elder caregivers.

The company, at the nexus of ed tech and health tech, last week locked down and announced the funding. ReThink Education led the seed round, with participation from the Techstars Venture Capital Fund and the Lumina Foundation.

CareAcademy, co-founded by Helen Adeosun and Dr. Madhuri Reddy, provides online classes for those who work in home health care—a largely unregulated but increasingly necessary component of aging in America. The field is also evolving, out of necessity, with more than 60 million Americans turning 65 before 2020, according to AARP research.

“I feel energized because we’re getting so much capacity,” says Adeosun. “We’re excited to prepare for our next phase. Now we’re focused on leading an organization that can scale. We know what the need is; it’s too great an opportunity.”

New York-based Rethink Education—who took the lead investor position quickly, according to Adeosun—recognized that opportunity as well.

“It was really encouraging, that within three weeks of opening up the round, we had our lead,” she says. “ReThink has been phenomenal and has a great reputation.”

“We see a tremendous need for efficient training in the home care market,” says Matt Greenfield, managing partner for Rethink Education, in a release. “The rapidly aging U.S. population, the increased acceptance of home care by physicians, and the desire of most seniors to age in place are among the many factors contributing to significant year-over-year growth in the home care market, and an ongoing need for skilled professionals,” he continues. “And yet currently, there are very few educational resources available to develop critical job skills.”

Lumina and Techstars Ventures are based in Indianapolis and Boulder, Colo., respectively.

With nearly 10,000 caregivers already taking CareAcademy courses about infection control, nutrition and meal preparation, dementia, fall prevention and more, Adeosun says she and Reddy are clear on the mission. “And we’re building into a really large industry that can bring a nice result for investors.

“But there’s no mission without margin,” she says, quoting one of her self-professed favorite B Corporation phrases. “So our focus now will be hiring: a strategic marketer, then a sales manager to reach out directly and build business development, with key players who can then become customers. The first step is to make the business sustainable. No one sells better than founders, but now we’re in a place to let sales drive itself.”

How did they decide how much money to raise, when the addressable market is so large—worth more than $300 billion by 2020?

“We had to plan backward for what we would need, so we backtracked to the amount of money,” she says. “We ended up with the dollar figure of a million and a half (in our heads),” she says. “And we wanted to build on the momentum (of the Techstars accelerator), so by Demo Day, we wanted a term sheet signed.”

They reached their funding goal, after Adeosun says she made the raise her full-time focus, connecting with a plethora of potential investors. “There was a bit of, we thought we could do it sooner. I finally said, ‘I’m going to put everything aside for now and raise this money.’ You do have to (keep pitching),” she says. “I think I reached out to 80 investors to make this go.”

Now that they’ve reached this milestone, Adeosun says she’s committed to making her experience available for others to learn from.

“We’re all well aware of it now—that in August, well into Q3—only 4 percent of venture-backed companies are women-run, and it was 7 percent last year. We’re still in this place where there seems to be very little movement. What can we attribute that to? I want to help as much as I can; I have purposely reached out to others who are raising, to help.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to be that resource, to make it possible for other founders,” Adeosun says.

Adeosun, a 2013 MassChallenge finalist and participant in the most recent Boston cohort of Techstars (among a long list of other prestigious accelerators), has amassed a career worth of lessons in entrepreneurship worth sharing.

“I’m grateful for all those years of learning, and excited to start bringing on the right people. We’ve been working at some version of this for so long, and now we’re going to go work even harder—that’s my real answer,” she says.


Got a tip for our team? News you need us to know? Send it to GetCovered@founderswire.com

Saving time means saving lives for GEMS team

IN THE BOX THINKING: The GEMS team, after their CAMTech hackathon win, from left: COO/ Chief Medical Officer Ted Liao, CEO Andrew Schwartz, CFO Annie Feldman and CTO Jeffrey Lipton. Courtesy Photo


By ALLISON HUBER
@founderswire

BOSTON—In the United States, the average emergency medical response takes up to 12 minutes—crucial, life-saving time that GEMS CEO Andrew Schwartz and his team plan to make even shorter.

In Boston, according to EMS, Priority 1 response averages about half this time, at 6.3 minutes as of 2016. But even that brief time delay has caused permanent brain damage for victims of overdose in particular.

With the deadly opioid crisis spreading threefold in just a decade and 15 million Americans now diagnosed with food allergies, Schwartz says empowering bystanders to respond to emergencies can make all the difference.

Their solution: GEMS boxes, full of medical supplies and located around the city like U.S. mail boxes, can be remotely unlocked so bystanders can be guided by 911 to save a life.

“Our boxes aren’t just for opioid users, these are public preparedness boxes,” Schwartz says. “So just as someone who overdoses on oxycontin or heroin would use (the naloxone in) this box, a child stung by a bee could use an Epipen.”

In 2015, 33,091 Americans died from opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control—nearly triple the number claimed in 2002. Now, the North American opioid market, which accounts for 70 percent of global consumption and valued at $12.4 billion in 2015, is expected to hit $18.5 billion by 2024, according to pharmaceutical research firm PharmExec.

GEMS boxes contain naloxone (more commonly known by its brand name, Narcan), epinephrine and hemorrhage-control products. Emergency response dispatchers can unlock these boxes and guide callers through their uses, turning bystanders into first responders, saving valuable time and hopefully, lives, says Schwartz. GEMS, winner of the $10k Opioid Epidemic Post-Hack-a-thon Award from CAMTech, in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital, is a current finalist in MassChallenge. Schwartz and his team of doctors and technologists hope to make the next cohort of PULSE, the healthcare-oriented division of the incubator, in December.

Schwartz, Jeffrey Lipton and Annie Feldman have now been friends for nearly a decade, Schwartz tells FoundersWire. With a diverse set of backgrounds—Lipton, a postdoctoral research associate at MIT, Schwartz with a master’s in government and Feldman, an MBA from Babson—the team complements each other’s strengths. The team collaborated with Dr. Ted Liao, a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and now COO/chief medical officer, who earned his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine, and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford. They group began collaborating over what kinds of supplies to store in the boxes.

“There’s a whole list of things you can put in there, but they have to meet some requirements. One, easy to apply without any medical training, and two, items that would not kill someone if administered incorrectly,” Schwartz says.

Once an individual sees an emergency and dials 911, the operator would receive his or her GPS coordinates and direct them to a box. Because the boxes will have different compartments containing Narcan, tourniquets and Epipens, the caller will be given a pin code to unlock the necessary medical device.

“I’ve been thinking about the idea of assistance in emergency situations for a while,” Schwartz says. “Once I found out about Narcan and how easy it is to implement it and how there are no side effects—you can have no medical training—I thought it would be the perfect application, along with Epipens or tourniquets for hemorrhage control,” he says.

Dr. Gabriel Wishik-Miller, an internist and primary care provider at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, has seen the devastating effects of addiction pass through his clinic for the past seven years. Wishik-Miller works as a backup physician for The Supportive Place for Observation and Treatment (SPOT), a program that engages people in the midst of overdose, provides medical treatment for over-sedation and connects patients to treatment programs. The program is part of the Boston Care for the Homeless Program, one of the 19 original pilot Health Care for the Homeless programs founded in 1985. In 2016, SPOT faced 3,852 overdose encounters.

“What we’ve been seeing since I got here seven years ago is the overdoses happening on the street and in our building. The substance use, the activity—everything has been going up every year,” Wishik-Miller says. “People are injecting and overdosing, sometimes not very far from us, and it’s tragic. These are people we know and who we take care of, and if they’re dying on our watch, it seems wrong.”

Wishik-Miller says he attributes the rise in overdose to the appearance of synthetic drugs on the market, which are faster-acting and higher risk. In order to combat overdose, he insists that Narcan, a nasal spray, is safe and easy to use for the average bystander in cases of emergency. “Narcan is a very safe medicine, it can be used by anybody if it is in the proper formulation. It can start the reversal process immediately. You don’t have to wait for 911 to get there for EMS to arrive. So to have a bystander with Narcan available when someone is dying can be life-saving.

“In our public spaces, that’s where most overdoses happen. Anybody who is on the street in the public space should have Narcan available to use if they have seen somebody that has gone out, and so I think having them in boxes on the street is a fantastic idea. It would be very, very useful,” Wishik-Miller says.

In addition to cutting down EMS response time and saving lives, Schwartz says GEMS may eventually educate the public about health through videos and advertising campaigns. “One of the real beauties of our system is that you don’t even need to know what it is to use it.”

Currently, GEMS is seeking communities to pilot the boxes. Schwartz says he aims to complete this initial study this year, moving one step closer to implementing the boxes in municipalities across the country at an affordable price.

“We hope to get to the point where we can shorten response even five to seven minutes, and it would be a dramatic life saver. Save lives. That’s our No. 1, 2 and 3 goals.”


Got a tip for our team? News you need us to know? Send it to GetCovered@founderswire.com

Wellist adds industry experts to team

FOUNDERSWIRE FILE PHOTO: Wellist CEO Ashley Reid 

By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

BOSTON—Wellist, the high-profile patient experience solutions provider, announced more growth today, in the form of two key executives who will significantly accelerate the company’s reach.

Joining the team are Sharyn Lee, as vice president of growth, and Erik Hjortshoj as chief technology officer. Both come on board with relevant industry experience to leverage.

“We are proud to be working with some of the leading providers in the country who are committed equally to achieving clinical excellence and improving the patient experience,” says Ashley Reid, founder and CEO, in a statement. “We’re thrilled to be adding such experienced leadership to guide our growing business.

sharyn lee

Reid consistently has shared her view, that the most important quality she looks for in any of Wellist’s hires is an inherent drive to deliver compassionate care.

“We have this incredible moral obligation to deliver something with excellence,” Reid said in a past interview. “The ability to get people who have had these amazing careers to build the next chapter of Wellist is another part of our evolution.”

Lee, a registered nurse and nationally recognized healthcare strategist, brings experience in business development, sales, marketing, medical education and training. She was co-founder and president of the Medical Education Broadcast Network, an Inc 500 award-winner. Lee plans to leverage deep relationships across health plans, academic medical centers and hospitals to acquire new partnerships for Wellist.

Wellist erik

Hjortshoj, who comes to Wellist from Burning Glass Technologies, where he implemented large-scale organizational changes across global teams, delivering machine learning and data solutions to the ed tech and HR tech markets. Previous experience includes stints with American Well and ShapeUp, where he added strategic technical, health IT and product management leadership.

Wellist also announced additions to its board of advisors: Bill Huyett and Andrew DiMichele, whose skills focus on strategic planning and health tech expertise. Huyett a former director with McKinsey and Co., spent 16 years developing corporate strategy and product. He is known as an innovator in the commercialization and marketing of health care, having worked in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Zurich.

DiMichele is the co-founder and CTO of Omada Health, where he developed the technology that propels Omada’s online program. His expertise lies in building high-performance engineering, data science and IT teams.

Wellist clients include Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The award-winning Wellist has been named most innovative technology of the year by MassTLC and a top 50 digital health honoree for diversity leadership by Rock Health. Reid was also recognized for her leadership in the Boston tech ecosystem as a FoundersWire Female Founder of the Week.

Wellist wins Rock Health diversity award

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—Patient experience solutions provider Wellist this week collected a special award from Rock Health, honoring its team’s diversity leadership in the digital healthcare startup space.

Wellist earned the honor, according to Rock Health, for demonstrating “leadership in diversity, having continually shown their commitment to hiring, supporting and building diverse teams to tackle the most pressing problems facing health care today.”

Rock Health, the West Coast-based venture fund dedicated to digital healthcare improvement, put Wellist in distinguished company, among other stars as Invention of the Year winner Owlstone Medical, Angel of the Year Marc Benioff and Best Performing IPO Evolent Health. Of the special 18 honorees listed on its website, Wellist is the only company hailing from Boston.

Wellist, launched in 2014, creates tools and insight for healthcare providers, while addressing the human needs that result in improved patient satisfaction and outcomes. Wellist team members all share a deep passion for improving the lives of patients and their families, says founder and CEO Ashley Reid.

“When the best hospitals in the country hire Wellist … having a team that reflects the diverse patient populations we serve is simply good business,” she says. “We’re especially proud of winning the diversity leadership award because it is a wonderful reflection of how we live our values of diversity, empathy and inclusion, at Wellist and in the community. Our organization represents a wide range of age, race and gender, but at our core, we all share a deep, personal passion for working together to improve the lives of patients and their families.”

Wellist’s model has evolved since its earliest offerings, Reid says. What once served as an open platform for available services is now fully customized for the hospitals’ specific needs, making it even more targeted and relevant to the patients they serve. “We help hospital clients with customized programs, digital health tools and human services—people on the ground and on the phone—with a proprietary directory of support services that we vet and curate to their specific needs. Reid says the company’s early growth “underscores the importance of problem we’re solving and the traction we’ve seen with some of the best hospitals in the country, like Mass General, Beth Israel and UPMC.”

“We exist to help them alleviate human suffering while improving their performance metrics. They look at Wellist as a solution that can improve across a number of areas … because when you customize the tool, you can actually drive patients to services that already exist in the hospital,” Reid says. “We’ve been able to prove we can drive meaningful value in what the hospital is already invested in.”

Reid says Wellist has been able to measure that 40 percent of frontline medical staff spend anywhere from 10 hours a month up to 20 hours a week “running down nonclinical support,” which has huge impact especially on nurses, social workers and front office staff. “We give clients the tools to fully empower their patients, or we can do it on their behalf. That’s a huge game changer for nurses, social workers and front office staff.”

She points to the correlation between patient satisfaction and the job satisfaction of healthcare workers, where Wellist can help. “Part of the challenge is time constraint, but they get in the care profession because they genuinely want to heal people, and when they are confronted with the suffering on a daily basis but don’t have the tools to alleviate it, it leads to burnout. By giving our clients the tools to help, it heals everybody,” she says.

Data shows 75 percent of healthcare decisions are made by women, which creates a different level of need for gender-balanced teams in health care, Reid says. “We need to be able to get into the lives and minds of our decision makers. When we look at high-risk populations, you have to be able to understand the drivers of their needs. We know 40 percent of outcomes are tied to unmet social needs—and social needs are different for people of different backgrounds. If you don’t have a team that can anticipate the challenges and solutions, you miss it,” she says.

While the Rock Health award validates Reid’s team and company culture, she says the industry has only begun to make the connection between healthcare problem-solving and what diversity can really bring to improving outcomes.

“I’m proud that we have a diverse team, but we didn’t even get into how our team includes caregivers and survivors who have faced really significant health challenges—who take what they have learned and lived to make other people’s lives better. When you are a patient at the front end of that curve, nothing is more helpful than the tangible, practical guidance that someone who’s been there can provide,” Reid says.

She’s proud of Wellist’s culture of inclusion, she says, where everyone feels at home and celebrated. She also questions the impression that diversity is a side operation, rather than a driver of business success.

“It doesn’t have to be that bringing diversity into your organization makes you a less strong, less agile, less successful organization. It’s really enhancing what we’re able to deliver to our clients,” she says. “It’s an accelerant to impact. I hope in the next phase of our journey that we model how diversity and inclusion make us bigger, faster, better. It’s something we just are.”

Reid notes the importance of compassionate healthcare initiatives that do more than just measure data—and in a previous FoundersWire interview shared the pride she feels in those working to solve this problem alongside her. “We have an amazing team. I am blown away by the talent, commitment and creativity of the people who have shown up to make this possible. It is incredibly humbling.”

The Rock Health Top 50 were chosen “for making exceptional progress in driving resources, attention and innovation toward a massively better healthcare system,” according to the award website.

Wellist was also the winner of the MassTLC award for most innovative health tech of the year, just this past September. The award cited Wellist’s meaningful achievements in the area of patient data and healthcare insights.

“We won a diversity award and two more for the performance of our business in the same quarter. We’ve built a model that really works, so we can help hospital clients better understand the challenges they face, while meaningfully improving lives of patients and their families,” Reid says. “That’s pretty powerful.”

Personal health data gets smart with Lifestone

By SHELAGH BRALEY

CAMBRIDGE—Real-time personal health data fits in your palm, with the help of medical device company Lifestone.

Lifestone does the work of multiple devices with a portable, pocket-sized, health-tracking module designed to measure and store your vital signs, and make them sharable. (You can learn more about this Kickstarter HERE.)

Lifestone collects health data including body temperature, blood pressure, oximetry, ECG/EKG, respiration rate, heart rate, and with an add-on stethoscope (called a “stethostone”), can hear and record heart and lung sounds. The pocket-sized portable device syncs with a smartphone app for data storage and sharing.

Co-founders Xin (Sheen) Xie, a Ph.D. candidate at Northeastern University, and Anlyn (Hang) Liu met as fellow members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association—Xie representing NU as president, and Liu as vice president for University of Massachusetts. “We often ran into each other at events,” Xie says. Xie handles the technology, Liu is in charge of marketing, and two others also joined the team: Bill Xi oversees manufacturing and supply chain, while Alex Lee runs operations and business development.

They talked about digitizing the health monitoring process and the importance of easy data-sharing with doctors. “We all believed we could create a product that accurately recorded multiple vital signs with many functions, including a detachable cuff to make the device small and portable,” Xie says.

Xin-Xie-headshot

Xie says watching his mother track her high blood pressure motivated him to create Lifestone. “She measured it every day using a mercury hematomanometer, writing down her results on a piece of paper.” He says he knew this wasn’t the most efficient or accurate way to track these critical vital signs. So with his electrical engineering background, he worked through solutions to improve the process.

They built their initial prototype in a garage in Worcester, then a few more, before launching their Kickstarter campaign in September. There are currently four working protypes, with more to come, Xie says. The team is based out of IDEA, Northeastern’s student-led venture accelerator.

With $200,000 of private funding from a Chinese tech company already in the coffers, the Lifestone team of four is focusing on customers. “Millennials pay a great deal of attention to being fit and staying healthy,” Xie says. “And of course, as baby boomers age and become seniors, keeping track of their health will become even more important, especially to their families. We believe the launching of the Lifestone device couldn’t be more timely.”

Their strategy, once the Kickstarter is complete, will be to put the Lifestone device on the shelves of such stores as Best Buy, Target and Walgreen’s—with an accessible price tag. “The MSRP will be $169, while our Kickstarter special price ranges from $69 to $119, depending on how early you’re in,” Xie says.

And in the Asian market, where regulatory benchmarks are different, Xie says they will collaborate with insurance companies, clinics, hospitals and government agencies.

“Many medical professionals are excited about our product,” Xie says. “They have expressed interest in sampling it when it becomes available.”

Device and phone

One of the features that makes Lifestone different from competitors, according to the website, is blood pressure measurement. “Unlike other tricorder devices using estimated blood pressure through scanning your skin, Lifestone features an innovative detachable cuff, which is very easy to use, with a micro air pump that enables the real physical measurement of your blood pressure. This provides an accurate reading.”

The Lifestone team has set a lofty goal of $80,000, but saw early traction, raising more than half that from 338 backers, $15,000 of it in just the last two weeks. The First Believer packages at the $69 price point—which include a Lifestone device, a detachable blood pressure cuff, stethostone, the app and silicon protective case—went fast, with all 99 spots taken. Others packages are readily available from $79 and up. Some backers are pledging $169 and receiving two full packages. Lifestone plans to deliver orders in December.

“With the Lifestone wellness device, people can share their personal health data such as daily blood pressure with their loved ones, or they can send in-app messages with ECG and other measurements directly to their doctor without leaving home,” Xie says.

“Knowing your vital signs will be a huge issue … and our easy-to-use device will make it simple to monitor and share (the results) with family and doctors, around the corner or around the world, via our smartphone app,” he says.


This Kickstarter is live until Oct. 14 at 3:05 p.m. Support this project HERE.

Maternova makes Zika protection clothing a priority

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.