Chen Mao Davies has experience at the confluence of many strands relevant to BCS: she has a PhD in computer graphics (being part of an Oscar and Bafta-winning world-class R&D team); she is a tech-entrepreneur; and her developing business is one with a demonstrable social benefit. Brian Runciman MBCS spoke to her about her app and lessons learned from her start-up.

Like many business passion projects, Chen’s motivation for launching an app to support breastfeeding was based on personal experience. ‘When I left the hospital after having my first child,’ she says, ‘I felt isolated, emotional, out of my depth. I was a first-time mum, wanting to do my best, but I didn’t know how. You are always told breastfeeding is a beautiful thing, it has great health benefits, it’s free and is a powerful bonding experience for mother and baby.

However, mothers aren’t really well prepared, they have no idea of the time required, local support can be minimal or like a postcode lottery, and on top of that, you get differing advice from midwives.’

As she spoke to other mothers during the gestation of her project, Chen found her experience was typical. ‘It seems that health professionals are sometimes too quick to recommend formula ahead of trying to solve breastfeeding problems.’

‘In addition to first-time mothers not being trained for breastfeeding, our studies also showed that they had poor experiences with midwives and GPs. Indeed, for GPs, breastfeeding education appears to be optional. However, lots of mums had a much better experience with health visitors and breastfeeding support counsellors.’

Chen did what many people doubtless try - to find a video on YouTube. She found lots of talking but very little that was visual. What there was employed awkward camera angles - for example, being unable to see nipple placement in the baby’s mouth.

In addition to the multiplication of costs to health services (see ‘Facts at a glance’) there is also the suffering of the individual mother. As Chen explains: ‘It is easy to suffer things like cracked nipples when the latching is not right and even worse when you are physically and emotionally drained. I had mastitis three times, then got thrush after the antibiotics. Then baby also gets thrush and can pass it back. It’s a horrible cycle.

‘In those circumstances the pain of feeding can be intense. For me, it was like stabbing a knife inside my breast during the initial moments of latching, sometime felt even more painful than childbirth. On top of the physical issues there can be anxiety induced with the demand to constantly feed.’

‘Despite challenges during early weeks’, Chen added ‘breastfeeding gradually becomes easier with perseverance and I went on to feed my son till he was two-years-old and am currently breastfeeding my baby daughter. The benefits, convenience, and bond brought by breastfeeding are truly amazing and all worthwhile’

Facts at a glance

  • 130 million babies are born worldwide annually
  • 775,000 babies are born in the UK annually
  • The UK has the worst breastfeeding rate in the world. After six months only 1 per cent of women are still exclusively breastfeeding (for reference, in Germany it is 23 per cent, Brazil 56 per cent, and Senegal 99 per cent)
  • Poor latching causes sore nipples, mastitis, thrush, anxiety for mums and weight gain problems for babies
  • Increasing the breastfeeding rate in UK can save the National Gross Income 0.5 per cent, save the NHS 40 million pounds per year, and save a new family a minimum of £60 pounds per month
  • Failing to breastfeed costs the world $302 billion PA
  • NHS costs for excess appointments for babies fed on formula (as they are more prone to illness) runs at £50 million PA

So, what next? Chen explains: ‘I thought, I work on movies so why can’t I try to solve a relatively smaller problem like this using my skills and experience?’

Chen’s idea was for an app to support one of the key difficulties a new mother can experience with breastfeeding: latching-on. The original concept was to produce a world-first 3D interactive breastfeeding app that utilises cutting-edge 3D scanning, motion adaptation, and augmented reality technologies. This could help mothers to learn visually, thus improving their latching-on skills.

In addition to creating personalised 3D breastfeeding animations in different breastfeeding positions - using 3D scanned shapes of the mum’s own breast and first-person cameras as a visual guide - LatchAid also aims to help breastfeeding mothers and mothers-to-be everywhere to connect with and support each other 24/7 in virtual breastfeeding peer-to-peer support groups and to provide a platform for mothers to connect with breastfeeding professionals when they need further one-to-one support.

Infographic detailing how LatchAid works

In early 2018 Chen started development on the app itself, putting together the business case for it, setting up LatchAid Ltd (with the social mission to help more mums to breastfeed), as well as researching, networking, and applying for grants and investment. Chen told me the key lessons she has learned so far in running a multi-strand project:

1. Get the basics right

You need to get buy-in from your family to be a female entrepreneur. The social expectation is to look after children and many mums want to work too, so you need to make sure you don’t burn yourself out. If you die the company dies!

‘Try to build a team before you set out. When you are solo, investors don’t take you seriously. If you get a good team in place, it can be those who inspire you.

‘Part of getting the basis right is to remember to always talk to customers. Test the idea. The most challenging bit of my app was the 3D scanning, but when we did research later (through a recent online user study involving 100+ mums, mums-to-be, and breastfeeding professionals from six different countries) I found that the demand for this feature was lower than expected. I should have spoken to mums earlier in the process.’

2. Partner up!

‘Using an incubator gives you a network. For example, I was able to get in contact with Dr Natalie Shenker, the co-founder of Hearts Milk Bank and Human Milk Foundation through my business advisor Mark Goodson, at Cambridge Social Ventures, where LatchAid is incubated. And through her, I got to know some influential people including the chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers.

Getting involved with the West of England Academic Health Science Network (that connects the NHS, academic organisations, local authorities, the third sector and industry) through their Health Innovation Programme and business support– was also very helpful.

‘For example, I have learnt that I need to launch in the App Store first, because the NHS is evidence-based and launching to the consumer market first gives us opportunities to collect data and evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of the app before we could collaborate with the NHS in the future.

‘Joining support networks of other entrepreneurs, such as start-up accelerator programmes, meetup events, and so on, is excellent. The advice and support I received from the business advisors and fellow entrepreneurs at the Cambridge Social Ventures incubator programme was, and continues to be, immense.

‘That was crucial for LatchAid’s development at this stage of its start-up journey. In another area of partnering, I come to realise more and more that I need a co-founder. That needs to be someone you get on with. And you need other advisers to use as a sounding board. Don’t just develop behind closed doors - connect with clever people!’

3. Think about assistance and funding

‘I have been speaking to the Swindon & Wiltshire Health & Life Science Innovation Hub about the next level of funding. So far it has only been web hosting, an intern, and 3D animation assistance from friends at work. I have been doing the app development myself.

‘Now I need money for final animations and refining the app. The experience of applying to join Bethnal Green Ventures’ accelerator programme and attending the Health Innovation Programme, helped me to learn pitching in front of a panel of investors and experts. So now I am focusing on producing a “minimum marketable product” using the lean start-up approach.

‘For my intern I used the support from The Student Hub, through their Social Impact Internship Programme which links students with organisations/projects for social good.

My intern Kelly Wing did a social media launch and an online user study during her seven weeks summer placement project. She designed questionnaires, undertook interviews, wrote a comprehensive user survey report, and produced the infographics and pitch video. She, as a talented first year student at Cambridge University, got valuable experience working in a start-up and picked up on the social problem quickly. She also helped with the development roadmap. We both benefitted.’

4. Go agile

‘I learnt about project methodology in practice and I would say it has to be agile. I have been a software developer for over 10 years and I know that if it’s not agile you will develop things your customers don’t want. Even brilliant products or features can be unwanted. Combine agile with the learn-develop-data collection cycle.

New ideas go into each iteration. It can be hard to do scrum religiously but do your best to follow the principles and don’t do waterfall. Make and test assumptions as early and frequently as possible.’

5. Choose a passion project

‘With a passion project you are the user and developer - you know the pain. For my app I knew the pain points emotionally and physically and wanting to help other mums made me even more motivated. Doing something that has social impact is important - I don’t want this to be only for profit - 800,000 children die a year through lack of breastfeeding.

‘The benefit of this product needs to go to people, so in each country we are planning for pricing relative to the local economy.

‘My feelings were reinforced again during our research phases. It turns out that mums were very happy to be advocates and easily share stories. They have a willingness to help other mums. Our research has told us they will buy the product and advocate it too.’

6. Maintain perspective

‘Be adaptable and versatile. I have two young children with one still being breastfed, so I plan what time I can likely do chunky work, and when smaller things may be done. I always try my best to prioritise the children and family - work can always fill your time. And, if you look after yourself, then you can work better.

‘If things take a bit longer it doesn’t matter - a lot of work goes on before useful things come. I use the illustration of Chinese bamboo - it can be underground for four years, then it grows hugely in year five. Everything doesn’t have to be done now. But, if you don’t believe in it, no one else will - so pace yourself to get it done.’

Final thoughts

Some of this interview was performed with me literally holding the (very cute) baby. Chen has even taken her to funding pitches in a sling. We finished off discussing where Chen needs to go next. ‘Funding is the key next step’ she says. ‘Then to get a first app into the App Store so we can learn from initial traction what further features and further investors are needed.

‘I also need a co-founder, so at the moment I am looking for co-founders online and attending co-founder speed dating events. Being a woman in a woman’s business with a niche interest can be difficult. You need a co-founder who understands the product and the philosophy.’

Chen Mao

About Chen Mao and LatchAid

Dr Chen Mao Davies holds a PhD in computer graphics and has 15 years R&D and software product development experience. For the past seven years she has been working in a world-class R&D team to create stunning visual effects for blockbuster movies including the Oscar and Bafta-winning Gravity.

Chen is a mum of three years, with a young son and a baby daughter, and has first-hand experience as a once-struggling, but later successful, breastfeeding mum.

LatchAid is actively filling its founding team and advisory committee and is working with a number of paediatricians, breastfeeding professionals, 3D artists, product designers and business advisors for product design and development.

It is incubated at Cambridge Social Ventures at Cambridge Judge Business School and is supported by the West of England Academic Health Science Network.

Further reading

This is some of the background reading that helped in developing the app - and reaffirming some of the approaches.