The 150-odd participants, which included breast-pump users, fluid dynamic engineers, software developers, health care providers, and experts in “wearable tech,” then dispersed to form teams. According to the firm Transparency Market Research, the global breast-pump market is expected to reach an estimated value of more than $1 billion in 2018. Why isn’t there a user-friendly breast pump and a clever basket for the dishwasher?
“I think a lot of it is because the people who do provide investment are men and they get very uncomfortable with discussions of [breast shape] and liquid coming out of breasts,” says Joy Kosak, who cofounded the pumping bra company SimpleWishes, a sponsor of the hackathon (along with several breast pump companies that supplied the event with parts and foam breasts). “As a society we are uncomfortable. People have issues, it’s something we are still trying to overcome.”
Those issues, which include America’s sexualization of breasts, have led to the sterile, goal-focused breast pumps on the market today, says San Francisco-based lactation consultant Charity Pitcher-Cooper.
“A lot of what we see with pump companies is, ‘Oh, this doesn’t have to do with sex.’ So it’s going to be very clinical, and we are going to end up with a medical device that looks like something that is used in a hospital,” Pitcher-Cooper says.
Nursing can be pleasurable, but it’s not sexual, she notes. And pumping appears to be neither. When Sunday afternoon rolled around and hackathon teams had to pitch to the judges, it became clear that while pleasure might be a pie-in-the-sky goal, convenience, dignity, and a good breast pump app are not.
The $1000 third prize went to PumpIO, an app to reduce the stress of pumping by measuring the volume of milk pumped in real time, alerting the pumper to pressure changes, time-stamping milk, and connecting the user with a lactation consultant with the press of a button. Compress Express won the popular vote with an entry inspired by blood-pressure cuffs that focuses on massaging the breast, which can improve milk delivery and keep painful blocked ducts at bay. The first place award went to “Team Batman,” for a prototype that combined real-time data collection with a discreet utility belt to hold the collection apparatus, enabling mobile pumping. Several of the team members were not on hand at the award ceremony; they’d gone home to be with their kids. All of the winners can be seen here.
Team Batman addressed a prominent concern, says Holtzman, one of the hackathon’s judges—“Women not having to walk around with giant bottles attached to their breasts would really improve the user experience.” But there’s still a larger hack on the horizon. “In no way is a better pump going to solve the social and cultural stigma associated with breast-feeding and breast pumping,” she says. Until women have better support for breast-feeding, whether that manifests as paid maternity leave, safe and convenient places for pumping, or better access to lactation specialists, breast pumps aren’t likely to go the way of the Fitbit.
Ironically, the Affordable Care Act, which requires coverage of breast pumps, might push the technology into an even worse space, Holtzman notes. The client is no longer the mom that uses the technology, but the insurance company that’s paying for it, and the insurance companies’ main concern is cost, not functionality.
“What happened this weekend was fantastic,” she says. “But it was just the tip of the iceberg.”