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Hackers Unite to Build a Better Breast Pump

Inspired by moms’ frustration, MIT hosted a hackathon to create a quieter, comfier, cheaper version of today’s clunky breast pumps.

Even this baby is surprised there's not a better breast pump on the market. Photo by Che-Wei Wang

More than 150 engineers, coders, designers, lactation specialists, maternal and pediatric health specialists, marketing professionals, moms and dads gathered at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!” hackathon last weekend. Organized by the MIT Media Lab, the much-hyped event was meant not only to spark technical innovation in the design of these famously bulky gadgets, but also to facilitate a conversation about breastfeeding itself, something that has become somewhat of a social taboo.

Teams were judged based on innovation, impact, user-centric design, documentation, team diversity, and collaboration. The top prize went to a particularly creative group with a penchant for whimsy, Mighty Mom, whose motto was “Because every mom is a superhero.”

The winning team received $3,000 and will be flown out to Silicon Valley to pitch their product to a venture capitalist. Their design, an adjustable cloth utility belt (a la Batman), features two bottle holders, an integrated pump and battery, a noise-dampening mechanism, and a milk pouch at the hip which is connected via a tube to a flange that fits under a regular bra. Mighty Mom’s superbelt hits on the main points covered by most of the 10 presenting teams: discreetness, comfort, design, and efficiency.

Mighty Mom’s pitch video portrays women at home, at work, and on the go pumping quietly and discreetly as they go about their day.

The second place team, Helping Hands, was awarded $2,000 for accessibility as well as their incorporation of both breastfeeding and breast-pumping into their design. Helping Hands’s bra enables breast compression—which increases fat content and milk yield—and relieves plugged ducts, engorgement, and mastitis (an infection of breast tissue).

The all-male Pump IO team received $1,000 for their third place victory, an innovative breast pump that connects wirelessly to an app.

Second Nature, a team that focused its design on mimicking a baby’s mouth (“The solution already occurs in nature. Babies do it right.”), was presented with $500 and the Outstanding User-Focused Design award.

One team’s detailed prototype so impressed judges they created a new “Pioneer” award for it. Team Compress Express’s design, two years in the making, features only one part to clean, a low price point, and a quiet user experience. During their presentation, team members quipped that their compression-based alternative was “literally taking the suck out” of breastfeeding.

During their presentation, the members of Team Bundle who had breast-pumping experience shared their thoughts, calling the breast-pumping ordeal “a dehumanizing experience” as well as one that makes a mother “feel like a cow rather than a human.” And no wonder—breast pumps are notoriously loud, clunky, inconvenient and time consuming, oftentimes frustrating mothers to the point of tears.

Last spring, married authors Courtney Martin and John Cary highlighted this frustration in a popular article for The New York Times parenting blog The Motherlode, which in turn inspired MIT’s hackathon.

Martin and Cary wrote: “We are reminded of Gloria Steinem’s ‘If Men Could Menstruate,’ an article published in Ms. Magazine in 1978, in which she used satire to point out how different the world would be if gender roles were reversed: ‘Men would brag about how long and how much.’ If men could breastfeed, surely the breast pump would be as elegant as an iPhone and quiet as a Prius by now.”

At MIT's breast pump hackathon. Photo by Che-Wei Wang.

But perhaps because men don't breastfeed, the conversation about it has largely focused on the faux-scandal of doing so in public (and potentially flashing some boob in the process) instead of more serious questions. “There’s a lot of shame that women have for exposing parts of their body,” says Media Lab research assistant and event organizer Alexis Hope. “People consider it more of a medical waste than a food product or a natural thing. Part of why we wanted to have this event is just to make it ok and fine to talk about. So no matter what technical innovations come out of this, just the fact that we can be here in this space and feel totally comfortable talking about all these things is awesome.”

Whether women must pump because they are working or because they are unable to breastfeed their babies, Martin, Cary, and many other modern-day parents feel that mothers deserve an ergonomic, practical, affordable breast-pumping option, and it’s rather shocking there’s not already one on the market. Yet the hackathon inspired hope for the future; as teams received their awards last weekend, they called on other competitors in the audience to reunite after the event and work on their prototypes together. If there’s any hope for humanity, why not place it in the spirit of open source?

“I think it’s rare that we get to work on a piece of technology that’s for now,” says Hope. “We spend a lot of time thinking about inventing the future and sometimes not as much time thinking about how to solve the problems of now.”

The Media Lab team plans on putting together more socially-conscious hackathons in the future. “We are really interested in convening more conversations like this,” says Hope. “Involving technologists and users, talking about stuff that really matters, and grounding it in social and cultural issues.”

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