The Story Behind the World’s First Smart Breast-Pumping Bra
Dr. Andrea Braden’s journey to becoming a startup founder
Two weeks ago, Dr. Andrea Braden, CEO of Lybbie, became the winner of SkyDeck’s Pad-13 Pitch Competition, winning the Audience Award and the Judges’ Top Startup Award. Lybbie is one of two startups to have joined SkyDeck’s inaugural University Innovation Partner (UIP) program, a program that serves as a talent bridge between universities around the country to Berkeley SkyDeck. This program has been two years in the making with Emory University as the first university to have kicked off the University Innovation Partner Program pilot with Berkeley SkyDeck. Lybbie’s main product is a wearable bra with a built-in breastfeeding pump feature which also stores the milk, allowing women to no longer inconveniently go out of their way to pump. I was inspired by Lybbie’s mission and vision and was so excited to sit down with Dr. Braden to hear more about how she got started and her impressive journey from doctor to CEO.
Sibyl: I did some snooping on LinkedIn and you have an incredible background. Between being an OB-GYN, faculty member at Emory, a startup founder and CEO, co-investigator on two NIH studies, mom of three and also one of the American Medical Association’s 2019 Inspiration Award Honorees, I just want to ask you how do you manage all of this? You make it look so easy, how do you do it?
Dr. Braden: I have a village, it takes a village. It really does. I think vulnerability is probably the biggest piece. I ask for help when I need it and I have an amazing support system. This is key because I like to do everything! I love being challenged and am energized by the prospect of taking on new projects, and so I get asked all the time: how do you do it? It requires being really good with boundaries. There is quite a bit of intentionality at play when it comes to managing my time in a way that allows me to get all the things done. Having a startup, obviously, presents challenges when I also have a demanding clinical job and three kids. Those things take priority during daytime hours which means work with the startup happens primarily on nights and weekends. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel like work because I love it.
Most importantly, I am fiercely protective of my “brain breaks.” I allow myself to rest when I need to recharge and make sure to spend time on personal hobbies, too, such as singing and playing the piano.
Sibyl: In your own words, what have you been building?
Dr. Braden: Lybbie is an early stage startup that is in the process of building the only breast pump on the market specifically designed to alleviate and prevent low milk supply in breastfeeding women. Low milk supply is the number one reason mothers quit breastfeeding before they are ready. The only way to fix this is to increase the number of times their bodies think they are feeding their babies throughout the day, which translates into more frequent pumping for moms who can’t be with their babies 24/7. As it is, today’s breast pumps are incredibly cumbersome and time-consuming to use. It’s no wonder moms give up as soon as their milk supply starts to dwindle. What we have done is made pumping breast milk completely free of any time constraints by building it into a bra. So instead of having to carve out non-existent time so you can stop what you’re doing and pump milk, Lybbie allows you to put it on in the morning, set it and forget about it. Our patented system lets you pump discreetly and quietly anytime you want, period. No more asking for permission to do what you need to do for you and your baby.
Sibyl: Yeah that’s awesome! I mean having just had a daughter myself a year ago, I can imagine what my life might have looked like if I had the option to use something like Lybbie. What was the genesis behind Lybbie?
Dr. Braden: Well it’s actually a really interesting story. Lybbie was the result of some frustration I experienced during a conversation I had with a friend’s husband just after moving to Atlanta. One day he received a complaint letter from some breastfeeding pilots so, knowing I was a lactation expert, he asked me for advice. “How do I respond to this?” he asked. “They pointed out that we have all these accommodations for breastfeeding mothers… but since they are flying airplanes, they cannot utilize the provided private, protected spaces for pumping. To make matters worse, pilots can’t leave the cockpit without having a flight attendant stand in for them, which inconveniences the whole flight. They can’t take up a bathroom, but on paper our employees are entitled to a non-bathroom space anyway, which doesn’t exist on an airplane. So short of redesigning all of the planes, how do I respond to this?” So I said, “why don’t they just pump while they’re flying the airplanes?,” knowing from experience that many mothers pump and drive out of necessity. Immediately, he threw out the ‘safety card’ and said, “they can’t do that! They’re flying airplanes!” I felt shut down and all I could think was that it was just so typical of somebody who knows nothing about pumping to make a rule about pumping.
Then I got to thinking about the many medical devices that people use with complete discretion. These people are immune to other people’s opinions of how and when they should use their devices but because today’s pumps have a way of making you look like a fembot from Austin Powers, there’s simply no way of hiding what you are doing. Even if you do have a private space, you always have to ask permission or tell others where you are going, because pumping requires you to take off your clothes. The privacy issue is a huge barrier and as you can imagine, many mothers do not want to face that social stigma of having to announce to the entire flight, for example, that they must go make milk for the baby. It’s really easy to give up, especially for the low milk supply mothers who have to do this even more frequently than someone with a full milk supply. My cofounder and I got together and decided we just needed to create something that you can use without taking your clothes off at all. No stopping. So we started by tackling the sound. We have five patents describing this smart wearable design that is both visually and audibly discreet so that nobody has to be told how and when they can pump their milk.
Sibyl: I love it. I’d imagine your primary competitor out there right now is Willow. How would you describe your differentiation from them?
Dr. Braden: Yes, there are a couple different things. So, first off, Willow has this really innovative design that takes the entire pump device and separates it into two simplified individual pumps, but you still have to place it correctly, go somewhere, put it on before you can go back to whatever you were doing. When you’re done pumping, you again have to stop and store the milk because Willow is not designed to be worn all day. Because ours is designed to be worn long term, it’s designed also to protect and keep the milk from spilling until you are ready to store it. We do this by not only building the device into a bra, but also by deconstructing the entire system. So we’re kind of the opposite. They put everything together in one place which puts you at risk for spillage and less freedom of movement. We specifically designed ours so that the milk is collected underneath the breasts to eliminate spillage. The portion built into the bra is covered in a soft wearable mold that can conform to all shapes and sizes. The built in adjustability in the bra conforms to the changing postpartum body which allows for more individualization of the way it looks and the way it fits.
Sibyl: So you recently won the Pad-13 pitch competition. Congratulations!
Dr. Braden: Thank you!
Sibyl: What was it like to be selected as a top startup out of the hundred startups in the SkyDeck Incubator and Innovation Partner Program track? Were you expecting it?
Dr. Braden: We weren’t expecting it. The external validation is so important to keep you going because startups, you know, are roller coaster rides. It was just the jolt of energy we needed to reassure us that we’re going in the right direction. It reminded us that we have a great team, and we know what we’re doing. It’s very easy in this setting to feel insecure because you’re a woman. In my case this was especially true, being a minority woman. I don’t see a lot of people who look like me who are succeeding in this space and to have that recognition was just incredible. We felt like we could fly. We felt like we could take on the world and so that’s what we’re doing.
Sibyl: As a practicing doctor and academic, I’d imagine you probably don’t see that many people in your role becoming startup founders. What has that journey been like for you navigating from your current role and trying to figure out how to make it as a startup founder?
Dr. Braden: To be honest, this whole journey started out as a bit of an accident. I signed up for what I thought was an opportunity to teach biomedical engineering students about medical device needs and then realized I had applied instead for a translational research grant to fund the building of a new breast pump. I fumbled along, not sure exactly how I was supposed to build this device that only existed as an idea in my head. I had lots of help! But the majority of the process has been very piecemeal, actually. I had to really seek out opportunities to increase my knowledge because, you’re right, it does not exist and it’s been a big learning curve. I’m trying to find other people in my field of work who are doing the same thing and there are not many of us. But it’s also been wonderful to open up that creative side of my brain, if you will. I have never tapped into that creative engineering side. I didn’t even know I had it. The teacher side of me has been really excited at the prospect of teaching this to other clinicians. There’s definitely a want and a need for this type of education. In fact, I’ve been invited to give many talks and teach at national conferences on exactly this process. There’s very little in the academic literature on translational research for clinicians. I look forward to sharing my stories through my academic platforms so that others can find their way more easily. Honestly, I didn’t even realize I could teach on this topic so it’s really exciting. I love the challenge. I love being able to do something new and innovative and different and do it within the context of my job as well. It’s been a joy!
Sibyl: Awesome! So when does Lybbie officially launch? When can mothers, or expecting mothers, buy and use Lybbie?
Dr. Braden: The product should be out in the market in two years. We are aiming for the end of Q3 of 2023, so hopefully not too much longer of a wait.
Sibyl: Any parting thoughts and wisdom for female founders that might be in the same shoes?
Dr. Braden: I would say don’t let anyone dim your light. One of our biggest challenges was doubting ourselves as a team and feeling like we didn’t know what we were doing because it was an uncharted territory for us as female founders who had no prior experience in this space. But, everybody has an opinion and being able to filter through all the different opinions and then trust that we knew what was best for our company is what kept us on a straight path this whole time. There have been ups and downs, but we were always grounded when we reminded ourselves that we know our space better than anybody else and that women do things differently. And so the old rules may not apply. Maybe the reason we are succeeding is because we are owning the fact that we are female entrepreneurs and we are making our own rules.
Sibyl: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, and the breastfeeding mothers of the world eagerly await your launch!
Dr. Braden: Thank you so much!
Sibyl Chen is the Senior Director of Program at Berkeley SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s premier tech accelerator.