Naya Health, the breast-pump company started by Janica and Jeffrey Alvarez in 2013, appears to have shut down. An email to the founders was met with an auto-response, and the customer support page contains a note saying it is not active. Comments on Kickstarter and Facebook indicate that the company has not recently communicated with customers, either.
In an interview with Bloomberg at the end of last year, Alvarez reportedly expressed her frustration with her inability to raise follow-on funding from venture capitalists. She said they made comments about her appearance and questioned her ability to build a company and raise three kids at the same time. But Naya was having other problems too, as customers claimed their complaints went unanswered and they were unable to have pumps repaired or parts replaced. And at nearly $1,000, Naya was substantially more expensive than competing pumps. Naya had initially raised about $6 million, and developed a pump that used water to create a pressure and suction that more closely resembled a baby’s suckling than other products on the market.
But without further funding, Naya was trapped. It couldn’t expand its product line, or, to judge from complaints on its Facebook page, properly support its current one. “No one can build a company like this on a few million,” says Adrienne Weir, co-founder of Medolac, which provides infant nutritional products made from human milk to hospitals, for use in neonatal intensive care units. “That’s crazy.” And maybe not totally surprising–nationally, startups with a woman CEO–such as Naya–receive just 2.7 percent of all venture capital dollars. Naya turned to Kickstarter to fund its next product, a smart bottle.
Other entrepreneurs and investors in women’s health hope that the likely demise of a single company in the field won’t make it dramatically harder for others to raise money. Anu Duggal, the founder of Female Founders Fund, points out that Maven Clinic, a women’s health app, recently raised a $27 million B round from Sequoia Capital, Great Oaks Venture Capital, and 14W, among others. She says Female Founders Fund, an early investor in Maven, continues to be a “big believer in the trillion-dollar potential around women’s healthcare.”
There is also new money coming into the space, with an increasing number of women willing to back women entrepreneurs. “It’s still too early to see their dollars making a difference,” says Jill Angelo, CEO and founder of Genneve, a digital health company that focuses on menopause. “The checks are small and are being written by less-experienced investors, so it takes longer to land funding.” She says half her investors are men. “You just have to find the right ones, and there are not many.”
Elvie, a women’s healthcare startup based out of London, is developing a silent, wearable pump, but the pump is not yet widely available for purchase. Elvie has raised $15 million. As with any innovative idea, says founder Tania Boler, not all will succeed. “But we mustn’t let one failure distract us from the fact that the breast pump category still sucks.”
Weir says almost all the women who pump for her company use a pump from Medela, which remains the giant of the industry. The only other pump she said she’s heard them talk about is the Willow. That’s at least somewhat ironic, given female entrepreneurs’ difficulty in raising venture money. While Naya promised a more comfortable experience, and the ability to pump more milk in less time, Willow, like Elvie, does away with cords and tubes. Willow is the product of a medical device accelerator called ExploraMed, which is headed up by Joshua Makower, a general partner at investment firm NEA. Makower is a co-founder of Willow, and its CEO is Naomi Kelman, a Johnson & Johnson veteran who once ran their diabetes business.
“I’m sure there are male investors who are squeamish about the topic of breastfeeding,” says Makower. He says it is absolutely not a problem at NEA, where he leads investments in medical devices. “But with the right leadership, the right value proposition, there is an increasing opportunity for women’s health. Lots of VCs want to invest in Willow.” So far the company has raised $42.5 million, with investors including NEA and Johnson & Johnson.