Between 350,000 and 500,00 women worldwide die each year as a result of child birth, said Meg Wirth, founder and president of Maternova, a Providence-based startup begun in May 2009. “In many countries, for women between the ages of 15 and 45, child birth is the leading risk to their lives – more than war, famine, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis,” she continued.
In response, Wirth developed an innovative, new business model that interconnects industrial design and social media with global health. Her for-profit company, Maternova, sits in what she describes as the new “mesh” – providing free access to online information and, at the same time, selling life-saving kits and product bundles as an online retail store.
“We asked ourselves,” Wirth explained, describing the genesis of her creative business approach to a social issue, ‘what are the technologies, protocols and tools to save these women’s lives? Can we put them all in one place? And how can we disseminate and distribute them more quickly?’ ”
Two of Providence-based Maternova’s first product offerings, developed through market research, were a “power pack” and a basic “clinical pack.” The power pack, Wirth said, “is a solar-powered lantern, so you are able to keep your hands free, and, a rotary charger for a cellphone.” In many places in the developing world, she continued, “there is unreliable power, and if you are off the grid, it allows you to have light and call for help. It’s a very simple thing, but it’s very popular with our customers.”
With the clinical pack, Wirth said, “it is a kit that focuses on the key protocols to prevent post-partum hemorrhaging, which is the main way that women die, because of bleeding.”
Maternova is starting to add new products to its retail online store. One is a liquid crystal temperature device, with a smiley face that changes color, to enable the person attending the birth to see if the child is too hot or too cold.
The company didn’t begin full operation until 2010, and the staffing is still very lean: There’s Wirth, a half-time programming person and some college interns. Many of the people who work for Wirth do so on a contractual, consulting basis, drawing upon the resources of about 25 people.
One of Maternova’s innovative approaches is to change the way that international organizations and others track and access innovations for maternal and newborn health. “Before Maternova, there was no single place to go to see what was new and in development in this space,” Wirth said. “Nor was there an easy way to access dozens of products that are already fully developed but inaccessible because of large volumes or price. Our products improve the ability of midwives and doctors on the frontlines to provide life-saving care.”