A year later, MIT’s breast pump hackathon still inspiring action

Breast Pump Hackathon Crop 2

Hackathons are nothing new. Just cram a bunch of people into a room, jam them full of snacks, and ask them to come up with interesting new ways to solve a problem in a couple of days’ time.

So it came as something of a surprise to organizers of MIT’s first-ever breast pump hackathon that their little gathering of about 20 tinkerers and researchers got noticed by media organizations around the globe.

Even more heartening was the response from everyday people. At the end of her initial blog post about the event, Catherine D’Ignazio included a routine request for readers to e-mail the organizers if they had any ideas “for how to make the breast pump not suck.”

“The next day we had like 200 ideas, and they just started pouring in,” D’Ignazio said Monday. “In the end, we had over 1,000 ideas that people sent for how to improve their breast pumps.”

That response translated into a second breast-pump hackathon in the fall, which drew about 150 people, $5,500 in prize money, and even “scholarships” to help women pay for two days of child care so they could attend.

Today, the hackathon’s organizers are celebrating the public release of a mini-documentary about their efforts at the Workbar shared office space in Cambridge. And a small community has sprung up in the hackathon’s wake, bringing together researchers, new parents, entrepreneurs, and other people interested in improving the technology that helps moms feed their babies.

In an era when starting a technology company is simultaneously fashionable, cheaper than ever, and potentially fortune-making, there is abundant criticism for startup ideas that seem to mostly solve the trivial lifestyle problems of the young and well-paid. Smartphone-dispatched laundry pickup, anyone?

The breast pump hackathon, organized through MIT’s Media Lab, is certainly at the opposite end of the spectrum.

And while it’s undeniable that the central idea is worthwhile — innovations in breast pump technology have not kept up with the times — the response from people all over the world has shown that there is a seriously underserved market at hand.

The group’s Facebook page, which has more than 1,800 members, remains an active place for people to share complaints, stories, and projects revolving around the particular problems faced by new moms.

Researchers and students working on improvements for breast pumps and their accessories also use the page to vet their ideas and test out concepts with an interested audience.

“We’ve tried to kind of do that matchmaking, because for us it’s about trying to get the users’ voices heard — because they are so clearly not being heard by the current pump manufacturers,” said D’Ignazio, an assistant professor at Emerson College. “I think actually all of us are very committed to it as an ongoing side project and keeping it alive.”

People who participated in the events also have kept up their work on trying to solve breast pump problems.

Members from three of the hackathon teams combined to keep working on a prototype for a new kind of breast pump, which works on compression instead of suction, attempting to mimic more of the natural action of manually expressing breast milk. That change in mechanism also makes the machine quieter, which anyone whose spent time next to the relentless mechanical click-whoosh of a traditional pump can appreciate.

That group, calling itself Kohana, won a $10,000 prize in February from an MIT startup competition.

One of the hackathon organizers, Tal Achituv, continued work on several projects including a smartphone-controlled pump that can change the rhythm of its pumping action and an MIT class called “Hacking for Infant Health.”

“It’s not what comes out of the 48 hours. It’s really about the conversation that’s happened nationally,” said Robyn Churchill, a member of the team that won the second hackathon in September. “That’s exciting, and that’s really important, and that’s what’s going to push a lot of the change.”