Deal Flow

Maternova launches new protective wear for women to combat spread of Zika

To help fund the enterprise, Maternova joins forces with Republic in an innovative approach to crowd-funding

Courtesy of Maternova

Preliminary sketches for the maternity line of protective clothing to combat the spread of the Zika virus from mosquitoes, under development by Maternova, a Providence-based firm.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/1/16
The Providence-based firm, Maternova, is developing a new line of protective clothing for women to combat the spread of the Zika virus, combining nanotechnology and fashion. The new product is now being test-marketed in El Salvador. To finance the new endeavor, Maternova is teaming up with Republic to launch a crowd-funding initiative. The project is another great example of the innovation ecosystem at work in Rhode Island to meet the needs of a global market.
How does the innovative model of financing for the new line of Zika-protective clothing, which can also be used against ticks and the spread of Lyme disease, present a challenge to the current thinking around economic development strategy in Rhode Island? When will Congress recognize that the public health threat from the Zika virus is not a partisan issue and provide the emergency $1.9 billion in funds requested by President Obama? Would U.S. Olympic athletes consider modeling some of the newly designed clothing to combat Zika?
As the threat of a pandemic from the Zika virus grows with the revelation of suspected cases in Miami, Fla., transmitted by mosquitoes and not by sexual contact, the importance of public health and its profound impacts on education, economic, social and health outcomes still remains a woefully small part of our political conversation.
New indictments were issued for six former employees of the state of Michigan over their alleged illegal responses to the lead poisoning of children and families in Flint, but there remains little if any scientific focus on how to help children once they have been poisoned to mitigate the lifetime of impacts of potential mental disabilities.
The introduction of a new program of medication assisted treatment for inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutes in Rhode Island was cheered as an important step forward in saving lives, but the horrific stories told by a number of the four women inmates of sexual abuse raised the larger question: where were the authorities to protect these women when they were younger?
The leadership of Rhode Island women entrepreneurs, such as co-founders of Maternova, Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote, and Dr. Annie De Groot at EpiVax, is helping to change the equation, to address issues of women’s and children’s health farther upstream, so we are not left trying, like catchers in the rye, desperately trying save the children as they fall.

PROVIDENCE – If you scan the Maternova website, you can see the wide variety of innovative tools and ideas that the company, under the leadership of Meg Wirth, the CEO and founder, has brought to the global marketplace for obstetric, newborn and reproductive health.

The product list includes any number of life-saving tools: rapid tests for cholera, dengue, zika, malaria, hepatitis B and C, and chikungunya; CRADLE toolkits with their own source of power to provide for health care where power is uncertain and unpredictable, particularly for antenatal care; Enov’Mum nutritional food supplements, designed for pregnant and lactating women to meet their nutritional needs; and the Signostics hand-held portable ultrasound.

The most recent potential life-saving product now under development by Maternova is a new line of protective clothing for women to protect them against the Zika virus when spread by mosquitoes.

The new venture by Maternova is being crowd-funded in partnership with Republic, as a way to democratize angel investing, according to Wirth. “Our investors are not just financial backers, they are trusted friends, and really part of our team,” Wirth told ConvergenceRI.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Meg Wirth and the launch of a new line of protective clothing for women to combat the spread of the Zika virus, in a global market.

ConvergenceRI: Can you describe the new anti-Zika solution product and how it works?
WIRTH:
Zika has been around for years, but it wasn’t until recently that severe obstetric risks were identified for pregnant women. The headlines are terrifying, now that mosquitoes carrying the virus are canvassing Latin America, and are now with us in the U.S. Confirmed cases here are in the 100s and growing at an alarming rate. The headlines today show a minimum of four cases in Florida alone, and that’s just yesterday.

We knew we had to act, but were surprised that during our research there were little to no style-conscious or “fashionable” items for women that offered long last protection.

Those few that did exist do not seem to be grounded in science. The team here realized we have a large opportunity to make a difference by bringing to key pieces together: nanotechnology and fashion. Being protected shouldn't make you feel as if you're being punished.

We found the one patented textile that we believe is the best for this purpose. Using nanotechnology [by definition, this means operating at the molecular level], the textile binds the repellent against mosquitoes in such a way as to allow its repellent properties to last longer and for more than 50 washings.

Why is this important? In many areas of Latin America, and in the U.S., for that matter, repellents are quite expensive and not culturally accepted. Women may be protected with bednets at night but they need an effective, wearable repellent as they go about their day.

Many “impregnated fabrics” either smell terrible, are the texture of a burlap sack, or are treated with chemicals not proven safe for pregnant women.

This particular fabric is EPA-approved and permethrin-free, so it’s safe for women of reproductive age. As a bonus, it protects the wearer against ticks along with 38 other insects. With Lyme disease surging to epidemic proportions here in the US, this long-lasting solution will appeal to women here as well as Latin America and elsewhere.

But just having innovative materials wasn't enough, so we turned to a good friend, and globally known Brazilian-born designer Alessandra Gold.

Her work has appeared in Vogue, Nylon, even the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Fashion Institute of Technology trained, Gold was the missing piece we needed to make this soar.

Her designs are elegant and cool, and most of all fit bodies of all sizes. They are unique to our line, and are going to amaze our customers with just how “runway” they can look for a modest investment.

All this talk about runways and fashion should not be seen as distracting from our very serious scientific and public health mission: the goal is to reduce women’s exposure to public health threats.

However, we know that in order to work, the solutions need to be viable and acceptable to the populations we serve. Adolescent girls – whether in Providence, Miami, the Texas border, Rio or rural Colombia – care about what they wear and how they look.

To work, the “product,” in this case the clothes, empowered by nanotechnology, needs to be stylish enough that girls and women want to wear them.

ConvergenceRI: Who is the target audience for the product?
WIRTH:
The target is enormous, actually. All women of reproductive age, and in particular those either planning a family, or living in high-risk areas for Zika (as well as malaria and dengue).

Lyme disease widens the net even further. Pet owners, outdoor sportswomen, even campers can benefit from this extra layer of protection. Think of it this way, if you have an active lifestyle, you’ll want to come check out this line as it grows and we expand.

Our goal is to provide heavily subsidized clothing for women in high-risk, low-income areas. So obviously, the faster we can launch and produce in volume, the quicker the women who desperately need help will receive it.

ConvergenceRI: Where is it being targeted specifically in terms of your global audience, i.e., the Caribbean, South America, etc?
WIRTH:
That’s a great question. We are fortunate to partner with Americares, which is a large NGO based in Connecticut, but working globally. Our first stop is in Brazil, El Salvador and Colombia. We’ve already sent our first batch of shirts to a clinic in El Salvador, where they are being distributed as part of anti-Zika kits for mothers.

ConvergenceRI: Why have you chosen to be part of the crowd-funding campaign on Republic? What are the advantages for you as a company? What has been the response to date?
WIRTH:
We’re not a traditional company, so why go with traditional funding? Maternova created a brand new business model, and is cutting a path into 40 countries.
We’re lucky in that our global brand is strong in the public health space, and we have a vibrant social media presence and following.

But with all that said, again, we’re not a cookie cutter company. Did we mention our business plan won the grand prize in the LivePlan national competition judged by people startup gurus like Guy Kawasaki?

The advantages to our happy RSVP to Republic’s invitation to participate [in crowd-funding] are that we can finally reach passionate, socially conscious people who otherwise may never be able to invest in our company.

Republic is democratizing angel investing, making the process of investing in startups that was once the purview of accredited angel investors with $1M in assets or more, now accessible to millions..

Our investors are not just financial backers, they are trusted friends, and really part of our team. We’ve had a great response with 21 new investors.

ConvergenceRI: How does the crowd-funding give Maternova a competitive advantage in the market place?
WIRTH:
That question [requires] a two-part answer. Our customers and investors are our best ambassadors. We rely heavily on word of mouth, so we’re hoping people will see this and want to share the opportunity to make a global difference for women.

The second part of that answer is that the spirit of democratizing angel investment is an historic new approach to funding companies, and it fits with our ethics and our focus on innovation. We like the idea of funding an innovative business model with an innovative financing mechanism.

ConvergenceRI: Is there a potential to work with Puerto Rico to develop some kind of partnership, given how hard hit the U.S. territory has been hit by Zika?
WIRTH:
Absolutely, yes. We’re lucky in that we're nimble and flexible. We’ve kept a super lean infrastructure and can adjust quickly to meet opportunities that may further our mission of saving lives.

Editor's note: The answers to the questions were prepared in a collaborative fashion by both Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote, the co-founders of Maternova. 

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