Interview by Nicole Dahlstrom @nicoledahlstrom
Adriana is a MIT alumna where she studied Math & Computer Science. After witnessing multiple coworkers struggle after returning from maternity leave, Adriana knew she wanted to design products to help new moms. She got her Masters in Integrated Product Design from the University of Pennsylvania where she began working on the Lilu Massage Bra.
Adriana lives in NYC. She is from Mexico City, a devout pescatarian, an avid bicycle commuter & sort-of speaks 4 languages.
What is the idea behind your project / product and how did you come up with it?
At Lilu we build technology to empower new moms. Our first product, the Lilu Massage Bra was designed to help moms pump more milk, more easily and comfortably though automated massage.
The idea for this first product started from learning about friends and colleague’s experiences breastfeeding and pumping, and seeing many have difficulties fitting in breastfeeding and pumping into life as working moms. I was in the tech and product design world, and it’s a big part of the culture I’d say to always be looking for the next cool gadget or tool to make our lives easier. So when I realized that breast pumps, an indispensable tool for many moms, were so difficult and sometimes even painful to use, I was curious and decided to look into existing pumping tech and started talking to moms about what we could improve. The more I learned about it and heard from hundreds of moms on their experiences pumping, the more I felt invested in building better tech that makes it easier for the millions of moms who start to breastfeed every year, to make pumping work.
When did it all start and do you have other members in your team?
Lilu officially started in may of 2016. But it’s inception was at UPenn, back when I was doing my Masters in product design. In the fall of 2015, I started, with some friends in my master program, to ask the question, how can we make the transition back from maternity leave easier? We talked to friends and moms and noticed there was a sore spot for many parents when we reached the topic of breastfeeding and pumping. We decided to dig a bit deeper, and when we got an overwhelming response from moms about all the things that we could improve with breast pumping we decided to give it a try. And the more moms shared their stories with me about how difficult certain aspects of breastfeeding and pumping were, I simply couldn’t ignore that.
With my lab mate from a robotics course, we decided to begin prototyping ideas - that friend became my co-founder and Lilu’s CTO Sujay! Last year Eliza Gerland joined our team - she’s Lilu’s amazing head of marketing, and she’s really come on to complement our team that is pretty strong in the design and engineering front and has helped us develop Lilu’s brand voice and begin executing on our go to market strategy.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
From when we first began prototyping products for Lilu to now, where we’ve begun the production for our first product - it took almost 3 years! It’s been a long road, between the research and development face, finding suppliers and manufacturers, refining the product, fundraising, and all - it takes time but every step of the way has been valuable and exciting.
What was the biggest obstacle?
I wouldn’t say there’s ONE biggest obstacle - but it’s more like a race course with multiple obstacles along the way - so I’m very much of the mentality of tackling things one at a time and breaking up problems into subproblems (probably from my computer science days). So one big problem for us was to demonstrate that the product works and that there’s market demand for it, but it’s hard to show that before you have a product ready (which is the same of any new product). But often times, say in the software world, you can mock up solutions and mock up automation - or with certain hardware products, you can get away with a prototype that functionally does what the final product will do, but where some important characteristic, say the the final shape or size relative to the prototype don’t necessarily matter. For us, a big constraint was how can we show that it works and prove that there’s demand when all we can build is a huge prototype with a very scary looking bra, and ask moms to wear this?! Well we did, and we learned a lot by forcing ourselves to get out of our comfort zone and ask real moms to try our beta units! And the fact that moms did, and would give us actionable feedback, was actually what kept us going and helped us get to the current iteration of the product.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Getting Lilu to where it is now, with our first product about to come to market and with over 100 moms that have pumped with the Lilu Massage Bra - but it’s not my achievement: it’s the result of the work of the entire Lilu team (mighty team of 3), friends, partners, mentors, interns and hundreds of moms that have helped us get here.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
There’s been a lot of conversations about how topics related to women’s health have been overlooked for innovation, either because they’re too niche or the topics themselves are considered to be taboo topics. Breastfeeding and pumping happen to be relatively more “normalized.” And we truly believe that our current generation is changing the way we talk about topics that used to be taboo - making it easier for entrepreneurs interested in innovating for women’s health to at least have engaged audiences that care about the topic. And I’ve found a lot of support both from women, men, parents and non-parents. But the challenge of course is when you zoom out and you learn about the statistics in funding that goes to women and diverse founders. But that just makes me all the more determined to prove it to myself, my team, potential investors, etc. that not only are we building a valuable product and company that has a positive social impact, but that there’s a market opportunity here as well.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Absolutely! I’ve been programming since I was 16 and probably would have started sooner had I known earlier that was a thing. One of my most important role models was and still is my high school math and computer science teacher. She was the first programmer I knew and so in my mind it was not out of the ordinary to, as a woman, want to develop a career in STEM. It was later in life, after college even that I truly realized how uneven the playing field is for men and women in certain industries - so because I know how technology can truly improve people’s lives, and I love building new tech and would like for women to be a part of building the future - I believe it’s important to make technology to be a sustainable career path for women.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but make time to reflect on them, be kind to yourself and stick to your values and beliefs and also don’t be afraid to ask for help - and when you can, make some time to give back as well!
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
As flexible PCBs become cheaper and smart fabrics become more developed - I expect to see more technology that follows form factors that we’re familiar with and that therefore integrates more seamlessly into our daily lives.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech?
Lady Ada - from adafruit because of how she’s made it easy for many women AND men to prototype and develop new awesome wearables!
Angie Kim - she’s an amazing industrial designer that specializes in wearable tech. She’s super talented, an amazing person, smart and kind.
Carla Diana - she’s smart objects designer so not only focused on wearables.
This interview was conducted by Nicole Dahlstrom, Women of Wearables Ambassador in San Francisco, USA. She has been providing marketing and project management services to non profits for the past six years. Passionate about women's health and fem tech, Nicole decided to leverage her network of established feminine health companies, industry professionals, and leaders in the female health space to develop a network of support for founders of female health focused tech startups called FemTech Collective. Their mission is to shape the future of healthcare through technology that meets the needs of the female consumer. Connect with Nicole via Twitter: @nicoledahlstrom or LinkedIn: Nicole Dahlstrom