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Bringing A Solution To The Neglected Tragedy Of Stillbirths – Co-Founders of Maternia

Clara Maspons, Zainab Dakik and Natalia Villarreal – Vlerick Business School, Masters of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Tell us more about your company and what you do

It is hard to understand that there is an average of around four stillbirths each minute, yet this unfortunate event is not a top priority on the Global Health Agenda. This appaling tragedy is particularly prevalent in low and lower-middle-income countries, which account for 84% of all stillbirths. Maternia was born out of concern and determination to reduce these numbers and provide a safer pregnancy to those women with limited access to quality prenatal care. 

The team is developing a low-cost, low-tech and highly intuitive medical device that allows pregnant women from low socio-economic settings to monitor the fetus’ wellbeing at home without medical assistance. The overall goal is to provide timely information and room to urgently seek medical assistance in case of complications. With an initial focus on East Africa, the device is purposely crafted with frugal features and designed with a high cultural appropriation. 

Maternia brings together three topics of greatest interest for the team: gender equality, health and inclusive innovation. The inception of the project took place at Vlerick Business School in 2021, a place where the founders met. While pursuing a Master’s in Innovation & Entrepreneurship, the team leveraged all the educational resources provided and transferred them to develop the business. 

The school resonated with our social mission, entrepreneurial mindset, and risk-taking approach and decided to support us with initial funding to transform the idea into an official business. This is how Maternia was officially formed in September 2022. Such support was game-changing and allowed us to bring our venture to the next level. 

What inspired you to start a business focused on women’s challenges, and how did you identify the specific needs or gaps in the market that your business addresses?

It all starts with a purpose-driven mindset and a solid understanding of systematic gender inequality.  Along with this comes a whole host of emotions, ranging from a strong determination to bring about change to the frustration of witnessing certain women’s problems being completely invisible. 

There was no triggering moment for us but rather a journey that led us to start a business focused on women. As Maternia and as women, we strongly believe that it is our responsibility to support other women and therefore prioritise impact over profit. We believe that our business can be a powerful force for change and we strive to have a meaningful impact through our work. 

Engaging with the affected population was key to gain a better understanding of the problem. One of our team members, originally from Tanzania, conducted two rounds of field research in different regions to understand the unmet needs of pregnant women and the challenges clinicians faced to provide quality prenatal services. Additionally, connecting with grassroot NGOs proved critical to learning additional insights about general policy and advocacy efforts related to maternal and child health in the country.

Along with nearly 60 interviews with medical and technological experts, the team gathered enough information to identify what requirements a tailored solution would entail. Both clinicians and pregnant women were involved in the first steps of idea conception, co-creating with our team a product that could be well-received, culturally appropriate and aligned with the needs of the affected community. 

How important is it that this key area has more start-ups focused on tackling this specific challenge for women?

While efforts to address such a tragedy are steadily increasing, stillbirths continue to be an invisible public health problem. This is a crucial issue that affects the health and wellbeing of women and their families, and has significant social and economic implications for societies at large.

With 2.6million stillbirths  occurring each year, it is clear that current approaches to prenatal care are not sufficient in many settings, and there is a need for innovative and effective solutions to improve outcomes for mothers and babies. This is when start-ups can play a key role in developing and scaling innovations that address the root causes, such as improving access to quality prenatal care, increasing awareness of risk factors, and promoting healthy behaviors and practices.

The more start-ups tackling this specific challenge, the more ideas and approaches to the table, helping to drive systemic change and improve outcomes for pregnant women. Agility and resilience can contribute to providing a faster and effective response, scaling up effective interventions and ensure their sustainability.

The success of these efforts will ultimately depend on collaborative partnerships between start-ups, healthcare providers, governmental institutions, NGOs and above all, local communities. It is only with sustained commitment that maternal and child health will progressively be strengthened. 

What is your long-term vision for your business, and how do you see it evolving?

There is huge, life-saving scalability potential for many women using our innovation throughout other low and middle-income countries. Whilst our initial target country is Tanzania, the team is confident that our product can be equally impactful in fragile healthcare systems that are experiencing shortages of skilled clinicians and inadequate prenatal care infrastructures. 

Our long-term vision therefore includes scaling to neighbouring countries and making the medical device widely available to those in greatest need. The ultimate goal is to improve maternal and child health outcomes by increasing access to essential prenatal monitoring and diagnostic tools. 

As we expand our reach and impact, we envision building a strong brand and reputation as a reliable provider of affordable and effective prenatal care solutions. Our goal is to become a trusted partner to governments, healthcare providers, International Organisations and NGOs striving to enhance maternal and child health results in low-income and underprivileged areas.

We are determined to make our business evolve into a broader platform for maternal and child health innovation. Our ultimate mission is that every pregnant woman has access to quality, affordable, and culturally appropriate prenatal care, and we believe that our business can play a critical role in making that vision a reality.

What advice do you have for other women who are interested in starting a business focused on women’s challenges, and what resources or support do you recommend they seek out?

Embrace discomfort in order to grow. Being out of your comfort zone will become the new normal yet you can navigate it by equipping yourself with the best possible resources; a strong support system, mentorship, and a resilient mindset. 

Strive to distance yourself from all the noise and concentrate on generating opportunities. While your vision and strategy can make your business appealing to others, passion can lead to great performance and business results. 

Finding resources, specially financial ones, may be one of the greatest challenges to overcome. Reach out to women entrepreneurs who might be open to sharing vertical know-how, this will give you both perspective and direction. Leverage it by joining women-focused organisations that can provide access to a supportive community, business incubators or accelerators, and networking opportunities and resources.

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