Computer graphics expert supported by the Cambridge Social Ventures programme at Cambridge Judge has developed an app to help women breastfeed.
With a PhD in computer graphics, Dr Chen Mao Davies worked for many years to create stunning visual effects for big movies like Blade Runner 2049, Gravity and Paddington.
So she decided to put her technical know-how to work when, as a new mother, she struggled with breastfeeding – suffering infections and depression due to failure to achieve a good latch (how the baby fastens onto the breast), which is an all-too-common problem.
“I had always thought my dream had been fulfilled working for the film industry in Hollywood but after having my son Oscar, in 2015, I started facing difficulties with breastfeeding,” says Chen, who is founder and CEO of LatchAid, a femtech venture that has created an app using 3D technology to show mothers how to breastfeed.
“When I realised there was no help for struggling new mothers I thought: ‘I am a technologist: this is something I can do to make a difference to the world.’”
The venture, based in the Gloucestershire town of Kemble, is supported by the Cambridge Social Ventures programme, part of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School.
Chen says LatchAid has raised more than £1 million in angle investment and funding from sources that include Innovate UK, NHS Improvement, EU, and UnLtd, and now has seven employees and “an amazing network of advisors and subcontractors.”
In March 2021 Chen won the Women in Innovation award from Innovate UK, and LatchAid was named by publication Health Tech World as one of its Top 50 health tech innovators of 2022, placing at number 22. Chen was also included in their Incredible women in health tech list.
Working with film colleagues and parenting experts
Working with some of Chen’s former film colleagues, AI specialists and mother-baby experts, LatchAid developed an app that intuitively responds to the user’s touch – showing how to position the baby, using different angles and an X-ray mode to see inside the baby’s mouth. It also displays different breastfeeding positions, accompanied by audio and subtitles, and personalises breast sizes and skin tones to better represent both the mother and the baby. Its AI-power virtual supporter chatbot, leveraging one-to-one specialist support, provides 24/7 support to answer any questions parents may ask during the first 1,001 days. Its virtual communities connect parents to a peer-to-peer support network.
“This is such a great idea,” says Kathryn, one of the app’s users. “FAQs are fab but the option to have more detailed support through the upgrade to premium is fantastic. Breastfeeding support can be a bit inconsistent around the UK, so this app is a fantastic resource for new parents. Being able to access evidence-based information and support at your fingertips is incredibly valuable.”
The UK has a poor breastfeeding rate. A study published on the LatchAid website shows that although 81% of mothers had initiated breastfeeding, 90% of them gave up before they wanted to due to lack of support, pain or other health issues, and isolation or depression. This affects women of all backgrounds and demographics.
In July, LatchAid said it had more than 7,000 users in 94 countries, and that initial trials with Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) were very encouraging: a survey of 271 UK-based app users found that 49% were exclusively breastfeeding at six to eight weeks, compared to a national average of 24%.
From China to Gloucestershire, via Hollywood
After earning a degree from Beijing Institute of Petrochemical Technology, Chen arrived in the UK from China in 2002 with two suitcases, minimal spoken English, and no personal networks. She then earned a Master’s degree in Applied Computing from the University of Dundee in Scotland, and a PhD in Sketch-based Human Modelling and Animation from Brunel University in London.
She later worked for nearly a decade for leading creative studio Framestore, which provides visual effects for top Hollywood studios such as Disney, Netflix, Universal and Warner Bros.
Chen participated in the Cambridge Social Ventures weekend in November 2017 and met some of the programme’s top people, who encouraged her to apply to the programme. She was selected and started in April 2018, when her daughter was just nine weeks old.
“I travelled from Gloucestershire to Cambridge Judge every month for training and the whole team was always very accommodating, making sure both my daughter and I had all we needed,” she says. “I am very grateful to Cambridge Judge for such invaluable support.”
Mark Goodson, who mentored Chen at Cambridge Social Ventures and is still a Business Advisor for LatchAid, says: “LatchAid’s success is a testament to the power of an impactful solution, a very smart entrepreneur and the right support at the right time. But most of all it’s a testament to Chen’s persistence and determination. Holding down a full-time job, whilst caring for two young children and simultaneously getting LatchAid off the ground was a phenomenal effort.”