Since arriving in the UK from China 18 years ago, Dr Chen Mao Davies has learned to speak fluent English, created new CGI technologies for Oscar and BAFTA winning films, become a mother, and now launched her own business, LatchAid.

Yesterday – on International Women’s Day – she was awarded an Innovate UK Women in Innovation Award, one of only 40 nationwide awards out of 750+ applicants! Innovate UK EDGE SW Innovation and Growth Specialist, Kathryn Green, persuaded Chen to apply for the award and guided her through the application process.

Chen will now receive a £50,000 grant, bespoke growth support, and will visit schools to promote entrepreneurship and innovation to young women and girls.

The breastfeeding struggles of new mums

Chen’s Gloucestershire-based business, LatchAid, was born out of her own struggles as a new mum.

“I was determined to breastfeed my child,” says Chen, “it’s natural, it’s bonding, it gives the baby antibodies, but nobody told me how difficult and painful it could be.

“Midwives are under huge pressure and sadly, don’t always have the resource to provide one-to-one breastfeeding guidance throughout a mother’s stay in hospital. By the time I left hospital, I was already damaged and in pain.”

“It went on for days with mastitis and thrush; mum and baby crying during feeding time and I just felt such a failure – I couldn’t feed my own baby. The baby’s weight dropped, and I developed postnatal depression.”

Chen pulled through with the help of an understanding health visitor and other mums who had suffered similar experiences – some of whom still carry regrets years later. She says, “As a technologist, I was frankly shocked by the lack of innovation in this space. We had once a week peer support groups, which were useful – but what about 2am when you’re lonely, in pain and at your lowest point?”

During the pandemic, the problem appears to have worsened. LatchAid’s September 2020 survey of 706 new mothers found that 75% are feeling lonely and isolated, while 81% reported that they have not received the support they need during the pandemic.

Founding LatchAid

The LatchAid platform uses a combination of cutting-edge 3D technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI), virtual peer support groups, and online “live” experts to help teach women breastfeeding skills and provide them with personalised expertise and emotional support on a 24/7 basis.

Chen built the app with an “army” of female colleagues; top lactation consultants, marketing specialists and women that she worked with when developing CGI technologies for Oscar-winning films like Gravity.

By bringing these specialisms and technologies together, LatchAid has been able to provide detailed 3D animations to mothers – demonstrating how the baby should take the mother’s areola into his / her mouth, achieving a ‘deep latch’ that prevents damage to the breast.

Mums can also engage with LatchAid’s AI-powered chatbot, which will answer questions at any time of the day or night.

“Lactation consultants get asked the same questions hundreds of times over, so we programmed the chatbot to advise on these issues. It’s also smart enough to understand natural language, even when the mother is exhausted, incoherent or doesn’t quite know what she’s really asking – it will work it out.”

If the chatbot can’t provide the answer, a lactation expert will step in to speak with the mother directly. Mums can also use the peer support network on the app, sharing their pains and gains with other women going through the same experience.

Innovate UK EDGE support for Women in Innovation Award entry

Although Chen has previously been successful with Innovate UK funding competitions, she initially felt that the Women in Innovation Award was a step too far. Innovate UK EDGE Innovation and Growth Specialist, Kathryn Green, persuaded her to take up the opportunity and together with grant funding expert Kim Howat, provided critical appraisal of her application.

“I knew the pass rate would be even lower than normal Innovate UK competitions, so Kathryn and Kim’s support was really important. They helped me make my application as simple, persuasive, compliant and powerful as possible – their advice really helped refresh my knowledge of how to write a grant application.”

“I’m now full of energy to actually do this and am excited to see LatchAid launch on the AppStore in spring 2021”

Chen’s advice to budding entrepreneurs

One of Chen’s new duties as a Women in Innovation Award winner will be to visit schools and persuade more women and girls to pursue careers in innovation and entrepreneurship.

“I think no one’s born to be an entrepreneur, a risk taker or to be brave. I was quiet growing up, but entrepreneurship forced me out of my shell.”

Chen acknowledges that it’s a long and difficult journey – she uses the analogy of bamboo, which develops complex routes underground for seven years, before emerging from the soil as one of the world’s fastest growing plants.

“I built this app and platform while juggling motherhood and another job – entrepreneurship is all about your resilience when something happens and not being afraid to fail, because trying your best is already a great success.”