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The Scrappy Rockstar of Global Public Health

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Maternova is a women-owned, women-run, for-profit social enterprise founded by Allyson Cote and Meg Wirth, currently based in Providence, RI. The company uses its online marketplace, established in 2011, to sell innovative technologies directly to those who can use them to save the lives of mothers and infants in developing countries around the world.
Below, Allyson Cote discusses her company’s aspirations and business model, and the emerging competitive landscape in global health care products.

Kyle Poplin: Briefly describe what Maternova does and the global health problems it's solving.

Allyson Cote: Maternova Inc. is the scrappy upstart rockstar of the global public health world. We exist for one core reason: to ensure the medical innovations that will save women’s and newborn lives actually get into the hands of the caregivers. Annually, over 350,000 women and 2 million newborns die from complications at childbirth. My partner Meg and I think not only is that unacceptable, but it’s preventable. There is an enormous gap in the distribution chain surrounding low-cost, disruptive technologies. Entrepreneurs and inventors who create brilliant, sustainable solutions often see their work die on the vine. The path to commercialization for any new product can be complicated and lengthy. We offer a clear path for novel technologies to gain market share and recognition via the Maternova brand.

KP: Maternova has been described as "an Amazon-type platform, but for global health technologies" – a creative, innovative, even disruptive​ model. Where did the idea come from? Is your business model patterned after Amazon's?

AC: Thank you! We’re all about being disruptive and bold. We use Amazon as an example of our model but we’re a bit different. Maternova was originally an educational resource for global public health workers. We created our highly acclaimed “Innovation Index” and began cataloging innovations in various stages of development from all over the world. It was our hope and ultimate goal to speed the dissemination of information across all the barriers that exist. That initial plan proved wildly successful, and inquiries started flooding in from countries all over the world asking how the devices could be gotten.

We quickly realized, though, that simply distributing the products wasn’t enough. We had to accomplish two important goals. The rigorous field testing of products to ensure they performed as described and met our criteria was essential. Maternova is extremely lucky to have not only two wonderful boards in place but we also have some fantastic in-country distributors in places like Nigeria, DRC, Cameroon, and many more who are so gracious in their commitment to our mission they test each product we sell at length. Our testing in-office of innovations has often provided some hilarious moments of comic relief as well. It’s true that some things just never go as planned, and we’re OK with that!

Lastly, we wanted to develop a more comprehensive suite of products for people. It’s not enough to only offer one or two items. Our customers often order four-plus products with each visit to our marketplace. It’s our hope to provide the most effective solutions for the birth experience that don’t always mean just the moment of birth.

KP: How have you impacted how global health products are acquired?

AC: We’ve simplified the process enormously for small-, mid- and even large-size groups. Maternova is a pretty nimble operation. We can respond and get products on the ground much quicker than most NGOs. We’re not restricted by the same laborious process parallel initiatives might be facing.

I also think we’ve raised the level of visibility for many key clinical interventions and even supplementary products like solar lighting, which is critical for both health care and education, etc. One good example is our ThermoSpot Liquid Crystal Thermometer, used to detect hypothermia in newborns. The creator, a brilliant temperature specialist from Britain, hadn’t found a path to market for his product. We helped him with that, and now the color-coded, reusable, cost-effective device is helping save lives all over the world. We’re pretty proud of that! It’s amazing to see the adoption of a product you whole-heartedly believe in. It’s a proud parent moment, I guess!

KP: Maternova has for-profit and nonprofit segments. What's the difference between the two, and what are the advantages/disadvantages of the for-profit and nonprofit models?

AC: Be a new business model in a supremely busy and competitive space, and you might find people don’t know what to make of you! Yes, we did opt to create a nonprofit arm, Maternova Research, in early 2013. We did that specifically for several reasons. We wanted to find a permanent home for our Innovation Index where we might be able to continue to grow it without straining our internal resources. Also, we wanted to formalize our testing criteria for products. Up until now it had been a privately held secret. While we’re not giving away the exact formula, we’ll be making it a bit more public soon.

Finally, we wanted to be able to take advantage of the funding opportunities available for nonprofits. It’s exciting for us to say we are about to kick off a study in Bangladesh that Merck for Mothers is providing the funding for. We’re testing out an exciting Android-based urinalysis device, the Uchek. It could revolutionize diagnostic capabilities for this type of testing in low-resource settings. Our fingers are crossed it is as wonderful as we think it may be. We’ll be waiting for the word from all of our clinicians and midwives to determine our findings.

KP: You work with a lot of organizations. Is there a business model for global health enterprises that seems more successful (scalable and sustainable) than others? More specifically, do for-profit enterprises seem to be gaining traction?

AC: For-profit models are definitely gaining traction! It makes me glad we have such a head start, because the competitive landscape is heating up quickly. In order to be successful, I believe the one lesson we learned above all others is the importance of partners in the countries you ship into. We wanted to offer opportunities to local entrepreneurs and solidify our presence as a local resource.

I also believe in the importance of proprietary products. We’re going to be launching two soon. Meg and I have worked tirelessly on the research and groundwork for two items we believe are completely missing in the health care space. Maternova is in the perfect position to see gaps ahead of most other groups. I’d love to share more, but you’re not under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement)! Anyone who might be interested in learning more can contact me.

KP: Could you talk about how Maternova uses social media to meet its goals?

AC: We love social media! It has been the lifeblood of our marketing efforts since day one. Given the enormous geography of the clientele we serve, along with the niche market, it has been the easiest way to communicate vital information to a large group. We’re very active on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, having seen it enhance our brand globally very quickly. Additionally, it lets us connect people easily so they can share ideas and collaborate. It always comes back to removing barriers to lifesaving information.

Kyle Poplin is the editor of NextBillion Health Care.