Like many new mums, corporate lawyer Etta Watts-Russell was surprised at the problems she had when breastfeeding her first newborn.
“I’d just assumed the actual childbirth bit was the only difficult part of having a baby!” recalls Watts-Russell, who has four children under 10.
“So when I found breastfeeding difficult, and couldn't do it to the to the extent I’d wanted to, I thought, ‘oh, it must just be me’. I assumed it was my problem.”
When things didn’t get any easier with babies number two or three, and after speaking to other mums who’d had similar experiences, like milk supply issues, blocked ducts, infection and painful engorgement, Watts-Russell realised she was far from alone.
Reading up on the issue, she found that while 96 per cent of mothers in Australia initiate breastfeeding for newborns, fewer than 40 per cent of babies are exclusively breastfed to three months. By five months, it drops to 15 per cent, although around 60 per cent are still receiving some breastmilk by six months, according to the Australian National Infant Feeding Survey.
“In fact, no country in the world meets the recommended standards for breastfeeding, which really surprised me,” Watts-Russell says, referring to UNICEF and World Health Organization’s findings that, globally, less than half of infants are exclusively breastfed to six months.
While there are many factors playing into these numbers, what struck Watts-Russell was the absence of products to help women address the physical challenges, such as debilitating conditions like mastitis, estimated to affect up to 20 per cent of breastfeeding mums worldwide, causing many of them to stop.
A self-declared “compulsive problem solver”, Watts-Russell decided to do something about it after discovering the combination of three things was key – temperature, movement and compression.
Soon after, her massage ball idea came to life – a product “as soft as jelly” specifically designed for the elasticity of lactating breast tissue that can be heated or cooled depending on the woman’s need, to fill the product gap in the market. Almost two years and another baby later, the product – called Lactamo – will be ready for sale online and at selected retailers from August 1, the start of World Breastfeeding Week.
While it seems a relatively simple idea, she says the first question from each expert she engaged along the way – from industrial designers, to medtech commercialisation experts and lactation consultants – was always: “Why on earth doesn't this exist already?”
The answer she puts down to the historically “huge underinvestment” in so-called “femtech” and female founders, and underrepresentation of female insights in medical inventions – all issues in which she is “excited” to drive ripples of change.
“It has great potential for women,” says Professor Linda Sweet, Chair of Midwifery at Deakin University and Western Health Partnership, who Watts-Russell engaged to lead an independent clinical trial among breastfeeding mums to test the safety and efficacy of the product.
“What they liked about Lactamo was it's so soft and easy to handle, so you can modify the amount of compression and pressure you apply, whereas other types of massage balls are much, much firmer. The ability to heat or cool it is also a great benefit.
“You need something that's going to be beneficial, that's not going to cause further trauma, like bruising. Some women even said they felt lucky to have been in the trial to have access to it to ease their lactation complaints.”
Professor Sweet, who has almost 25 years’ experience in midwifery both in clinical practice and academia, acknowledges the big leap Watts-Russell took, giving up the stability of her 15-year career as a corporate lawyer at Gilbert + Tobin and Jones Lang LaSalle to throw everything behind her start-up business.
“It's a completely different world for Etta because it's not what she was trained to do in her profession, but she's taken it in her stride as a businesswoman,” Professor Sweet says.
“She is very passionate about Lactamo and committed, she’s well researched…and she’s exploring a whole range of avenues for how the product might be beneficial for women.”
Watts-Russell says the synchronous hats she wears as a lawyer and a mum of four have been the ideal background.
While she’s dived into the previously unfamiliar worlds of medical products, manufacturing and distribution, she can switch seamlessly from a phone call about injection moulding, sandblasting and ISO standards; to another about medical clinical trial guidelines and listing with the Therapeutic Goods Association.
“The diversity of all the different aspects is incredible,” she says.
“I hadn't really realised how transferable my skills were, and I don't think it’s necessarily specific to being a lawyer, but the roles I've had have given me a really great commercial mindset and an understanding of different businesses, the ability to juggle and work under pressure, and how to deal directly with C suites.
“That’s all been instrumental in in my ability to not be intimidated, and to be confident in the process.
“At the same time, I had young children, which was great because I was in that market, in that mind frame, and doing market research on a daily basis! So it was kind of picking the best of a few different worlds.”
To date, Watts-Russell has self-funded Lactamo’s development, supported by grants and philanthropic funding, including winning St.George Bank’s kickstart program and the Medtech Actuator Award. As she looks to scale – and she’s already eyeing global distribution of the 100 per cent Australian made product, starting with Europe, the US, China and India – she may look to other forms of funding.
“The brief to the industrial designers right from the beginning was, it needed to be something that can be used by any woman, anywhere. Australia is a great first test market, but it’s definitely translatable everywhere else, because it’s solving a universally common problem,” she says.
“I just love the potential of being able to do something positive for so many women globally. I have these new mothers who've tried it who've just said, you know, you saved my breastfeeding journey.
“And that’s exciting.”