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Women take the lead in Queen City pitch competition

Co-founders Christine Dodson and Sascha Mayer. Words // Keith Morrill

In the spacious Juniper Hall & Common at Hotel Vermont, dozens gathered to munch hors d’oeuvres, sip drinks, and hear the ideas of some of Vermont’s most promising innovators—or rather innovateHERs—last fall.

The event was dubbed the InnovateHER Vermont Challenge, a Shark Tank-style competition in which Vermont entrepreneurs pitched their startups to a panel of judges in hopes of scoring a $10,000 prize. The twist was that each business had to, in some way, empower women, either because the company was helmed by women or because it in some way benefited the lives of women.

The competition, a part of Burlington Startup Week, was organized by the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET), and underwritten in partnership with Vermont EPSCoR. The competition was announced a mere week prior to the event, yet David Branbury, VCET president, who played host and MC for the evening, pointed out that 37 startups had entered submissions.

The pool of applicants was winnowed to six startups, each of which tried to propose a unique business solution to interesting problems. At the outset of the evening, Branbury remarked on the diversity of startups in Vermont, saying that “the breadth, the scope, the stage was upstanding.”

One startup sought to provide quality temporary housing for patients going through physical rehabilitation so that they could live with loved ones without disrupting lifestyles. Another, ReContext Data Solutions, took aim at helping schools effectively manage and use data from standardized testing. Yet another focused on combating distracted driving; Middlebury College seniors Terry Goguen and AnnaClare Smith created JoyRyde, a smartphone app that rewards drivers for not diddling their phones while on the road.

Teams had five minutes to present to a trio of judges: Mary Evslin co-founder of NG Advantage, Rick Gibbs, co-founder of Dealer.com, and Kelly Scannell, COO of Reading Plus. Each pitch provided an overview of the startup while addressing concerns such as industry competition and marketability, and ultimately justifying their need for the prize money.

In the end, it was the evening’s first pitch, presented by Sascha Mayer of Mamava, which brought home the prize. Mayer is the creator of innovative lactation suites, which are freestanding stations or pods placed in public and work venues that provide women private, convenient and comfortable spaces to breastfeed or pump. Plus, they look fairly swanky—the sort of futuristic pod that the Jetsons might have lying around.

The company has proven potential for commercial success, considering they’ve already sold 59 units since July of 2014, with suites placed in locations as far-flung as Fenway Park, the Milwaukee Airport and a private school in California. To top it off, Mamava has also created an app that helps users find nearby units as well as 600 other lactation places. Mayer says the prize money will go in support of media marketing and direct sales to get more units placed and to spread the word to mothers in need.

Despite the trend toward normalizing breastfeeding, no other company is providing public safe havens for mothers and their infants. Ultimately Mamava, a company run by and for women, stands poised to empower the lives of women in a unique but essential way.