Dr. Chen Mao Davies wins Innovate UK Women in Innovation Award

Dr. Mao Davies receives film award

© Dr. Mao Davies

Pioneer of motherhood and breastfeeding app set to receive further support from Innovate UK EDGE to grow her business.

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.

Yesterday – on International Women’s Day – she was awarded an Innovate UK Women in Innovation Award, one of only 10 nationwide awards out of 750+ applicants.
Chen’s 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.

“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.

Chen believes this support to be vital to mums who are experiencing breastfeeding challenges.

“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 funding for “empathetic AI”

In 2020, LatchAid secured three rounds of Innovate UK funding to enhance its AI chatbot with “sentiment analysis” – a tool that will discern the emotional state of the mother and shape answers and responses appropriately and sensitively.
“Maternal suicide is now the leading cause of deaths in new mums,” says Chen, “so our aim is to analyse language, spot crisis signals and prescribe the right support.
“Our AI will do this while acting as a personalised companion, almost like a buddy – asking how you feel today, making suggestions, providing information at certain milestones or just having a conversation with you.”

Innovate UK EDGE encourages 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.”

Having won the award, Chen will receive a £50,000 grant and a bespoke package of mentoring, coaching and innovation and growth support.

Prior to the award entry, Innovate UK EDGE has also provided product launch and market access support as well as an Intellectual Property (IP) Audit through IP Specialist, Kate Butler. Looking to the future, Innovate UK EDGE will be supporting with access to funding and finance, enabling Chen to fuel LatchAid’s next growth phase.

“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.”

...entrepreneurship is all about your resilience when something happens and not being afraid to fail, because trying your best is already a great success.”