Menlo Park woman debuts device to help nursing moms

Early prototypes of Soody Tronson’s device that enables new mothers to supplement their breastmilk with other sources of milk. The pictured parts would fit over the mother’s nipple. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac) Soody Tronson, founder of Presque, shows early prototypes of the device at her home in Menlo Park on Feb. 22. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.) Soody Tronson, a Menlo Park resident, has a Silicon Valley overachiever’s resume: a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, a law degree earned while working as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard, the title of managing founder of a boutique intellectual property law firm. Plus, she sits on Menlo Park’s Finance and Audit Committee.

Over the last few years, she’s been combining her skills and credentials in new ways, nursing plans to develop a device to help breastfeeding mothers. Soody Tronson, founder of Presque. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.) As a teen, Tronson immigrated to the U.S. from Iran to attend a boarding school in Florida with her best friend. She went on to study industrial chemistry in college, later working as a scientist at a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey before moving to San Diego to work as an engineer. She started working at Hewlett-Packard in 1988 and, while there, decided to pursue a law degree by night.

She graduated in 1995, two weeks after the birth of her first son, and transitioned within HP to the legal department. She moved to Palo Alto in 1996 and has lived in the area since then, she said.

A few years later, she moved on to a big law firm. Then, in the early 2000s, Tronson worked at a medical device startup before launching her own intellectual property law firm.

Throughout her career, she’s developed a "solution-oriented" mindset, she said. So when a family member in 2012 described to Tronson some of the challenges she was experiencing with breastfeeding her baby, Tronson’s mind jumped into action.

Soon, she found herself applying for patents, spending her off-work time developing a product that could help mothers in similar situations.

Both law and chemistry are in her blood, she explained. Her dad was a judge; her brother, a chemical engineer. Developing the product involves her skills in both. In 2016, she pulled a team together to work on the project. "Somehow, it’s all coming together," she said.

One reason mothers stop breastfeeding, she said, is because they think they’re not producing enough milk. "They think their baby is not getting enough nourishment," she noted.

Yet the breastfeeding process, she explained, operates on a simple biological "supply and demand" model. If the baby doesn’t try to extract milk, then the mother stops creating it, so getting discouraged and giving up on the process can reduce the supply further, she said.

Another problem that can occur with new babies exposed to both breast milk and formula is "nipple confusion," she said, in which babies have difficulty reconnecting with nursing once exposed to bottle-feeding.

In short, she said, the nursing process is "natural, but it’s not easy."

On and off between 2012 and 2016, she worked to develop her prototype. It’s a bra, with a pouch where women can put either formula or pre-extracted breast milk into a disposable bag. A nipple-shaped silicon piece sits in the middle, designed to allow the woman’s nipple to extend through. Milk from the reservoir will be released to meet the nursing baby’s needs.

She described comparable products currently on the market as "arcane" and "undignified," she said.

Tronson’s calling her business "Presque," which means "almost" in French. "It’s almost like nature," she said.

She intends to eventually launch a product line, and plans for the second generation of the product to contain a sensor to track how much milk a baby extracts to determine the volume of supplement needed.

This is an interesting challenge, since most sensors are designed for flat surfaces, while this one would have to work on a curved one, she said. That development could be useful in other applications. The idea is to pair the sensor with an app to determine how much supplement is released from the reservoir, she added.

Presque has an office in Santa Clara and is now out of "stealth mode" and into full-blown fundraising mode, with plans to be ready to manufacture the product within a year of the initial funding round’s conclusion. Right now, there is a team of six people working part time.

When asked whether she expects it to be a challenge to pitch a device that aids breastfeeding to investors, who are mostly men, she acknowledged that challenges could arise. While she has decades of technical knowledge and her team has more than 100 years of combined experience, she’s been questioned about her technical expertise in casual conversations about the idea. She noted that companies that offer baby products tend to get better funding than companies creating products for women.

She’s not deterred, though. "That will be an issue, perhaps," she said. "I’m not going to let that stop me. … This is an issue of women’s health. This is good for women. (It’s) also good for babies."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for about six months, followed by continued breastfeeding for a year or longer as other foods are introduced. In August 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report card on breastfeeding, which indicated that many mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than recommended. About 83 percent of the 4 million babies born in 2015 started out breastfeeding, but only about 25 percent were breastfed exclusively for the first six months.

According to the CDC, infants that are breastfed have reduced risks of asthma, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, ear and respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome, while breastfeeding may help lower a mother’s risk of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and ovarian and breast cancer.

Compared with other products that may help women pump milk, she said, "We’re coming at it from a different angle."

When it hits the market, the Presque bra will provide mothers a tool to overcome challenges with feeding babies by facilitating direct breastfeeding and supplementing, she explained.

The tool can also be used to "democratize" the parenting experience, she said. Parents who adopt, same-sex parents, or transgender parents can all support baby suckling and bonding while providing nutrition to the child.

"I’m all about enablement," she said.

A reception for Presque is scheduled for Thursday, March 7, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in Menlo Park. Go to mypresque.com/march-7th/ to RSVP or to mypresque.com for more information.

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