Social enterprise uses nanotechnology to fight Zika

Firm hopes to subsidise protective clothing for pregnant mothers in poorer countries, to repel mosquito-borne diseases

An online marketplace for maternal health products is set to launch a new clothing line to protect pregnant women from mosquito-borne diseases, including the Zika virus, sales of which will subsidise the clothing for women in poorer countries.

Maternova, a US-based social enterprise, has worked with a Brazilian fashion designer and scientists to come up with a range of clothes that uses nanotechnology to embed permethrin-free insect repellent into the fabric, offering expectant mothers a non-toxic form of protection.

“Through our research, we realised 70 per cent of women were very receptive to the idea of being able to wear an attractive, protective, piece of apparel, whereas less than 15 per cent were ok with applying insecticide directly to their skin, particularly when they were pregnant,” said Allyson Cote, COO of Maternova.

If the project gets enough funding, the firm also plans to use the technology to develop uniforms for healthcare workers, such as midwives, in developing countries.

Some 65 nations – primarily in Latin America but also southeast Asia and Bangladesh – have reported outbreaks of the Zika virus since 2015, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). People can become infected through a mosquito bite and the disease can also pass between a pregnant mother and her child. The disease has been linked to microcephaly, which affects development of the baby’s brain.

The impact of the clothing line could go far beyond the Zika outbreak, with the nanotechnology offering protection against 40 different insects carrying vector-borne diseases, according to Meg Wirth, Maternova's CEO and cofounder. Malaria killed more than 438,000 people in 2015, said WHO.

“Zika is in the headlines now but other diseases such as malaria and dengue cost far more lives and [put a greater] burden on the health system,” said Wirth.

According to the firm, the fabric can be washed up to 50 times, does not have an odour and is not toxic for pregnant women. The clothing range, designed by Brazilian Alessandra Gold, is being tested in El Salvador. The company hopes to launch the line – a dress and a jumpsuit are planned – in the autumn, funding permitting. Maternova hopes to raise $500,000 for the project.

“Our focus came from talking to adolescent girls and women – what will they actually wear or use?” said Wirth. “Particularly in the markets we’re looking at in Latin America, skin-based repellent is fairly expensive per ounce. The nanotechnology is more user-friendly and more cost effective per use.”

The self-developed clothing line is a departure for Maternova, which was set up in 2012 as an online one-stop-shop for low-cost medical devices for neonatal and maternal health. The social enterprise works with university researchers, entrepreneurs and nonprofits to get new products that help mothers and babies into the hands of midwives in poorer countries.

“In the global health space there are a lot of scientists and public health professionals focused on specific innovations, which is terrific. But when it gets to the concept of a commercialisation platform, it’s a completely different way of thinking,” said Wirth. “It made sense to us that the products and innovations that are all used by the same end user – a midwife in the field –should be marketed and commercialised together. It’s just efficient.”

Maternova works like a distribution business, taking a margin of around 30 per cent on each product to cover operating and marketing costs. The company has made sales of $500,000 since its launch, and by its lights has reached 250,000 people in 40 countries, including in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Maternova’s customers include health ministries and global NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Rescue Committee, and the UN’s population fund. It has also worked with Circle of Health International in Syria.

The platform focuses on low-cost, simple technologies that are “more rugged and more sustainable” in developing countries, according to Cote. Customers can buy products from pregnancy through to birth, such as anaemia testing kits, obstetric kits and stick-on thermometers for newborns.

Although Maternova has attracted some angel investors, the biggest challenge to date has been funding, said the founders.

“A lot of the large foundations and impact funders are very focused on technological and scientific innovation, but not necessarily on financing the next steps,” said Wirth. “Once the technology is proven, how do people find out about it? How is it marketed? How is it sold?

“We know that it’s just not efficient or possible for every scientist or entrepreneur who comes up with a global health innovation to start their own company and try and market it to the world.”