Combining big data and breast milk: the successful bet of a Swiss SME

The exploitation of data changes a company’s business model. It involves a thorough transformation that mobilises the entire company. It is not just a one-off project; it is more of a journey.

Medela has been making this journey for several years now in an admirable way. This Swiss SME has undergone the necessary shift to put the exploitation of data at the heart of its business. At first sight, the breast pump industry – concerned as it is with small pumps that allow young mothers to extract milk and feed their children through a bottle – does not appear to be at the forefront of technology where data is concerned.

Yet the opportunity represented by the exploitation of data, once collected, requires a review of performance measures as well as the way in which business activities are viewed as a whole. Only then can entrepreneurs benefit from this opportunity in full.

The change in business model, that is to say how a company creates value, is only one part of the equation that makes up the digital transformation. It is accompanied by a change in the mental model, or the way the company and its employees perceive their mission. The measurement model must, therefore, also be adapted.

For transformation to succeed, it is essential to orchestrate the change of these three elements at the same time. Medela has done an excellent job grasping this and I would like to go into its approach in greater detail here.

1. A mobile app to increase and extend customer interaction

Medela initially launched a mobile app to help mothers – and by extension, fathers – around the time of the birth of their child. With MyMedela parents are offered advice throughout pregnancy and specifically on breastfeeding. This information is contextualised according to the time remaining before delivery. For example, three weeks before the scheduled birth, the app suggests that you pack your suitcase for the hospital and suggests a list of items to take.

This service meets a need: in a country like the United States, where Medela generates half of its turnover, the childcare network is not very developed. An app that provides ongoing advice helps young parents feel less alone.

It has been a success: MyMedela has already been downloaded almost 1 million times.

2. A connected device to simplify the collection of information

The second step was to launch a connected device, the Sonata breast pump:

Integration with the MyMedela application allows for the automatic tracking of the quantity of milk produced and the frequency of use. This information can be enriched by recording breastfeeding sessions, the changing of nappies, nap times and the weight and length of the child.

By combining all this information, a mother then has a complete dashboard on the nutrition and development of her child, which can also be easily shared with her paediatric nurse or her doctor.

If breastfeeding problems or the abnormal growth of the child are detected, valuable information is available for the doctor to make their diagnosis.

3. Use of this big data to develop the business model

Once the number of users has reached a critical size, we know that the company possesses a gold mine: thousands of sets of real-time data will be generated, providing indicators about new-born growth worldwide.

Moving from contextualised advice to advice based on the analysis of large volumes of data

In the current app, the advice offered is mainly related to time, for example to the fifth day after birth when MyMedela proposes combining breastfeeding with a bottle if necessary. In the future, depending on the volume of breast milk produced by the mother and the growth of the baby, the app may at the appropriate time suggest introducing baby bottles with formula.

The algorithms will be able to learn about thousands of cases and offer the optimal solution.

Collecting and analysing information about the nutrition and growth of thousands of babies opens up new prospects: the company will be in an optimal position to offer therapeutic solutions and to collaborate with hospitals and clinics to help babies who suffer from diseases.

The mental model and the measurement model must change to enable success

Becoming number one in the manufacture of breastfeeding products is probably the goal of the competition. An organisation that seeks to achieve this objective will not be able to fully benefit from the opportunities of this newly formed big data.

Without changing its mental model and measurement model, the company will continue to realise incremental innovation with respect to these products.

A new mental model must spread throughout the organisation. For Medela, this could be expressed as follows: I guarantee all mothers a period of harmonious breastfeeding.

The company is expanding its market by offering, through the MyMedela platform, complete support for the optimal breastfeeding of babies. It is not only fighting to increase the market share of its products.

Measurement model changes accordingly: instead of measuring, for example, the number of variants of its product launched each year, the company focuses on the frequency of use of MyMedela or on new solutions sold through the recommendations algorithm.

In conclusion, the stepwise development of an integrated and connected environment allows both new services to be offered and, above all, valuable data to be collected that modifies the position of the company in the market. The data opens up an enormous field of application thanks to the new opportunities offered by artificial intelligence.

By developing its business model as well as its mental model and measurement model, an SME can continue its growth not in a linear way but exponentially, a phenomenon that is observed for the moment mainly in players in the new economy.

You can also access my articles in French on the website of the newspaper LeTemps.

Additional suggested reads:

The article “To change your strategy, first change how you think” in Harvard Business Review that describes the concept of the three models provides very good examples.

I also recommend the excellent article in English by Nora McInerny Purmort in about her Medela user experience: “The New Generation of Breast Pump Might Not Actually Suck“.