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Start-up promising a revolutionary $1,000 breast pump has gone dark, leaving behind many unhappy customers

Key Points
  • This $1,000 venture-backed breast pump start-up no longer offers the product on its web site and is not responding to its customers or CNBC's inquiries.
  • Users are upset, and have told CNBC that the device doesn't work and they never got a refund.
  • Naya Health's CEO previously told media that it struggled because of a blind spot in the male-dominated venture capital industry.
Janice Alvarez, CEO of Naya Health.
Source: Naya Health

Tracy Pugh, an event planner based in Oakland, Calif., had a hard time breastfeeding her second child. So, when her third baby was just a few weeks old, she decided to invest about $1,000 into a "smart" breast pump from a Silicon Valley-backed start-up called Naya Health.

Pugh ordered the Naya device in time for her to return to work, expecting it to arrive within two weeks as advertised. But she told CNBC in a phone interview that she kept getting notices of shipping delays, which concerned her as she had some international travel coming up. (Her old pump required regular charging and converters, while the Naya did not, which was the major reason why she bought it.)

Once it did arrive, it took Pugh about a week to figure out how to use it, as it used a water-based flange rather than an air-based one like most mass-market pumps. When she got the hang of it, it worked pretty well. But that all changed when water started to leak into her breast milk, contaminating it. Pugh realized that she needed a replacement part called a Breast Shield Assembly or BSA while she was abroad so she could continue pumping. Otherwise, she might not be able to nurse her baby when she returned from traveling.

So Pugh reached out to the company and offered to pay any amount of money to get an expedited shipment of the part. "I didn't have my other pump with me, as I was reliant on that point on my Naya," she told CNBC. She asked it to be rushed, and shot customer service a desperate note saying that she had "no pump and no baby."

Pugh never received the part. She ended up weaning her daughter much sooner than she expected.

No response from the company

The story of Naya Health's formation is right out of Silicon Valley lore.

The company's founder, Janica Alvarez, is a former researcher at Genentech who saw an opportunity to develop a less bulky and more comfortable pump after breastfeeding her own children. Her husband, Jeff, a mechanical engineer with a background in surgical robotics, tinkered with a traditional pump in their garage and prototyped a model that resembled something that might come from Apple, stylish and white. The pair moved forward with the company, and made a splash with a hilarious marketing video, "if men breastfed. "

But Naya, which is now backed by almost $5 million in funding from angel investors and venture funds including Tandem Capital, apparently struggled to raise further financing, according to stories in The New Yorker and Bloomberg.

Alvarez told CNBC in September of 2017 that she was living off minimum wage to get the company off the ground. Despite that, she said, she'd booked more than $1 million in sales so far and put the market opportunity at $30 billion.

After that story, CNBC heard from two unhappy customers who complained that their pumps did not work. One said she felt victimized by the company. They offered to introduce us to several other moms who felt the same way.

Now, the company has gone dark.

As of October 2018, the product page where Naya sells its pump appears to be defunct. The customer service support page is dead and texts to the support number were not returned. When CNBC emailed a press contact email, it returned an "undeliverable response" error. An email to a contact listed as support resulted in an auto-response: "we are experiencing a high volume of emails and text messages right now." Alvarez did not respond to several contact attempts, and investors Astia Angels and Tandem Capital were not immediately able to provide contact information or an explanation as to what happened to Naya.

Naya Health's Smart Pump
Mark Lennihan | AP

Pugh is not the only mother complaining about the Naya pump. Several other women told CNBC their pump stopped working after a few months and received lackluster responses from customer service after repeated calls and messages.

Nancy Murphy from Alameda, Calif., was surprised to discover blood in her milk after using the pump. She later learned that she had burst a blood vessel because the vacuum setting was too high — a problem she'd had never had with the three other pumps she'd used. She switched to a Spectra pump after the incident and the problem didn't occur again.

Another user, Cheryl Sew Hoy, bought the Naya when she was breastfeeding her first child because she wanted a high-quality pump to help her get back to work. Sew Hoy is an angel investor and advisor to start-ups. Given her background, she wanted support a fellow female founder.

But when she received her pump, the lights flashed once and then it stopped working entirely. She texted customer service every other day for months, and received an occasional response that they'd get back to her. But the company never sent her a replacement device.

The women all described the Naya as a major investment, as it's an expensive pump compared to the alternatives including the Spectra (which retails around $160) and the Medela (as low as $199). Many of these pumps are considered hospital-grade and are covered by insurance.

The complaints extend to Naya's Facebook page, which hasn't been updated by the company since June. One woman wrote that month that the "pump stopped working and I'm desperate to be able to pump so I can go into work," and another shared that hers was leaking water. One user wrote that she invested more than $1,000 into the pump and never got a response when it didn't arrive.

The company's Twitter account is protected, meaning nobody can see it unless they are approved by the account owner. On its Instagram, more women are sharing more complaints about problems with the pump in the comments section, including that they received "no response and no refund." A Better Business Bureau listing for the company says it has received 23 complaints.

A Kickstarter page where Alvarez raised more than $100,000 for a new smart bottle is also filled with comments from users asking for an update on whether they'd ever receive them. There are no responses on the page for the last six months.

A higher standard

Investors say that women's health companies like Naya do need more funding. Without that, companies can experience challenges with manufacturing and execution.

But they also stress that medical-technology companies need to meet a higher standard than their counterparts in consumer retail once they start shipping products. Failure can have more serious health and lifestyle consequences for users.

"This is an empowering consumer technology for women, but they're complex medical devices, too," said Nina Kjellson, a biopharma and medical-technology investor at Canaan (breast pumps are considered regulated medical devices by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration).

"Entrepreneurs need to solve for both, and capital is available if they're ready to execute," she added. Kjellson pointed to another new breast pump product, dubbed Willow, which has raised more than $42 million in capital and is getting rave reviews.

Sew Hoy, the start-up advisor, has given up trying to get her money back or a replacement device. But the company's silence frustrates her.

"I wish the company would just apologize," she said. "Everyone makes mistakes."

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Willow breast pump is a game changer for breastfeeding moms