Maternal health care startup works to advocate, empower women

Written by Lisa R. Baldi, Director of Strategic Communications at Penn State Berks.

When Talonda Rogers was expecting her first child 23 years ago, she experienced symptoms like blurred vision, excessive thirst and decreased fetal movement. She tried to communicate her concerns to her doctor but unfortunately, her worries were dismissed.

Her son, Brandon, was stillborn, and Rogers faced further complications from a C-section that left her with paralyzed lungs, a near diabetic coma and paralytic ileus, when intestinal muscles are paralyzed. She spent eight days in the hospital and believes she had gestational diabetes and preeclampsia that went undetected.

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Drawing from this experience, Rogers created The Fourth Trimester MAHMEE — a startup that advocates for pregnant and postpartum women with the help of support services.

After welcoming two daughters and devoting her time to being a stay-at-home mom until they went to school, Rogers decided to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. Rogers earned her licensed practical nursing certification, then associate, bachelor and master’s degrees in nursing. After working as a bedside nurse for 11 years, she switched to working as a nurse educator for the last five years.

During her first year of teaching, Rogers learned the statistics outlining the mortality rates disproportionately affecting Black women in childbirth compared to other groups in the United States. Rogers felt motivated to act and develop The Fourth Trimester MAHMEE.

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“It’s concerning to note that Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are experiencing a three- to four-times higher mortality rate than others in the United States, and this gap is growing rapidly,” she said. “The high number of maternal deaths during the postpartum period highlights the historical neglect of postpartum care. What’s even more distressing is that 84% of these deaths could have been prevented. This emphasizes the critical need for widespread systemic changes.”

After a referral from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners to the Berks LaunchBox in 2021, Rogers teamed up with Michelle Hnath, LaunchBox coordinator and entrepreneurial adviser. From there, Hnath led Rogers to the LaunchBox’s Idea TestLab accelerator program, which offers a six-week customer discovery course to prove out her idea, culminating in a final pitch event, where she took first place and earned $1,500 in funding.

The Berks LaunchBox’s Makerspace engineer, Jim Hong, worked with Rogers to create a prototype of a talking stuffed animal, designed to empower women to advocate for themselves during and after pregnancy. Martin Kozlowksi, Berks LaunchBox adviser, created two additional prototypes for the startup.

“I’ve been working hard to create a prototype for a talking stuffed animal. It’s designed to provide comfort and important health information to expecting and new mothers,” Rogers explained. “This new product aims to help women ask their health care providers important questions when they experience symptoms. It also aims to offer support for those facing postpartum mental health challenges. Jim Hong, with his exceptional engineering skills, played a crucial role in finalizing the design, recordings, safety features and overall functionality of my prototypes. When the animal’s paws, ears, belly and heart are pressed, it delivers audio information to support and uplift women during this significant phase of their lives.”

The Berks LaunchBox also connected Rogers with a graphic designer to create a company brochure, featuring Fourth Trimester MAHMEE’s services, including physical and mental health assessments, yoga and exercise classes, maternal education, “MAHMEE Mood Rooms” for relaxation and “MAHMEE Mobile” for transportation services. Additionally, Hnath assisted Rogers in developing a website.

Since Rogers began with the Berks LaunchBox, she’s also received a $3,000 I-corps mini-grant and two $500 “Grow Your Startup” grants, which provide funding support for entrepreneurs engaged in Berks LaunchBox programs. She’s also partnered with Alvernia University’s O’Pake Center and Lizette Epps, a nonprofit consultant and founder of Breadth of Hope, to register her nonprofit in Pennsylvania.

“Embarking on my journey with the Berks LaunchBox was transformative,” Rogers said. “I have been supported in crafting a compelling pitch, building a great website, creating a professional brochure and, with the help of the LaunchBox’s Jim Hong, building my first fully working electronic prototype. Their hands-on support from pitch rehearsals to website development not only nurtured my business, but also connected me with a vibrant community of entrepreneurs, opening doors I never imagined.”

The mission of Berks LaunchBox, located in Suite 105 of the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in downtown Reading, is to support economic development and entrepreneurship. An innovation hub of Penn State Berks, the LaunchBox connects local early-stage entrepreneurs to the support, resources and facilities that they need to build sustainable and scalable businesses with a viable plan for growth. Services include assistance with prototyping, conducting market research, and connecting with advisers. Berks LaunchBox offers entrepreneurship workshops, coworking space for startups, meetups focused on business development, a makerspace with 3D printers for prototyping and special youth programs.

Berks LaunchBox is supported by Invent Penn State — a commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success. For more information, visit berkslaunchbox.psu.edu or contact Erica Kunkel at 610-396-6221 or ELS5014@psu.edu.

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Berks Weekly
Berks Weekly
Berks Weekly is an independent and locally owned digital newspaper covering the City of Reading and Berks County. Subscribe today: berksweekly.com/subscribe
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