On March of Dimes Innovation Fund:

A Conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Cherot

Stephanie Winans
CEO and Co-founder
A woman looking the left.
March 22, 2024

A long-standing champion in maternal and infant health, The March of Dimes has broken the mold with its Innovation Fund. With Iron Health as the initial investment of the Innovation Fund, we are particularly excited to share our conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Cherot, President and CEO of March of Dimes. Stephanie Winans, CEO and Co-founder of Iron Health, discussed the inception, objectives, and effects of this initiative, and what’s to come with Dr. Cherot.

Watch the interview on YouTube, or read the full transcript below.

Here are some highlights:

Inception of the Innovation Fund

Recognizing the need for rapid innovation in women’s healthcare, the Innovation Fund arose from a collective desire to accelerate the translation of technologies into tangible solutions for patients. By investing in—and advocating for—women's health, the organization stands at the intersection of data-driven research, solutions-based innovation, and taking a multifaceted approach to effecting change.

Impact and Trends in Women's Health Innovation

Reflecting on the year since the launch of the Innovation Fund, Dr. Cherot highlighted key trends and areas of excitement in women's health innovation, including addressing gaps in the standard of care, particularly in areas like postpartum support for chronic conditions. Investment in our company, Iron Health, along with Raydiant Oximetry, and PyrAmes underscored March of Dimes' commitment to driving impact through innovative solutions.

Expanding Mission Horizons

Dr. Cherot emphasized the importance of aligning investments with the organization's core mission, while addressing disparities in outcomes based on race, geography, and socioeconomic status. By leveraging data, research, and a health equity lens, March of Dimes aims to continue to make meaningful contributions to women's health beyond traditional boundaries.

Driven by a shared commitment to improving outcomes for women, both Dr. Cherot and Stephanie Winans expressed optimism about the future of women's health innovation. The dialogue served as a testament to the power of innovation within non-profit organizations and the transformative role it plays in shaping the future of healthcare.

Stephanie: Thank you for the time as always, Liz. To introduce and set up the conversation here, everyone knows Dr. Elizabeth Cherot, President and CEO of March of Dimes, and also the master of the March of Dimes Innovation Fund (for the unofficial title), and why we’re chatting today. Stephanie Winans here, the CEO and co-founder of Iron Health. We love our work with Dr. Cherot and March of Dimes. It's hard for me to believe, but it's been a full year since the Innovation Fund launch—which was also coincidentally the week that I moved into the seat formally to build Iron Health. It’s really exciting to talk about where the Innovation Fund is a year later.

Our top question is around the ideation and thought process of developing the Innovation Fund—what the decision point or impetus was.  From my perspective, I’ve worked in some pretty creative environments with not-for-profits and this is really innovative, it really is something different. So, I’m curious to hear more about the thought process around that and how you got here.

Dr. Cherot: Stephanie, thanks for having me. So I love thinking of myself as the mastermind behind this, but it was really something that the March of Dimes thought about really particularly and had the right pieces of the puzzle to launch this. First, I'll say March of Dimes has an 85 year history of solving some of the most complex problems. [The organization] started with FDR asking all Americans to solve polio and fund research—that's at the core of what we do. We solved it. Having a nonprofit that actually got to a solution is kind of incredible. Then we pivoted towards birth defects, eventually preterm birth, then the maternal and infant health care crisis, and really focusing on preterm birth, infant death, and maternal morbidity and mortality. 

Because of the staggering numbers that affect families today, this is at its core. We have research and data that we love to produce, for example the report cards. We have a lot of education—both [for] patients and providers—and then we do a ton of advocacy. 

I think of the Innovation Fund as one of the programs we do. Just as we do programs in mobile health units, or doing work with doulas, this is something that drives our mission of ending preventable deaths and morbidity for moms and their babies.

About a year ago, as you know, funders were excited about getting technologies into the hands of patients sooner, and how we could drive innovation to commercialization faster. The board approved [the Innovation Fund] in December of 2021. Two thousand and twenty-two was all about building it and then we launched in September [2022]. We have an investment committee, some amazing volunteer donors who also are in this [venture] world, and we also have our medical side committee who are fantastic supporters of the March of Dimes. So, that's how it got started. 

I was lucky enough to join in January [of 2022] and was thrilled to take over the Innovation Fund. As a healthcare provider for the last almost 30 years, I was keen to advance solutions that could get in mom's and baby's hands sooner. 

I got to join a board meeting to watch them close on your company, so that was super exciting to see—and to watch it come to fruition. Now, today, you're helping patients. It's super exciting to see the full circle of something that started with ideation and went all the way to fruition.

“It's super exciting to see the full circle of something that started with ideation and went all the way to fruition.” - Dr. Elizabeth Cherot

Stephanie Winans: It is really exciting. I haven't heard you say that before, by the way, that you think about it as another program. It makes perfect sense to me, except creating a venture fund is not nothing. I am not risk averse—I love building new things and I love building hard things—but, having a not-for-profit approve and then be able to stand up and operationalize a venture fund is radically different. You've got the right people in the room; you guys have done a fantastic job. Obviously I'm very biased as the first child of the Innovation Fund, but it's not nothing. So, when I think about how powerful it is to hear you describe it as another program or focus area for March of Dimes, [I have] a lot of respect for all of the work and all of the support that you guys have to really get it off the ground effectively and not just [with] Iron Health, but [the] other companies that are doing amazing things.

Dr. Cherot: It was a ton of work for March of Dimes to do and in a space that they weren't in before. Not for nothing, it was a lot of work, but it's also the commitment of the volunteers who stepped forward and embraced this idea of moving forward with these technologies. 

"We see a ton in the women's healthcare space developing, it was only smart of them to lean in to say, let's accelerate." - Dr. Elizabeth Cherot

There's a lot of time and effort that is put into this, not just volunteering, but within the structure of March of Dimes. The March of Dimes constituency has also been remarkable as well to understand why we are doing it this way and coming at it from a different angle to really try and move the needle in women's health. We widened our aperture, but in the right way for a new program. It brings us current.

Stephanie Winans: I love that and agree. You mentioned a comment around technologies and new things coming down the pike in women's health. If we think about the last year-ish since the launch of the Innovation Fund, what trends are you seeing that excite you? Any notable movement in the last year?

Dr. Cherot: There's so much to talk about here. I would say part of this is trying to look at what gaps are in the current standard of care. So, I'm immediately going to talk about Iron Health and thinking about taking care of patients [when they’re] at that six week mark after delivery: how do I help this diabetic who was preeclamptic lose weight or continue to follow her in that postpartum space? Does she need a coordinator of care and primary care? Does she need behavioral health? All of those aspects of care, those are things that we see as a big gap. We know where the poor outcomes are. It's in that space. 

"We know change is needed to improve that faster. To improve [the experience of] moms and babies, we thought Iron Health was kind of the obvious choice." - Dr. Elizabeth Cherot

We also wanted to make sure we’re aligning with our mission of trying to prevent some of the worst outcomes—to reduce adverse outcomes that are driven by non-medically indicated cesarean sections—so the idea of our second company, called Raydiant Oximetry, is focused on fetal oxygenation levels—that was the next investment. Then our third [investment] was PyrAmes, which is a continuous blood pressure monitor for the newborn. Think about an infant in the NICU that would [normally] have an invasive monitor, now there is something that can actually be worn externally—it's wearable—to get continuous blood pressures rather than doing something that invasively can [cause] harm. I really love that that was our third company. When I start thinking about preterm birth, what technologies or diagnostics [are needed], I think maternal health is ripe for that space. I think about the data that hasn't been shared that needs to be shared in that space; what I see is potential white space. When I look at it as an OB, [I think about how] data has been collected in so many other specialties, why not ours? [And, thinking] how we could move the needle, that's where I start to get excited. 

"Whether it's preeclampsia or preterm birth, both of those, for instance, have [solutions] that are out there that just need that boost to get to fruition; I think of those two things as having the biggest impact." - Dr. Elizabeth Cherot

Stephanie Winans: It's interesting when I hear you talk on that last part, I hear the intersection between the March of Dimes focus and advocacy with the Innovation Fund and where you place investment. I see it just in our own commercialization, conversations with Iron Health and what it means to the market, but from a more macro standpoint, seeing [March of Dimes] stand up an Innovation Fund and invest in these types of companies also makes a statement in the women's health industry to other women's health investors and non-women's health traditional investors that are really looking at this as a white space opportunity because I echo your sentiment, why not us? We don't talk about that often [of] the ripple effect to the market, but the March of Dimes name really means something. 

"It's exciting to me to think about what you have done to further your own mission by adding in this program, but also the ripple effect to the market. What does it say to other investors about March of Dimes investing in these specific pockets in women's health?" - Stephanie Winans

Dr. Cherot: I thought we were going to go down the advocacy [route] and be like, yeah, we're also really trying to advocate at the same time, extending Medicaid in that postpartum for a full year, [at] every state level. Because we know how impactful that could be. And just as we are trying to raise the alarm and be the voice for so many, whether it's advocating on the Hill, I think this does the same thing in the venture capital space is to say: We're leaning in here because we think the… healthcare that women are facing today needs attention. 

If the March of Dimes is doing this, we hope we're bringing recognition to others that this is a space that others should start to look into—whether they're a not-for-profit or whether they're a different venture capital [organization]. We hope more money pours into this, to you, to others that we invest in, but also our fellow venture capital funds are now talking to us too in a totally different light, which gets exciting. You start thinking, wow we might actually solve for some of these complex problems

We are in it for the long haul. What we do is bring our name, our caché, but also our attention to [investments in women’s health] where we [all] should be focusing.

I hope that's what we're doing, because we're trying to improve the health of all moms and babies. So, this aspect of it has to happen; we want to get traction in the field too, [and] we want others to lean in.

Stephanie Winans: It's kind of a perfect positive storm. I can’t think of a better way to say that, to have the group that sits on the most data and research, [and] the line of programs, it's maybe more natural of an addition for [March of Dimes] than people think. I like thinking about that— the data and research powers decision-making and venture that is making a statement is really aligned with the advocacy and lobbying position [of March of Dimes].

Dr. Cherot: We do a ton of research within our prematurity research centers. We fund a ton of research across the country, which is super exciting to see. [The research goes] from there to our data report cards, which then informs where we should be leaning into—whether it's on education and/or advocacy. We're in NICUs across the country. NICU Family Support is one of our hallmark programs. The Innovation Fund is very similar. We're in almost 80 neonatal intensive care units across the country with boots-on-the-ground people. Think logistically if we have a startup, how we could really get that into the hands of people in the postpartum space. 

I get excited about making those connections and those dots because women's health is really begging for something that [venture capital] could coalesce around. There's tons of point solutions out there that we need to solidify and stretch and try to get the numbers to change. 

Stephanie Winans: You're good at it; you connect the dots well. So, it's a good place for you to be and a good place for March of Dimes to be.

Dr. Cherot: It's always trying to make sure that we're influencing in the right place. That we're bringing everybody along with a story or what we think could have the most impact. March of Dimes has always tried to make sure we're based in the community—listening to the voices and the stories behind the data; I think that's super important. As you get more patients involved, I [would love to hear] the stories behind your solution and how [you’re helping to] move the needle. It's one patient at a time, but eventually will have so much more impact on such a bigger scale as you gain traction. I think about how meaningful that is and what the March of Dimes sees is that this is something that we can then make sustainable and scalable.

… it's one patient at a time, but it eventually will have so much more impact on such a bigger scale as you take traction....the March of Dimes sees ... that this is something that we can then make sustainable and scalable. It gets super exciting." - Dr. Elizabeth Cherot

 Stephanie Winans: One thing I get asked about usually from startups, sometimes from general people in the women's health community, investors, etc. is around the March of Dimes mission aperture. You touched on [it] for a second—focusing your attention in the right space and using the data that you have to really both stay true to mission, but also look at what drives maternal fetal outcomes. As we think about women's health inclusion of a more comprehensive look backward before pregnancy, and then you mentioned kind of post-birth [and]what happens there, how do you view the mission extension of March of Dimes as it relates to comprehensive women's health?

Dr. Cherot: It's a different perspective, this is something new for us. We've really focused on preterm birth or birth defects, or at providing support for adverse perinatal outcomes. That's where I see cardiovascular disease [and] mental health being part of that, that's where we start to [ask] does it fit into those buckets when we first evaluate programs? 

We obviously want innovative companies. Iron Health had a great structure and a winning team, [so] we were very excited. But, when you start looking at where we could have the biggest impact for some of these clinical outcomes [such as] ongoing disparities in terms of outcomes based on race, geography, or socioeconomic status for women, those are the lens that we think about for innovations that we could lean into.

Our aperture could be super wide [so] we have to be really careful not to go too crazy. When we really think about what would have the most impact for women's health to end preventable death and morbidity and mortality, that helps kind of frame it. 

We use a health equity lens as well [which] helps us think about how we could be more impactful. There's an inadequate investment in developing some of those diagnostics or treatments or care models. That's how we approach it. 

I think about this country having some of the worst outcomes—that deaths have only increased. Preterm birth is going in the wrong direction. You look at all of that and use that data, [and] then these investments become kind of obvious for us. But I would also say our aperture is wide, but it's not that wide. 

Stephanie Winans: That's the perfect explanation. That's the question I get asked, in the context of: help me understand Iron Health's impact on maternal and fetal medicine or birth outcomes; help me understand the March of Dimes investment. And then it becomes a moment for me to explain what the power of understanding around the drivers of those things are, which is also good for the market to understand—that there are a number of solutions. 

When you take a macro look, there are real earlier impact drivers as well, and things that feel tangential that are actually very directly responsible.

Dr. Cherot: I think about chronic conditions and how we aren't addressing those when we look at maternal healthcare. So we think of this nine month time period as impactful. It's actually in between pregnancies, we could be incredibly impactful. We already know that [the] postpartum period in mental health is a huge [problem] We know access to care is a problem. So as a provider, it makes perfect sense. When a woman has one chronic condition, her preterm birth skyrockets; it accelerates even higher when you have two chronic conditions. We know that making those chronic conditions stable before you conceive … at least as a provider having done this for 30 years, thinking about [...] what could be the most impactful thing is [...] having hypertension well controlled, diabetes well controlled, or mental health not necessarily controlled, but having access to it is huge. Those are spaces that March of Dimes should be accelerating.

Stephanie Winans: By the way, providers [have] never asked me that question. It is that provider lens that you have that drives so much value, obviously to March of Dimes, but to the market too, so thank you for sharing that.

Dr. Cherot: It's a different viewpoint from here, as the sixth president, they've never had a provider. And obviously I'm not a pediatrician, so I will let you know a lot of stuff I have to like, okay, I have to ask somebody. And we have such incredible volunteers here, it's amazing. And that's part of our reach and our impact, which has just been, which again, goes back to like what FDR did: went out and asked everybody to donate. And so, it’s not just donating money, but time—it's incredibly valuable, probably more valuable in a certain aspect [...] I love that [it] galvanizes everybody together. 

Stephanie Winans: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. And I know we're over time, but this has been really exciting for me to actually have you and I dig in on a lot of things, but actually talking about the perspective of the fund and your perspective on it. This has been a pleasure for me.

Dr. Cherot: No, totally, that was great. So maybe we should do this more often. We probably could have our own podcast.

Stephanie Winans: Let’s do it! I love it.