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HEALTH CARE

The Booming Business of Making Babies

Every year, millions of women embark on the often long and expensive journey of trying to have a baby. Here are some of the startups hoping to make the process easier.
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Every year millions of women embark on a deeply personal and emotional journey trying to conceive a baby. And many of them eventually wind up turning to science and technology to help make it happen--the fertility sector of healthcare is estimated to be at least a $3 billion dollar industry.

That fact helps explain why startups have jumped on the chance develop lower-cost interventions. Entrepreneurs have whipped up a slew of new data-collecting apps and devices, and--according to the numbers--consumers have readily embraced them. A recent study from Santa Clara-based cloud computing company Citrix found that the use of pregnancy monitoring applications accounts for 9 percent of total mobile health data traffic. Additionally, 47 percent of those who are using one or more health apps are using a pregnancy-related application. 

Of course, where there is business opportunity, there is plenty of competition. To stand out in the increasingly crowded fertility market, tech startups are focusing on three big strategies:

Uncovering Insights Faster 

The quantified self (QS) movement has shown patients how much they can learn about their health by tracking their own data. A slew of companies are applying the same principles to fertility. One of them is Glowan ovulation-tracking app. It uses data science to predict the best time for a woman to conceive. 

The free iOS and Android app tracks periods, basal body temperature (BBT)--which, when higher than normal, can reveal when a woman has just ovulated--and other metrics used to help determine fertile windows. It also uses that data to deduce whether or not a woman might have a medical condition keeping her from getting pregnant. Glow's head of marketing Jennifer Tye said that the company recently heard from a woman who had been using the app for a few weeks to try to conceive. 

The application alerted the woman that, based on her data, she might have a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome, and it advised her to see her physician. "The user said to us, 'Well it actually turns out I know I have PCOS. The funny thing is that it took nine years for me to be properly diagnosed with that,'" Tye said.

Glow launched the iPhone version of the app in August. The company has raised $6 million to date, according to CrunchBase. The most unique thing about Glow is its nonprofit segment, which is designed to act as a kind of insurance. The program, called Glow First, allows couples to contribute $50 to a pool for 10 months. If the couple does not conceive, it receives a portion of the money to put toward infertility treatments.

Experimenting With Connected Devices

One of the most burgeoning areas of consumer healthcare is the wearable device industry. "In almost all these categories in emerging [mobile health] areas, the people making the most money at first are the people that tend to sell a device with their app," Christopher Wasden, head of healthcare innovation at advisory firm PwC, said. With fertility monitoring, there are several opportunities to introduce devices that connect to apps for easier tracking, and that's potentially good for business. "It's easier to get consumers to pay for a tangible thing than it is just to pay for an app service," Wasden said.

Ovulation-calculating app Ovuline is one of the first companies to experiment with connected devices in a real way. Like Glow, Ovuline, which is available for iOS and Android devices for free, tracks fertility metrics. It also includes weight, activity, and sleep-tracking capabilities among others. And in an attempt to help women more easily capture the whole picture of their health, it integrates with seven Fitbit and Withings tracking devices. 

More than 200,000 have used the app, according Ovuline's website, and the company has raised $2.5 million, according to CrunchBase. 

While the company has not necessarily indicated that this is on Ovuline's roadmap, Wasden said that in the future the industry will see more companies coming out with their own fertility-tracking devices. This is one possible way startups that offer free apps could be able to make a profit, he said.

Offer a Cheaper Solution

Saving people money, not surprisingly, is a valuable differentiator. Women starting infertility treatments can expect to pay on average at least $5,000 out of pocket for office visits. On top of that, couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) pay more than $19,000 per treatment, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Urology

Before couples take that costly step, some companies hope to intervene with advanced medical devices that are significantly less expensive. For example, DuoFertility is an FDA-approved body monitor worn continuously by a woman to track body temperature. Women can enter additional information about periods, intercourse, and sleep in the DuoFertility computer program. The device's creator, Cambridge Temperature Concepts Limited, analyzes those numbers to let a woman know the best time for her to try to conceive. 

With a device that costs about $800, the Cambridge, U.K.-based startup is trying to market its method as being as effective as IVF for some. It aims to allow couples to conceive the natural way, but with help from continuous data tracking and advanced analysis. 

The company's founders tested the device in a peer-reviewed study of 242 couples that had qualified for IVF. The study, which appeared in European Obstetrics & Gynaecology found that 39 percent of women who used DuoFertility for one year became pregnant. This compares with a 28 percent average pregnancy rate from one cycle of IVF. 

The device has been in development since 2006 and was made available to consumers in 2009. The company has raised little over $3 million in funding from three Angel investor groups and from Qualcomm Ventures, according to TechCrunch.

The Future of Baby-Making Tech

Despite the fact that fertility tech companies have a ready and willing base of potential customers--making it one of the most attractive areas in mobile health technology--the startup niche is certainly not free from challenges. 

Like other healthcare startups, government regulation presents a formidable hurdle. Develop a fertility tracking app that's too detailed and "useful," and you teeter on the brink of peddling a diagnostic tool. Crossing that fine line will land a company in FDA-regulated territory.

"What the FDA has said with regard to the regulation of these mobile health devices and apps is that as the level of sophistication of the app increases, such that you're providing more direct guidance and direction to the patient on what they should do to change their behaviors, that increases the regulatory burden." Wasden said. "The great irony here is that entrepreneurs want to do everything they can to not increase that burden. But if you do that, then you create apps that are not very useful." 

As Glow Executive Chairman Max Levchin sees it, he has his work cut out for him. "There's this 20 percent of women that say oh, gosh, we think we're infertile. We gotta go see a doctor," Levchin said at a recent All Things D conference. "The real number--if you look at the hard bio data--real analysis suggests that it's more like two percent [that are clinically infertile]." 

Time will tell if these news companies can help to solve an age old problem with a healthy dose of data.  

Last updated: Apr 10, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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