In 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine lifted the "experimental label" from egg freezing procedures for women. Soon after, the reproductive service became one of the hottest new perks at companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google.
Still, egg-freezing remains mostly a Silicon Valley employee benefit--the procedure can run around $10,000 and usually is not covered by standard health insurance plans.
Co-founders Joanne Schneider and Gina Bartasi are on a mission to make the service more affordable--and common--for consumers and their corporate health benefit plans.
Their 20-person New York City startup Kindbody, which began fully operating in October and has raised $20 million to date, offers a range of fertility services, including egg freezing and in vitro fertilization (IVF), as well as mental health sessions and wellness coaching. The company's bigger goal is to rethink everything about the experience of going to a fertility clinic--from the look and feel of it to the lack of transparency around costs.
To start, the millennial-centric company, which is currently leasing an existing clinic in Manhattan's Midtown, focuses heavily on aesthetics. Its second brick-and-mortar facility built from scratch will open in Flatiron this spring--with muted pastel colors, soft lights, and big leafy plants--looks like it belongs in the pages of Architectural Digest; a fleet of pop-up mobile fertility clinics resemble mini, stylish boutiques; and Kindbody's nurses and doctors are, of course, Instagram-savvy. (Instagram is a prime place for finding the women who are Kindbody's target customer--the company has spent somewhere in the "six figures" to date on ads there.)
"We don't run this like a classic healthcare company...because we would say healthcare hasn't been done right in the past," says co-founder and head of product Schneider, who previously worked as a product lead at Flatiron Health, a healthcare technology company that focuses on oncology.
Co-founder and CEO Bartasi previously founded Progyny, a fertility benefits company. In her years of speaking with employers--and women at dinner parties--she honed in on a set of common concerns: Fertility treatments are expensive, the costs aren't transparent, and the patient experience is usually lacking. Kindbody wants to solve all of these problems.
Reworking the experience and the price
The company says Kindbody patients enjoy much more frequent and direct communication with its nurses and doctors than they would get at a traditional clinic, plus a higher level of service. In January, one of the company's physician assistants Hina Ahmed Instagrammed her trip to pick up a patient's medications in a snowstorm; in another video, Ahmed provided "moral support" as a patient gave herself an injection at home.
In addition to giving the traditional clinic experience a makeover, Kindbody also aims to bring down the very high costs of fertility services. The company offers egg freezing for around $6,000--a little more than half the average price. Kindbody says it accomplishes this a couple of different ways. Because patients can schedule appointments online, the company has largely automated away the front desk staff (only one person handles phone calls).
Kindbody also relies more on general obstetrician-gynecologists than specialists. With only around 1,300 reproductive endocrinologists (REI) based in the U.S.--the specialists that perform egg retrieval procedures--they command high prices. So the company has the OB-GYNs do all the necessary work-up prior to the procedure and a physician assistant do the monitoring and ultrasound rather than have the REI do all the work. Bartasi claims that the savings are around 40 percent as a result.
Dr. Paula Brady, an REI at Columbia University Fertility Center, expressed some skepticism over Kindbody's division of tasks. Brady argues that it's important for the REI to be part of the whole process from the monitoring to seeing the development of follicles.
"It's not like a car where there's going to be a lot of factories and competitors. This is a human task--it's clinical decision making," she says. Still, Brady supports the idea of giving women more information. "Awareness of reproductive aging is very important--we get inconsistent messaging from the press because we see celebrities getting pregnant at 50, and it's a miracle baby."
Kindbody aims to provide transparency with its clients. In addition to listing prices for services, the company's website offers fertility data and tools, such as a calculator for patients to estimate how many eggs they need for a successful pregnancy. Clinicians are also upfront that the success rate is not guaranteed, says Schneider.
"At the end of the day, we're here to help you have all the data you need to make the best decision for yourself," says Schneider.
A more common corporate perk
By the end of 2019, Kindbody aims to have 15 percent of its business come from corporate clients that want to offer fertility benefits to their employees; within three years Bartasi wants to see that number jump to 50 percent. She says the company has already heard from Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller law, accounting, and consulting businesses. Prices for corporate clients will vary depending on the size of the business.
Only 4 percent of U.S. employer health insurance plans cover egg freezing for nonmedical reasons, according to Society for Human Resource and Management's employee benefits survey last year. Twenty-five percent of these plans cover IVF services.
With more companies becoming self-insured, they have a strong incentive to personalize their healthcare packages for employees. Thanks to more analytics tools and surveys, employers can figure out exactly what kind of coverage employees want and need, says Vin DiDonna, director of benefit consulting from Namely, an HR technology company that services mid-sized companies.
To be sure, the move to pay for employees to freeze their eggs has been met with skepticism, particularly directed at tech firms. Critics say companies like Facebook and Google are sending the wrong message that women should put work before family and that they can't have both at the same time. Plus, freezing one's eggs isn't a surefire method for getting pregnant later in life. The success rate for using IVF to conceive is only around 40 percent for women under 35.
"We shouldn't be asking women to bear these risks just so they can have a family. We should be putting in place policies that make sure women have equal pay for the work that they do, to make sure that they don't hit glass ceilings, that there are family- friendly policies in workplaces, and that we're not assuming that women are the sole or the major caretakers for children," wrote Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, in an excerpt featured in Wired.
Kindbody's founders don't buy the criticism about encouraging women to prize work over family. The most common reason women look into egg freezing isn't due to career goals, it's because "these employees have not found the right partner [yet]," Bartasi says.
Kindbody isn't the only startup in the $2.1 billion fertility industry aiming to provide more affordable services. Earlier this month, Extend Fertility, another lower-cost egg freezing service, raised $15 million from Regal Healthcare Capital Partners. There's also egg-freezing startup Prelude Fertility, sperm storage startup Dadi, and fertility testing service Modern Fertility, among others.
Meanwhile, Kindbody is ramping up its expansion: it plans to add 38 more staffers this year, and soon add locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as offer in-network gynecology services, such as pap smears and birth control.
Schneider says the emphasis for Kindbody's services will always be about being proactive about your health.
"We're professional women, we're planners, we think ahead."