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Fertility tech has promise, still long way to go

Fertility tracking apps are just one recent tech development. Kate Clark, a reporter for TechCrunch, says there's much more on the horizon.

Current trends have led to an influx of startups and established businesses investing in fertility technology, and though this is an encouraging prospect, there are still a lot of unknowns.

Kate Clark, a journalist for TechCrunch who has written about technology in the infertility field, joined “Take Care” to discuss the tech and businesses she’s seen, why this new interest is happening and where we’re headed.

Women’s health has long been lacking in technological innovations, Clark said, largely because there hasn’t been enough investment prior to recently.

“Because there wasn’t a lot of capital going into this space, there just wasn’t the ability to have great progress or innovation because the founders … weren’t getting the capital that they needed to build great businesses there,” Clark said.

It wasn’t until the past couple years that Clark started to see venture capitalists putting their dollars into women’s health, including fertility tech and feminine care products. She said the reason why is admittedly a little unclear, but it likely has a lot to do with increased education leading big investors, especially men, learning more about infertility, what was typically seen as an uncomfortable subject.

“Men have become more comfortable discussing it, and unfortunately, venture capitalists are mostly men,” she said. “We’re seeing more men become comfortable and knowledgeable, and I think, probably with fertility, that has something to do with it.”

And that investment has led to a lot of new technology being developed, Clark said, which she is following with her coverage. For example, information platform Progyny is about to go public, making it the first initial public offering (IPO) in the fertility tech space.

“I think [that] will be a really good test of investors’ appetite for these businesses,” Clark said.

In addition to Progeny, Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal, recently co-founded Glow, which provides fertility information and a fertility app that helps to track a woman’s period. There are also companies rethinking IVF, or in vitro fertilization, and egg-freezing processes to make those services cheaper, but Clark said that has yet to show significant progress.

In cases like these and more, it’s startups driving the innovations, which Clark said is pushing established companies to do more in the fertility market as well.

“The startups in the space are really pushing forward the incumbents,” she said. “Part of the reason that happened is they’re seeing innovation from these startups that are really driving the conversation forward.”

"There's certainly no downsides to having a lot of smart people thinking about it and having a lot of money going into it."

If startups can make certain services cheaper, like egg freezing, that may lead to established businesses being forced to lower their prices. This will benefit the customer, but Clark cautioned that she hasn’t seen any business find a viable, cheaper way to perform such services as of yet.

Though Clark said she doesn’t know specific numbers, it’s clear infertility is becoming a large market that is having impacts on the rest of Silicon Valley.

“Anytime that an investor is going to be interested in a market, they’re going to ask you what’s the total addressable market, and if it’s not in the billions of dollars, I think they’ll probably just turn the other direction,” Clark said.

Those investors are likely becoming more interested because people are rightly realizing that it’s a very real issue that affects people of all genders, Clark said. It’s about time tech industries caught up with what has been a need for a while, she said.

“It’s an issue that affects everyone, so I think it makes a lot of sense to me why investors would be interested,” she said. “It’s surprising that it has taken so long for it to become something that you can actually bring up in San Francisco tech community and that people would actually be interested in having a conversation about it.”

Trends in pregnancy have been a driver of change as well. More women are waiting until their 30s to get pregnant, which is prompting a growing desire for services like egg freezing, Clark said.

“Certainly, there’s no epidemic of infertility. It’s not that,” she said. “There’s just new trends as part of our culture that will drive things like this.”

But ultimately, this new trend is hard to fully explain.

“It’s just hard to know how much of each of these factors comes into play,” she said. “Another factor is there are more women investors, too, so that could be part of the overall conversation, but it’s hard to say what is really driving it the most.”

With so much new tech on the market or coming soon, Clark cautioned that it’s important to remain vigilant and not get caught up in flashy tech or familiar branding.

“Be skeptical when you see fertility companies that are, say, tailored to millennials or something like that,” she said. “At the end of the day, good branding doesn’t really mean anything. … You have to learn more about the business.”

Another concern is privacy. With all this new tech, a common question among companies large and small is how to go about protecting what is considered very sensitive data, Clark said. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of gaps to fill in the privacy arena.

“Every Silicon Valley company or any tech company, really, this year has kind of had a wakeup call and realizing that that is something that consumers do care about,” she said. “In reality, there’s still a lot of work to be done to meet the new expectations that people have about their data and protecting that from everyone.”

Clark said what she’s seeing is just the start of infertility tech, and we are far from the peak of what’s to come.

“It’s going to keep growing, I think, for several more years,” she said. “Most of the businesses that I’ve covered are pretty early in their life cycle, which means they’ve got a lot of growth left to do.”

All that growth can sound confusing, and though it’s hard to tell exactly where we’re headed, Clark is optimistic for what this new investment and tech can mean for women and others struggling with infertility.

“I think it’ll make things better for women or anyone dealing with fertility issues because there will be more options available,” she said. “Having more available and having really more people thinking really hard about how to make these experiences better is a net positive.”

And that, in turn, will have ripple effects across the industry, leading to advancements that will help everyone.

“It will just drive change across the industry, and there’s certainly no downsides to having a lot of smart people thinking about it and having a lot of money going into it,” she said.