The promise and perils of new fertility entrepreneurs

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This report was supported by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the City University of New York.

France Brunel, who is 36, first considered freezing her eggs after ending a two-year relationship in 2018. She’s not sure she wants children, especially if she remains single. and she knows that freezing eggs doesn’t guarantee her a baby. . But she felt it was the best chance she had to preserve the option. “I don’t want to regret it at thirty-nine – if I meet someone and want kids then, to say, ‘Shit, I should have frozen my eggs,’ she said.

Brunel lives in New York City, where she runs an innovation strategy company while studying to become a practitioner in Ayurvedic medicine. About two years ago, she started seeing ads for Kindbody, the fertility services franchise, on her Instagram feed. While attending a healthcare conference, she spotted a Kindbody van parked outside; inside the van, she received a basic fertility screening, free of charge. She later visited Kindbody’s ground floor studio in the Flatiron District, a loft-like space that once housed an upscale Mexican restaurant. There, she underwent a series of blood tests and a follicle count. (Each follicle has an egg that has the potential to mature, with the help of hormonal stimulation.)

The Flatiron flagship, on the same block as a lingerie and hobby store, can almost sound like a downtown boutique. There are displays of chia face oil and roll-on perfume bottles in the sunny waiting room, which is full of blond woods and pops of color. “It feels like entering the squadron when we go. Everything is pink and yellow, ”Brunel said. She noted “cool matcha turmeric latte powders” and “millennial brands that retail to all millennial venues,” like spa chain The Well. “It’s very cheesy, Instagrammable, but it’s about owning your future and being in control,” Brunel told me. “It’s – it’s empowering. “

Kindbody’s engaging environment and upbeat message compares favorably with any notion of a traditional fertility clinic, which might conjure up a dismal beige waiting room full of deflated couples. By giving infertility an airy and stylish backdrop, Kindbody and her peers aim to destigmatize the industry, much like Thinx underwear has done for periods of time, with its ubiquitous advertisements on the New York City subway. The aesthetic extends beyond the clinical space. Mosie Baby, maker of DIY insemination kits, wraps their products in a familiar bouquet of saturated pastels. The Legacy Home Sperm Freezing Kit comes in packaging that is suitable for a hand poured soy candle.

In the United States, where the average age at marriage and at first birth continues to rise, especially in coastal cities like San Francisco and New York, where women have their first child at thirty-two and thirty-one, respectively, an estimated eight to fifteen percent of heterosexual couples will experience infertility. When you add same-sex couples and single patients hoping to become parents, as well as people with inherited genetic diseases or cancer, the demand could reach 1.1 million cycles per year, according to an estimate by David Sable. (Sable, a former reproductive endocrinologist, is now a portfolio manager overseeing “a venture capital fund focused on reproductive medicine.”)

Today’s fertility entrepreneurs represent a new proactive attitude towards reproduction, centered on preventative treatments during the most fertile years. This change opens up a potentially unlimited market, as Lucy van de Wiel, associate researcher at the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge, and author of “Freezing fertility, “told me.” You don’t have to wait for people to become infertile and then look for a solution, “she said. Instead,” you can basically tell women that they need to manage their fertility, and they need your services to do that. ”Anticipating regrets – Brunel’s“ Damn, I should’ve frozen my eggs ”moment – is essential to the business model. If the old goal were of have a baby, taking into account the time lost, the new objective is to make fertility, from any age.

With multiple locations across the United States, Kindbody may be best known for parking their bright yellow pickup truck in high traffic corners and offering free fertility tests to passers-by. Founder and CEO Gina Bartasi points to the van as a symbol of the future of healthcare: practical, easily accessible and designed around the customer, who can have a fertility check-up at lunchtime. Bartasi cited SoulCycle and Drybar, with their strong and recognizable branding, as inspirations for Kindbody.

“When I go to Soulcycle I can be tired and cold, and I walk in and inevitably there are three people in yellow behind the counter greeting me, and they’re happy and bubbly, and they don’t care about the world, ”Bartasi said. “You have to build this coherence of culture, of cheerfulness, of customer service.” Bartasi’s last company, fertility service provider Progyny, managed fertility coverage on behalf of employers, acting as an intermediary; at Kindbody, Bartasi sells fertility treatments directly to consumers and employers. (Progyny went public in October 2019 and is currently valued at over $ 4 billion.)

Kindbody has several competitors that focus on freezing eggs, including New York-based Extend Fertility and Prelude Fertility, one of the founders of which, Martín Varsavsky, is an evangelist of a universal fertility market. Varsavsky, who is based in Madrid and Miami, is the chairman of Inception, the parent company of Prelude. Nine years ago, he and his wife, Nina, were having trouble conceiving. Varsavsky, who was then fifty-one, knew her age could present challenges, but was surprised to learn that even women in their early thirties, like Nina, may have diminished ovarian reserve – a small number. of ova.

“Because I’m a tech entrepreneur, when I’m in a waiting room, I always imagine how things might turn out,” Varsavsky told me. He envisioned a new standard for reproduction that would anticipate infertility rather than just react to it. Young people of childbearing age could freeze their sperm or eggs in their twenties, live their lives, pursue careers, and then, when they finally met the right person, thaw their frozen gametes.

Varsavsky called his vision the Prelude Method. It consists of four stages: freezing eggs or sperm at a young age; combine them, at the right time, to give embryos; test each embryo for genetic abnormalities; and transfer one embryo at a time to the uterus, to avoid multiple births. It looked to the United States both for investors and as the first and largest market for Prelude. “If you want to fundraise for crazy ideas, you have to come to America,” he said, as we sat in an empty office at the NYU Langone Fertility Center. “If you say, ‘Sex is good, but not for making babies; give me a hundred million dollars’ – in Europe you don’t get it. In America, investors are puzzled.

The idea, he told potential investors, was not to compete for infertility patients already served by existing clinics. About seventy-seven thousand infants are born through IVF each year, he explained, but some three million are born after being conceived without medical intervention. Why not tackle this much larger market and turn babies that might otherwise be conceived spontaneously into Prelude babies? “When they meet,” said Varsavsky, picturing a couple from Prelude, “and they want to have children – who now tend to be in their late thirties – they say, ‘Ah, I had to. frozen sperm and I have frozen eggs! ‘ They say, ‘Hey, why don’t we have sex for fun, but have a baby in a serious way.’ ”In other words, thanks to IVF

Giving a baby seriously would include the use of technologies such as preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), which is performed on cells taken from embryos. PGT, Varsavsky said, would prevent unnecessary suffering, create a healthier population, and spare people the painful decision of whether or not to abort a fetus with genetic abnormalities. In a 2016 LinkedIn article, Varsavsky argued that investing in embryo testing is a way to contain health care spending in the United States, alongside more common suggestions like reducing smoking and encouraging health. ‘exercise. “The best way to cut health care costs is that people don’t get sick,” he wrote, “and preventing serious congenital diseases helps keep the system well-being and lower costs. health as a whole. “


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