It’s no secret that traditional healthcare services have been stretched to their limits by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet as cracks have emerged, innovative and agile startups have risen to plug the gaps, and in so doing, forced the industry to modernise at breakneck speed.
Now the relatively nascent fertility market is starting to show signs of this transformation, spearheaded by tech-savvy entrepreneurs and fuelled by surging investment.
A brief history of fertility treatment
The first successful in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) birth was achieved in 1978 in the UK. Since then, eight million babies worldwide have been born using this technology, with IVF accounting for 2-3% of all live births in the UK today.
Funding since the late 70s has generally been slow – but it’s starting to gather pace. Since 2016, investment has tripled, surpassing $1 billion in 2021 alone. The latest projections anticipate the global IVF market to more than double within the decade, from $14.2 billion in 2020 to $33.9 billion by 2028.
Societal shifts have also triggered climbing demand. “Every year around 48.5 million couples around the world are affected by infertility,” says Professor Luciano Nardo, a 20-year veteran of reproductive medicine and the Founder of NOW-fertility.
“Until recently fertility treatment was generally only sought by people who were infertile,” he tells Welltodo. “Yet today assisted conception helps diverse groups of people, including same-sex and trans couples and individuals, single people, post-cancer patients, older women and patients with hereditary conditions or diseases.”
“Shift to online has been transformative”
NOW-fertility is one of dozens of disruptive startups looking to use technology to improve outcomes for patients and clinics alike. For Prof Nardo, the healthcare industry’s shift to online and remote services has been transformative.
“Through virtual platforms, healthcare professionals can improve efficiencies, as well as communicate with their patients, support and advise them whenever required, and offer a more convenient and faster experience,” he says.
Set to launch in spring 2022, NOW-fertility will operate as a digital IVF portal, run by a dedicated team of multi-lingual fertility physicians, nurses, counsellors and advisors, offering 24/7 personalised and supportive consultancy and care throughout a patient’s fertility journey.
This blend of “always on” virtual support, combined with the physical care offered by IVF centres of clinical excellence, Prof Nardo explains, will reduce the time, stress and costs involved in traditional fertility journeys, while improving margins, expanding reach and reducing marketing costs for partner clinics.
Corporate-sponsored fertility perks
Fertility treatment is rapidly becoming a mainstream element of employee benefit packages too.
It first became a talking point around 2014, when Facebook and Apple started offering egg-freezing to their female tech workers. Now fertility benefits have broadened out to list a comprehensive range of perks, including IVF, male infertility treatments, additional time off for hospital appointments, mental health support and family planning assistance.
“It’s a huge, huge market, and one that is only getting bigger, if you look at demographic data, declining sperm rates, global numbers and…the way that trends are moving, it’s clear this is only going to continue to be a challenge,” Deena Shakir, partner at venture capital firm Lux Capital, told Crunchbase News in October.
Last year, Shakir’s Lux Capital led a $9.5 million seed funding round for fertility startup Alife Health, which is building a modern operating system for IVF, designed to maximise a patient’s chance of success.
“Typically, IVF is expensive and time-consuming,” Alife Founder and CEO, Paxton Maeder-York, added. In the US, it can cost an average of $10,000 to $12,000 per cycle and only one in three is successful. “We aim to improve success rates across every cycle and bring costs down.”
VC funding is one of the major drivers propelling the fertility market forward. Having risen steadily between 2017 and 2020, the industry attracted unprecedented interest last year, with global investments increasing by 89% — from $93 million in 2020 to $176 million in funding as of mid-October 2021.
Alife’s raise followed a $75 million Series C raise by employee fertility benefits company Carrot Fertility and a $110 million Series D round by virtual platform Maven Clinic, which also reported a four-fold increase in demand since the pandemic began.
Maven’s latest raise — which included investment from Oprah Winfrey to add to its previous backing from Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman — earned the female-founded company unicorn status, a first for the sector.
Male-focused fertility startups have historically lagged behind female-orientated fertility clinics, but they’re starting to catch up. Last year Dadi, which offers sperm storage, male fertility reports and an at-home collection kit, announced it had raised $10 million over three rounds. In the same year, digital fertility clinic Legacy, which lists Justin Bieber as an investor and operates exclusively to address male infertility, announced it had raised a total of $20.2 million over seven rounds since 2018.
“Better and more consistent outcomes”
Historically, much of the capital pumped into fertility startups has focused on late-stage interventions, such as IVF and egg-freezing, rather than pre-clinical and at-home treatments earlier in the conception process.
However, uptake of new technologies, including robotics and data analytics, could help improve success rates, a recent report from Octopus Ventures found. The report’s authors also predicted investment to shift towards addressing some of the root causes of infertility — such as male infertility, tubal disorders and endometriosis.
With investment growing exponentially, Prof Nardo says he expects advanced technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to play an increasingly prominent role for fertility startups of the future, helping deliver “better and more consistent outcomes”.
“Combining medical expertise with AI and ML technology will help solve one of the key problems in current IVF services — the speed at which the sector can provide advice, support, and treatment,” he says.
Reducing this highly stressful period, he adds, would help make the crucial initial stages of a patient’s fertility journey a “much more positive experience and reduce the tension and anxiety many feel”.
In its bid to make assisted conception treatment more accessible and affordable, NOW-fertility will also partner with funding providers to offer patients a range of finance options.
As Prof Nardo says, “in today’s economic climate and empowered society, the need for greater accessibility, affordability and personalised practice in fertility treatment has never been of greater importance”.
5 Fertility Brands To Watch in 2022
An expansive virtual platform focused on women’s and family health, Maven operates an on-demand digital care clinic that assists mothers and families during conception, throughout pregnancy and postpartum. The company’s last Series D round led to a post-money valuation in the range of $1-10 billion, as of August 2021.
Based: New York, US
Raised: $202.1 million over 7 rounds
Spearheading the new age of employee benefits, Carrot Fertility helps employers offer their workers fertility support that is flexible, transparent, and cost-conscious. The company most recently raised $75 million from a Series C round, resulting in a post-money valuation in the range of $100-500 million
Based: San Francisco, US
Raised: $114.2 million over seven rounds — most recently $75 million in August 2021
Alife Health is IVF powered by AI. Alife is building tools to improve the equity and efficacy of IVF. Its platform is designed to harness learnings from millions of past IVF cycles to improve a patient’s chances of getting pregnant.
Based: San Francisco, US
Raised: $9.5 million in a seed funding round led by Lux Capital
Dadi offers sperm storage, male fertility reports and at-home collection kits. The company’s latest funding was a Seed round in November 2020. In November last year, DTC healthcare unicorn Ro was reported to be in talks to acquire the at-home sperm storage startup, following its earlier acquisition of the female-focused company, Modern Fertility.
Based: New York, US
Raised: $10 million over three rounds
Legacy is one of the leading digital fertility clinics for men. Founded at Harvard in 2018, it is backed by a slew of Hollywood investors including DJ Khaled, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Orlando Bloom. The company is encouraging men to be more proactive and take ownership of their fertility.
Based: Cambridge, Massachusetts, US
Raised: $20.2 million over seven rounds