Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Deirdre O’Neill doesn’t hold back her distaste for companies that help employees pay for egg freezing and IVF without other support.
We’re taking a stand on it,” she told the Irish Independent in a video chat from London, where she and her identical twin sister – geneticist and university lecturer Helen – recently set up home fertility testing service Hertility together with ovarian biologist Natalie Getreu.
“To me, the idea that a company would say to an employee, ‘You know what, let’s just put these eggs on hold. You work your way through your reproductive years and we deal with the aftermath later. That’s your problem.’
“I think it’s really corrupt to say to someone, ‘We’ll pay for your IVF’ instead of ‘We’ll pay for you to monitor your health so you never need IVF’.”
In the last two years there has been an explosion of companies offering personal sweeteners including menopause and menstrual leave and fertility treatment support.
Tech giants Apple and Facebook announced back in 2014 that they would help employees pay for egg freezing, a procedure that can cost hundreds of dollars in the US. Most of their contemporaries including Google, Netflix, Uber and LinkedIn have done the same.
“It’s kind of weird that they offer egg freezing,” says Helen O’Neill, who lectures in reproductive science at University College London. “Even LinkedIn and Goldman Sachs pay £27,000 per employee for fertility treatment and yet they don’t treat them preventively.”
This genuine outrage is what prompted the Cork-born twins to set up their business in the UK last year and is fueling them to raise more money to fund their expansion into Ireland.
The service costs €199 and includes an online questionnaire, a home fingerprint blood test – Hertility promises to have the results in 10 days – and access to a range of aftercare specialists, including gynaecologists, nutritionists and counselors.
The test also checks for a number of conditions, including polycystic ovary syndrome, hyper- and hypothyroidism, and endometriosis. And it can tell women when they’re likely to hit menopause.
Helen, Deirdre and their all-female research team use the service regularly.
It has actually changed my life completely because I have been so proactive in testing
It helped Deirdre make the life-changing decision to have a second child — much earlier than she had planned.
“Everyone says, ‘I’ll take one and we’ll kick the can down the street, we’ll take care of it another time.’
“But because I could test and see where my ovarian reserve was going, I knew I didn’t have that time. It’s actually been life changing for me because I’ve been so proactive in testing.”
In Ireland, Hertility will go up against one of the country’s newest tech unicorns, LetsGetChecked, who is experiencing a pandemic boom in at-home health testing.
Hertility’s service is tailored to women, as Helen and Deirdre O’Neill say there is a lack of public funding, the cost of private treatments is prohibitive and there is a “psychological barrier” for young women who are less inclined to cross think about their reproduction health.
Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) requires women to “try” for a baby or have “multiple miscarriages” for at least a year before being offered a fertility test, Helen says. Visiting a private clinic costs thousands of pounds.
In January, Sinn Féin TD Sorca Clarke revealed around 36,000 women in Ireland were waiting for a gynecology appointment. Over 4,000 had waited more than 18 months, according to figures shared with her on the back of a parliamentary question.
“It’s barbaric,” says Deirdre.
When Helen tried to find out about her own reproductive health, she encountered “dismissal” and found the process very “confusing” despite her 15 years of experience and research in the field.
Hertility’s founders hope their service will get more women and men talking about fertility and take away some of the stigma and squeamishness.
A third of the women Hertility surveyed said men “physically shuddered” when they discussed women’s health issues.
And almost half have avoided speaking about their health problems in front of men to avoid making them “awkward”.
Since last year, the sisters and their co-founder have been building their team of 40-50 laboratory technicians and aftercare specialists in the UK and plan to replicate this in Ireland.
They already have four doctors on board here and hope to work with clinics, like they do in the UK, who can offer personalized aftercare to women who need it.
Backed by a grant from the UK Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, and £4.2m seed funding (raised last year and worth around €5m today), Hertility is now embarking on an open-ended Series A round.
But it was a hard blow, they say.
Investors are increasingly rushing to larger deals, according to the Irish Venture Capital Association (IVCA), with deals under €1m falling by a third in the first quarter of 2022 and deals between €1m and €5m by half.
The share of funding going to female-led startups has remained stable in recent years, with female-led companies raising just 1.8 percent of all investments in Europe in 2021.
Adding to this is skepticism about the service from some venture capitalists (VCs) who have tapped the O’Neills.
The female VCs are just as bad as the male VCs
“The female VCs are just as bad as the male VCs,” says Deirdre. “The amount of female VCs we speak to who say, ‘We love this, we’ve used this, we’ve recommended this to our friends, but we’re not going to invest.’
“You go back to the male board and the male board member says, ‘I’m not sure enough women need this.’
“The question we get from male investors is, ‘So what would make a woman want to test?’ says Helen.
“And we’re like, ‘We get monthly reminders if something’s wrong.'”
When the sisters launched their website during the pandemic – they had to forego in-person trials for obvious reasons – they registered the interest of 7,000 women.
“It’s infuriating,” says Deirdre. “Every VC out there says we want to invest in women. It’s all rhetoric.”
“It’s a PC term for bullshit,” says Helen.
The sisters are proud of their all-female research team, although they have more male than female doctors on their books.
“When it came to hiring engineers, people would say, ‘Well, a developer certainly doesn’t have to be female,'” says Helen.
“And we said, ‘No, but it helps.’ Because the one guy we brought in put a drop down menu for “How long is your period?” of 100 days. A developer would know [better].”
Just don’t call her femtech.
I would definitely go home for that
“We realize that’s not necessarily what investors want to hear,” says Helen. “What investors want to hear is that if you’re investing in the femtech space, you’re femtech.
“We are happy to accept the term femtech if investors want it. But for me it’s a total rejection and underrepresentation of what we have achieved.”
The O’Neills hope the Irish market, with its plethora of multinationals willing to pay employee benefits, will be easier to sell than Britain.
“You have no idea how difficult it is to start a healthcare business in a country where the NHS pays for everything,” says Helen.
“Ireland is the home of all multinational companies and the headquarters of all major global companies, which means from an employee perspective this would be a really welcome asset.”
It’s also a ticket home for the London-based twins, who have spent 15 years in the British capital.
“I would definitely move home for that,” says Deirdre. “I definitely want to return home in the next few years.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/technology/i-was-able-to-test-and-see-where-my-ovarian-reserve-was-going-i-knew-i-didnt-have-that-time-41888554.html “I was able to test and see where my ovarian reserve was going, I knew I didn’t have that time.”