Big data fertility – meet the UK health tech startup challenging IVF in the US

Nina Fowler 2013-05-28 2

Cambridge Temperature Concepts, the UK company behind fertility tool DuoFertility, has a bold mission – provide a viable, affordable alternative to in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). After years of R&D and a market launch in 2009, it’s now pretty well-established in the UK, available in greater Europe and taking its first steps in key market the US.

baby

DuoFertility, which retails at £495 in the UK and a roughly equivalent $795 in the US, comes as a kit with two components: a patch sensor worn under the arm that takes up to 20,000 readings a day (of temperature, heat flow and movement – used together to calculate core body temperature) and a cute egg-shaped reader.

Plug the reader into an internet-connected computer and it’ll dispatch the results – plus any other info you want to enter, such as menstruation timing or ovulation pain – to a team of expert analysts who’ll help you figure out the best time each month to try and conceive. That in turn will appear back on the reader, which uses a light-scale to display estimated fertility.

DuoFertility

One crucial clue to pinpoint ovulation (and the best time to have sex) is a tiny rise in core body temperature. DuoFertility doesn’t just measure temperature more accurately than couples could do alone, though – it maps historic patterns across a range of data to predict future fertility.

There’s a big data angle here too. By pooling women with similar profiles together, the team can hone their predictions further and narrow in on undiagnosed conditions.

Shamus Husheer“We target specifically infertile couples,” Cambridge Temperature Concepts CEO Shamus Husheer (right) says –  defined as those who’ve been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for at least a year.

He came up with the idea while developing instruments for particle accelerators for his PhD at Cambridge University. That, plus knowledge of his mother’s experience with the body basal temperature method and a group of willing fellow graduate scientists, and he decided to form a company to apply his instrumental knowledge to health problems, starting with monitoring fertility.

Cambridge Temperature Concepts’ DuoFertility – a rival to IVF?

DuoFertility won’t be able to help with certain underlying conditions, such as two blocked fallopian tubes (the company does its best to screen candidates for suitability before sign-up). In that case, something like IVF might be a better option.

Couples shouldn’t seek any sort of fertility treatment out too quickly, either. According to one medical expert in the US we checked with, after six months of actively trying, about 50 per cent of couples are pregnant; at the end of a year, about 85 per cent.

Still, for those in need, some of the early results are very promising. A peer-reviewed study by Cambridge Temperature Concepts and the University of Cambridge found that among 242 couples who’d previously qualified or been through IVF, DuoFertility led to a higher pregnancy rate at all tested age levels up to 45 years.

That’s pretty impressive, especially when you consider that a cycle of IVF is both invasive and expensive, at roughly £4,500 in the UK and about $20,000 in the US. It also carries a relatively high multiple pregnancy rate, which increases medical risk.

Health tech startups – challenging but worth it

Cambridge Temperature Concepts  – which numbers over 30 staff and is backed by about £2 million in angel and venture capital funding – recently won FDA approval to bring DuoFertility to the US, a key market for a number of reasons. “In the US, fertility care is infrequently covered by insurance,” Husheer points out. “Most women who need fertility care are paying out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars at a time.”

In the UK, about one in six couples may have difficulty conceiving. According to Husheer, those figures are roughly the same in the US, though their ideal target market is actually a more narrow group:

“We know very accurately that there are about 100,000 women a year in the US who go through IVF. In the UK, even though the population is just one sixth of US, there’s about 50,000 women – that’s because there’s more funding for it,” he says. “That tells us there’s another two or three hundred thousand women a year in the US who would go for IVF if it was not $20,000 a cycle. That’s really our target market right there.”

Dealing with the realities of the market

It’s much harder to bring a regulated medical device to the US than launch a new smartphone app. In Europe, DuoFertility’s experts are able to provide medical advice directly to patients. In the US, they must go through the patient’s doctor if they pick up something – say polycystic ovarian syndrome – that other treatment can help with.

DuoFertility’s previously offered money-back guarantee – successful in the UK – is something else that won’t fly in the US. Fair enough: “You have to deal with the reality of the market you go into,” Husheer says.

Is there something he’d wish he’d known before starting work on DuoFertility? “It’s the absolute standard response of anyone,” he says. “Everything takes longer and is more difficult than you think.”

That wouldn’t have stopped him trying: “You do this because you’ve seen a problem that needs solving that you can help with. It’s a difficult problem that we’ve got a solution for that seems to work effectively and that’s absolutely brilliant.”

Image credits:
baby: flickr user gcaserotti

Ida Tin via LinkedIn
Shamus Husheer via LinkedIn 

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