Sperm start-ups bet on declining male fertility
Start-ups want men to track, improve or freeze their sperm, hoping declining male fertility will become just as big a business opportunity as women struggling to conceive.
Legacy and Dadi provide kits for men to send their sperm to labs for testing and freezing. YoSperm and ExSeed use devices attached to smartphones to analyze sperm dripped onto slides at home. Sandstone Diagnostics is encouraging men to improve their swimmers by eating better, drinking less and staying out of the sauna.
Venture capital firms, including Bain Capital Ventures, TCG Capital Management and Section32, are betting that men will want to measure and protect their fertility from the comfort of their own home.
Khaled Kteily, Legacy’s chief executive, said men were “ignorant” of potential problems. “Mick Jagger is probably our biggest enemy,” he said. “He had so many kids when he was older.”
About a third of all infertility suffered by couples is attributed to male problems, a third to women, and a third is unexplained. Compared with women’s fertility, male fertility does not have the same age cliff, but studies show that it does slowly decline and that older men are slightly more likely to have babies born with disabilities. Overall, male fertility has dropped by more than half in 40 years, according to a large study of studies in 2017.
The start-ups are inspired by female-focused fertility companies, including Progeny, which went public in October and now has a market value of $2.2 billion, and direct-to-consumer healthcare companies such as Hims and Roman, which provide online access to doctors that enables men to avoid face-to-face visits for conditions such as erectile dysfunction.
Legacy sends customers a gold-embossed navy box, which looks like it contains a luxury shirt rather than a bottle for sperm collection. A delivery service later whisks the sample to a lab to be tested for semen volume and sperm count, shape and motility. Men receive a personalized report on how they could improve their sperm, which includes, for example, eating more tomatoes and nuts.
The sample is frozen until a man decides he wants a child. Sperm has been frozen for as long as 25 years and still used to create healthy babies — and some scientists believe it could last up to 200 years.
Kiyan Rajabi, a 28-year-old health tech entrepreneur in New York, said he began to think about his fertility when he saw so many of his female peers getting their eggs frozen.
“You hear hundreds of stories of families having difficulty conceiving. I don’t know if I will ever use the sample I provided. But I have peace of mind knowing I at least have a backup,” he said.
Dadi launched its service at the start of 2019 and has had thousands of men sign up. The start-up based in Brooklyn, N.Y., raised money in two funding rounds this year — $2 million in January and $5 million in August — and is starting to sign partnerships with employers, including McDonald’s, that want to offer its sperm testing and freezing service as an employee benefit.
Tom Smith, Dadi’s chief executive, who co-founded the company after working at Giphy, the gif provider, said the product resonated with investors. “Every single room we walked into, there was someone who had an infertility story,” he said.
Smith decided to start the company when he saw a friend struggle to freeze his sperm after a cancer diagnosis. “He was ushered into this little room and handed a cup. Three or four hours later, he was able to collect,” he said. “It’s not very conducive to trying to masturbate.”
The start-ups’ founders believe allowing men to produce a sperm sample at home will make them more likely to do it. Greg Sommer, founder of Sandstone Diagnostics, said that men on average have their first test after about 18 months of having difficulty conceiving, even though fertility testing for women is often far more intrusive.
“By then, women are already doing a lot on their reproductive health, with doctors’ visits and tracking,” he said.
Dr. Stanton Honig, a male fertility expert at the Yale School of Medicine, said he believes the at-home tests are valuable because they can be done at home and said papers have shown they are accurate. But he is less convinced that men who are not ill need to be freezing their sperm.
“I’m a little bit taken aback by companies saying, ‘Freeze your sperm because you are going to have a problem later,’” Honig said. “If a 50-year-old came to me and said he froze his sperm at 40, I’m not sure I’d recommend using the frozen sperm. I would tell him to try to get his wife pregnant the old-fashioned way.”
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