Women Entrepreneurs Brave Healthcare Start-Up Space For Solutions
Sharing decades of experience in tech, digital and start-up entrepreneurship, Ursula Hessenflow and Lora Ivanova were prepared for many tough questions in the quest to raise capital.
Except that is, for the recurring question: “Which one of you is the slutty one?”
The co-founders of myLAB Box, the first of its kind at-home, affordable, private testing kit for sexually transmitted diseases, launched the innovative product, but not after answering that question from funders more times than they ever anticipated.
And, the answer –for the record– is, neither one.
“This came out of us sitting down and having conversations about online dating and the increasing problem of access to testing. We saw the opportunity to leverage our tech backgrounds to create a solution in the world,” says Hessenflow, who had previously co-founded two other startups, one in advertising and the other in social video marketing.
Ivanova, who became friends with Hessenflow in 2005 when she cold called on her when Ivanova was working in a digital placement firm, says that as a woman in the healthcare and start-up fields, the work is the same, but the fundraising was oddly gendered.
“Most of the investors are male,” Ivanona says. “And level of stigma associated with what we were tackling produced responses like, ‘I’m married, I don’t get it, this doesn’t apply to me.”
She says investors expected an origin story of personal connection to the need and would ask, “Which one of you had the STD’s?”
Perhaps that is why women-run starts ups receive the paucity of funding.
“Just 4 percent of funding from U.S.-based VC firms through July 13 of this year went to women-founded start-ups in their earliest stages, known as angel or seed funding, figures from PitchBook, a private capital data and research firm, show. Early-stage VC funding, the next level up, shows a similar pattern at 3% so far this year. Both sets of figures are unchanged from 2016,” writes Rachel Layne in USA Today.
“But the bias that leaves some women-led businesses unfunded may come from a different place. Preliminary results from one study led by Babson College professor Lakshmi Balachandra looked at how much the masculinity or the femininity of the target market matters in funding decisions,” Layne writes. “Male VCs saw firms with products aimed towards men as more likely to get funding, while female-led VCs said the same for products aimed at women.”
While two women created myLAB Box, the audience is not strictly female. Creating the company concept in late 2013, early 2014, the team launched sales for myLab Box in 2015. Thousands of customers in the U.S. later, the co-founders find that 53 percent of the customers are male and 47 percent female.
Hessenflow adds, ‘Both of us talking about dating lives and seeing where social trends were going, having conversations in our networks, so we asked, why is this still such a problem? So what started as girl talk turned into one of the most disruptive healthcare ideas that is revolutionary.”
Their initial brainstorming sessions started—as most do—with a Google search. “Someone much have thought of a solution,” Ivanova says.
But there was nothing.
With the Centers for Disease Control reporting that nearly half of all Americans will get an STD in their lifetimes, and that the STD testing and treatment market is worth $16 billion in the U.S. alone, the co-founders thought if they had a private, accessible, affordable solution not tied to insurance payments or a doctor’s visit, they would have a solution.
“A sobering report from the CDC last October revealed just how much new approaches are needed to combat increasing infection rates. More than 1.5 million people contracted chlamydia in 2015, an increase of 5.9 percent from the year before. Similarly, gonorrhea cases jumped 12.8 percent to almost 400,000 cases. The nearly 24,000 new cases of primary and secondary syphilis (the two most infectious disease stages) represented a 19 percent increase, “writes Tara Haelle for NPR.
“Although encouraging people to get tested is a simple enough public health message, that doesn’t mean it’s simple to carry out, says Kevin Ault, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.,” writes Haelle.
“You have to make the appointment at the doctor’s office, drive to the doctor’s office, give the sample to the doctor, the doctor sends it to the lab, you wait for the results to come back, and then you wait for the doctor to call you,” Ault tells Haelle.
The Los Angeles-based myLAB box eliminates all of that. And why there was no easy access to testing of this kind was shocking to both of the founders.
“You can get cars, groceries, massages, pre-book your flight online, but something as basic as your reproductive health is brushed under the rug. This is the cradle of our civilization,” Ivanova says.
“On the surface it looked like, here are the labs, here is the testing, here are the people who need it, how hard can it be to put together?” Ivanova asks.
After identifying the right partnerships of research, health and medical experts, and understanding the parameters of regulations, the healthcare space and e-commerce, Hessenflow says it all started to make sense.
“We wanted to provide efficient, convenient and private solutions and deliver in a way that is affordable and convenient. And we are changing lives,” Hessenflow says.
The vision of the co-founders of myLAB Box aligns with the 9 Leadership Power Tools created by Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead. Power Tool # 6 asserts, “Wear the Shirt of Your Convictions. Ask yourself, what are your core values? What’s your vision? How can you make it happen? Stand in your power and realize your intentions.”
That’s precisely what Hessenflow and Ivanova did.
Called the Femtech Market by CB Insights, startups in women’s healthcare have raised more than $1.1 billion since 2014. The categories include fertility, general health, sexual wellness, period care, pregnancy and nursing, pelvic care and others.
While the future of healthcare coverage in this country is uncertain, both Hessenflow and Ivanova says that reality produces demands on affordable healthcare solutions like theirs.
Consumers and women especially “want to be in charge of our health care data,” Ivanonva says. “We want to be more educated and make more decisions on our own.”
Looking eventually to expand internationally, both the founders agree they have learned key lessons in creating a new company from an idea.
As friends for more than a decade and working together for the past four years on this company, Ivanova says, “Having two female co-founders is extremely important for both of us. Women do not get the credit for start-ups if they work by themselves or with another male founder. Having a female co-founder has provided a level of support and is instrumental in our success.”
“It’s all about your team,” Hessenflow says. “You can have a great idea, and it’s great to have a female co-founder, but it’s about building the right team.”
Ivanova agrees. “It takes a village. The best solutions come from bringing to the table the stakeholders who matter in the online startup community, those with medical expertise, the entrpreneurship and healthcare communities. By ourselves we would never get this far.”
From a simple idea to a company that is solutions-based and aims at changing behaviors, and reducing shame, Ivanova says the path has been a marathon, not a sprint.
“To survive, you just put your cap on and own your power.”
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About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com