While Alyssa Atkins endured an unnerving three-month wait to get the results of her fertility test, she figured there had to be a better way. In less time than it took to receive her results, she launched her own female fertility company, Lilia, to tackle the problem.
The 29-year-old Toronto-based founder had recently left a long-term relationship and was watching a friend go through premature menopause when the worry hit her – it could soon be too late to have children. After visiting her doctor, Ms. Atkins did a fertility test to assess her ovarian reserve, or how many eggs she has left.
She checked the mail for her lab results, scoured the internet for information and researched fertility clinics to try to make sense of her options. When she finally got her results, she found the medical terminology in the form letter confusing and was unsure about her next steps. With Lilia, Ms. Atkins aims to make navigating fertility issues less intimidating and overwhelming.
“What was missing was the end-to-end support of an intimidating journey," she said. "Anything that existed was very sterile and missed how to communicate with women about this. I wanted a company that made it all more approachable and accessible.”
Even though her startup is a mere two months old, it has already attracted an unusually large amount of money for a freshly launched company. Lilia attracted $800,000 in preseed funding in just five weeks.
Ms. Atkins has yet to create an investor deck, but she plans to launch Lilia with an at-home test that measures hormone levels that help to measure the ovarian reserve, assess the likelihood of egg freezing and IVF success and predict the age of menopause. While similar tests are available from other labs and clinics, the founder envisions creating a resource hub by connecting hopeful parents with fertility specialists and, as the company grows, providing online information on how to navigate reproductive issues.
While this is Ms. Atkins’s first venture as a founder, she has worked at startups throughout her career. She completed the entrepreneurial leadership program Next 36 before working for educational software startup Top Hat and online services company CareGuide.
As Ms. Atkins appealed to investors, they sent out recommendations about the new founder and her startup. Lilia’s preseed round quickly soared past its initial goal of $250,000, with backers including Hustle Fund, Panache Ventures, Clearbanc president and co-founder Michele Romanow, Ramen Ventures and Dot Health chief executive Huda Idrees. And in an industry where men dominate private equity and venture-capital funding, approximately half of Lilia’s angel investors are women.
For a first-time founder, the initial fundraising round typically takes six to 12 months to attract between $100,000 to $500,000, according to Ms. Romanow – less money in more time than Lilia.
“That never happens, especially to females and especially in Canada,” she said. “I think she is really special as a founder and ultimately preseed and seed investments are really about the person you’re backing. And it indicates that people know that [the fertility] space will be big.”
The interest in Ms. Atkins’s new venture comes after a recent wave of investment that has poured into femtech, a term that refers to software, diagnostics, products and services that use technology to address women’s health issues. Interest in femtech has been on a tear over the past few years as investment pours into period trackers, wearable breast pumps and organic tampons. Investment in the burgeoning women’s health-focused industry bypassed US$500-million in funding in 2018, with the market size expected to reach US$50-billion by 2025, according to a report by Texas-based consulting and research firm Frost & Sullivan.
As more people choose to have children later in life, the United States has already seen a number of startups take to the market. Modern Fertility, a San-Francisco-based startup that launched two years ago with at-home fertility tests, attracted US$15-million in June.
While femtech products aim to fill gaps in women’s health care, some experts are wary of the promises made by companies operating outside of the medical industry. Health-based tech startups risk providing incorrect or poor-quality information, according to Payal Agarwal, an innovation fellow with the Women’s College Hospital Institute for Health System Solutions and Virtual Care in Toronto.
"The fertility space is an area that women struggle with and need more support,” Dr. Agarwal said. "But as with all health interventions, it’s important to assess the impact and quality and how it actually works in the real world. There are so many cases in health where we think something works, but then it does more harm than good.”
Ms. Atkins said Lilia’s test is being developed at a lab that is certified by the Institute for Quality Management in Healthcare and that she plans to work in partnership with fertility experts who will work with customers. The test is still in development, but Ms. Atkins is aiming to make Lilia available by the end of this year.
Few technology startups in Canada have taken on the challenge of fertility testing and education, according to Eric Bahn, co-founder and general partner at San Francisco-based venture capital firm Hustle Fund, which often invests in women’s health startups.
“I think that Alyssa has an opportunity in Canada specifically. There is good wedge for her to do this work and dominate in the Canadian market," Mr. Bahn said. “From my own research, I couldn’t find any other strong competitors in this space in this region.”