Modern, accurate, convenient, non-invasive. Simple qualities, but when it comes to health, and particularly, women’s health, they can be rare. But they’re the promise behind Ava, an FDA-approved medical device (New York magazine calls the ovulation tracking bracelet “a FitBit for fertility“) that’s empowering women to better understand their bodies and their potential path to motherhood.
Ava founder and CEO Lea Von Bidder wanted to give women a more precise and informative solution than current marketplace offerings. Her wearable fertility device combines innovative tech with clinical research, and has caught the attention of investors, scientists, medical professionals—and consumers.
The first fertility-tracking wearable device in the U.S., whether a woman is trying to get pregnant (or trying not to), the Ava bracelet can determine fertility with 89% percent accuracy to identify fertile days (5.3, on average) in a woman’s monthly cycle.
The medical technology company is also focused on innovations in women’s reproductive health, adding features and insights for users and working with medical and academic partners to conduct research such as detecting infections during pregnancy.
As co-founder and CEO, von Bidder’s leadership is rooted in partnerships where everyone wins, and she been working to create and advocate innovations in digital health tech that will empower women to take better control of their health and wellbeing. That approach has helped raise more than US$12M in VC funding and expanded Ava product sales through the U.S. and Europe since launching in July 2016.
While a young entrepreneur at the age of 27, she has already established a strong voice in the startup space. She has explored the gender gap in her homeland of Switzerland (Ava has offices in Zurich and San Francisco) and last month spoke at SXSW on a panel entitled “Femtech: Women & Health Tech in the Trump Era.” We caught up with her on the heels of that talk to learn more.
What made you want to build a healthcare brand? And what is important to communicate as you strategically build the brand for both consumers and HCPs (health care providers)?
I didn’t choose to build a brand in the healthcare space—I chose to solve a problem that women have. When we started, branding was far away from how we were thinking. We really just wanted to have a product that works. That’s what we were focused on, and I would say, still as a company, we are focused on data science and medical research. The brand has been built around this.
Building our brand in this space was a wonderful experience for me because, not only did I want to solve a problem, but I also love the fact that we are in women’s health. I think it’s the perfect space to work in, and it touches on so many social issues that I really care about. Being in this space means our brand has built-in values that resonate personally with me a lot. We managed to build a slightly feminist, very progressive, very pro-women brand that also tries to take the stigma away from a lot of problems.
For audience communications, both HCPs and consumers are unbelievably relevant for us at this point. When we started, there was less focus on HCPs as a target audience because we partnered with them for research, but we weren’t selling through them. Our entire marketing focus was, and is, on consumers. We are a consumer company at the moment which is interesting when you’re technically a medical device.
Now that we’ve been in the market for two years, the whole discussion of the HCP audience becomes more and more relevant. We now need to start looking at building a brand for HCPs and not just providing them with information. In the end, I’m convinced that the sustainable success of our company is built on the buy-in of HCPs. Even if we’re a B2C brand and even if 90% of sales are B2C, we need to have HCPs on board and supportive of what we are doing. We’ve just started to think about this strategically.
Do you consider Ava disruptive? Or are you filling a gap in the traditional healthcare continuum?
We definitely see Ava as disruptive. We’re disrupting current solutions in the market, the most common of which are a traditional basal body thermometer or a urine test. We wanted to give women an option that is much more modern and much more precise. And I think we have done a good job at that because women get much more information from Ava than they’ve ever gotten about their bodies before.
The other disruptive element about us is our access to consumers. Healthcare companies notoriously struggle with B2C access. We are extremely close to our customers; we have wonderful communities. Our users meet up and go for shots together and send each other birth announcements. So we have this really tight knit community that buys into our brand and our purpose which is really wonderful, and I know is something that traditional healthcare companies struggle with.
Why do you think there’s been a lack of innovation in women’s healthcare?
We are still so far behind in women’s health. If I take off my Ava CEO hat, I recognize that more companies are coming into the space, but we still lack innovation. We need women’s health companies to bring new solutions to market.
For example, we might have 50 new apps enter the fertility and cycle tracking space this year, but what’s the value behind them? To me, good solutions mean clinical research. We need more companies that come up with clinically proven solutions for women’s health. This has been lacking, and I would welcome any company that takes it on, because in the end, it helps us all.
As a business we have huge challenges still ahead—and I believe we will solve them—but honestly, if someone has a solution before we do, as a woman, I have to support that. This is why we want to partner and work with other companies in this space—there’s so much we still have to do, and we can get there faster together.
Why are we still so far behind? It’s a combination of many things. First, for women-specific problems, it’s usually women that find solutions. But there are very few women entrepreneurs; there’s very little access to capital for women entrepreneurs and very few women scientists that can work on these things.
There also is still a belief for many people that women are a niche market. We also need role model companies; if one or two companies in the femtech space have really big exists, it’s going to create tremendous value for us all.
How is Ava different to its competitors? Is what you’re tracking different in terms of the biometrics, or is it the synthesis of the information?
Let’s start with basal body temperature because a lot of people know how it works. Your basal body temperature goes up in the second half of your cycle, right after your fertile window because of changes in your progesterone level. So we know there are different hormones that change during the menstrual cycle, and they affect your physiology in certain ways.
We wanted to find out what other hormones are changing during your cycle, and how do they impact the body? And that’s what we did our clinical study on. The result of that study is Ava. We measure nine different physiological parameters like pulse rate and breathing rate—which allows us to recognize the fertile window much earlier and more precisely than any other method in real time. And for our users, they have the ease of just wearing a bracelet to sleep.
Considering women’s health is under fire, both here and globally, what role should brands have in advocacy? How can brands lead the way in changing how we think about women’s health and healthcare in general?
Brands don’t have a responsibility. It’s a luxury if you have created a brand that allows you to have views on those things. We are lucky to have that luxury, but brand managers in large global companies may not have that freedom.
We’re also careful, as Ava, to not make political statements. Yes, we have opinions about certain things, but rarely are those political issues. We’re just strongly pro-women. We’re pro-women’s health. We’re pro-research. I think people from both sides can empathize with these stances. Where we can play a role is in education—while being careful not to misuse our position. Some brands latch onto political climates or issues that don’t really align with their mission or values.
It’s important to stay factual in your conversations and focus on the things that are really important to you as a brand. For us, those things are women’s topics, and we support those issues. But you need to stay factual because, in the end, you will have customers that have a completely different political view than you, which is fine, but it’s important that you agree with your customers on the key thing that you as a brand really care about.