Wish You Could Predict Your Fertility? Meet the Smart Tampon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
NextGenJane wants to empower you with the ability to test and evaluate your ability to conceive.
By Zara Stone
When Ridhi Tariyal turned 33, she started thinking about babies. She didn’t want one right then, but perhaps someday, and she knew chances decreased with age. So, like many smart data-driven women, she requested an ovarian reserve test from her doctor — a common metric for evaluating fertility. But her doctor refused because she wasn’t trying to conceive at that time. Pissed, the Harvard grad went home and did some Googling. The more she read, the more concerned she got. Many different things went into fertility prediction; the test she’d been refused was only one indication of many. Why was there no easy way to test this at home?
Funded by a life science entrepreneurship grant from Harvard Business School, Tariyal investigated solutions. A home-testing kit seemed the obvious starting place, and what better data source than a woman’s menstrual cycle? But how to collect this? She wanted something that would fit into a test tube and decided a tampon — used by 70 percent of American women — was the ideal solution. People could easily mail them for testing.
But she couldn’t get away from the fact that ovarian reserve wasn’t the only key to infertility. With those tests increasingly easier to get, Tariyal turned her attention to a bigger fertility culprit: endometriosis. This painful, cramping disease affects one in 10 Americans and along with other reproductive disorders, such as fibroids and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), can cause problems with getting pregnant. More worryingly was that it can take 10 years from the onset of pain to a diagnosis. “We’re doctor-centric, not patient-centric,” Tariyal says. “We need new tools.”
With the appropriate tools and information, we can all make that transition from Jane Doe to G.I. Jane.
Ridhi Tariyal, co-founder of NextGenJane
This solution was right in front of her. Alongside blood, tampons collect endometrial tissue. “The epiphany was that women bleed every month and this gives you ready access to tissue, really conveniently,” she says. To be sure, doctors are still part of the equation, but the onus is no longer on passing the gatekeepers to get treatment.
So how will it work? The idea is for NextGenJane’s custom-made tampon to be worn by a woman for about two hours before being placed inside a provided test tube and sent to lab techs for analysis.
The smart tampon has shown promise in identifying endometriosis when compared to laparoscopy tests in trials, and the next round of clinical trials is scheduled for 2019 (with more likely in the following year). Looking forward, Tariyal can see future iterations of the smart tampon testing for STIs and other diseases.
But Dr. Elena Trukhacheva, president of the Reproductive Medicine Institute, has concerns about home testing. “Quantitative results are in no way a substitute for qualitative discussion about what those results might mean,” she says. While faster, she’s emphatic they can’t replace a doctor. “The most empowering thing we can do as potential patients is to get the most comprehensive care available, complete with the guidance of a medical professional,” she says.
Tariyal agrees but says that doctors don’t realize the time taken for diagnosis. She’s eager her company, NextGenJane, founded in 2014 with scientist Stephen Gire, be approachable rather than clinical. When women are vulnerable, a sterile environment can be misery-inducing. She personifies this; when I meet her she’s wearing multicolored leggings, with her mug covered with a pink pop-art style logo #Ibleedforjane.
She picked Jane for the company name specifically for its multiple meanings. There’s G.I. Jane, who’s a “badass,” she says, as well as “Jane Doe,” a woman at her most vulnerable. “With the appropriate tools and information, we can all make that transition from Jane Doe to G.I. Jane,” she says. Other companies have gone the smart tampon route; my.Flow attaches a sensor to a tampon that alerts the user when full, and startups LOLA and Cora offer tampons on subscription. However, NextGenJane is unique in utilizing the discharge for data.
“Femtech is ripe for disruption,” says venture capitalist Christina Ku, highlighting the increased earning and spending power of women — they spend 30 percent more per capita on health than men — as one reason for the growth in this field. But she warns that getting to market can be a long process and that femtech startups are underfunded compared to life science companies, which constrains growth.
But with $2.3 million raised so far, and another round closing soon, Tariyal is moving full steam ahead. “I’m so excited for everyone to feel this empowering agency,” she says. “Your body is expelling information, and we want to give you a tool that gives that information back to you.”
If you want to be part of Tariyal’s trials, you can sign up here.