The options available to women who want to avoid getting pregnant today are bad. Most, like the widely used birth control pill, feed man-made estrogen and progestin hormones to women, which are capable of causing a number of awful side effects.
YourChoice Therapeutics — a startup launched by a team of Berkeley researchers, including two experts in sperm physiology and sperm-egg interactions — dreams of producing a unisex, non-hormonal alternative to existing contraceptives. The company has raised $400,000 in funding to date, plus a $150,000 check from Y Combinator. YourChoice will make its big pitch at Y Combinator Demo Days next week.
It’s seeking $2 million in venture capital funding to continue research on its sperm cell-targeting novel method of contraception, as well as to build out its team of chemists. Founders Akash Bakshi and Nadja Mannowetz tell TechCrunch they plan to have a contraceptive ready to market by 2025. Together, with co-founder and advisor Dr. Polina V. Lishko of Berkeley’s department of cell and molecular biology, they hope to reach women and men all over the world, in the process tapping a market expected to be worth $37 billion by 2023.
“There are perhaps ways that we could cut that time in half or just get something to market,” said Bakshi, YourChoice’s chief executive officer, whose background is in technology commercialization, research and development within the life sciences industry. “But we need to do this right so that we can benefit as many women as possible.”
Their first product will be a vaginal contraceptive to be applied before intercourse, then, the startup plans to release oral contraceptives for both genders. The team has discovered that the natural compound lupeol is capable of blocking a protein on sperm that is required for fertilization. YourChoice‘s non-hormonal approach doesn’t impact a cells’ ability to function or gene expression, so women and men are not at an increased risk of blood clots, cancer or other side effects associated with mainstream birth control methods’ use of added hormones.
“The bottom line is men don’t have good options and women apparently have so many choices, yet they are all really bad,” Mannowetz, a Ph.D. in sperm physiology, told TechCrunch. “They’re all based on that over 60-year-old idea of hormone-based drugs.”
YourChoice’s planned debut product will be applied directly in the vagina during the period of the month in which the woman is fertile. Whether that be a tablet, a gel or some other form factor is still up in the air. YourChoice’s second product will be an oral contraceptive because they believe that is the most convenient, universally accepted method.
“For women who have an implant … I understand that this might be a step backward, but women who have been on the pill for decades, for them, it wouldn’t be a big change,” Mannowetz said. “We totally understand we will not serve every woman out there but we need to get started with a product and then take it from there.”
“If the last 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that delivery is something that can continue to be developed,” she continued. “We need to develop a new mode of action.”
There are a number of startups innovating in the contraception space, as TechCrunch has written, though most of those businesses are focused on the access problem. Birth control can be very difficult for many to access and startups like The Pill Club or Nurx solve that problem by delivering the pill directly to women’s doorsteps. Other early-stage companies in the space lack experts in the field of reproductive biology necessary to improve contraceptive options. YourChoice’s team says seeking change to the actual medication with an advanced team sets them apart from other upstarts.
For YourChoice, it helps that venture capital investment in the reproductive tech space is increasing, making this a great time for YC to support these businesses (YourChoice isn’t the only reproductive tech startup in the latest YC cohort) and for YourChoice to successfully nab private investment.
“I personally think the industry is satisfied; they are making really good money, right? So why should they change anything,” Mannowetz said. “Millennials are the starting point of change happening. I think now, women stand up and say, ‘we are sick of it.’ ”
It’s a new era for fertility tech