Women’s Health Innovators: Univfy
By Sydney Herzog
In the United States, 12% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 struggle to get pregnant or to carry a pregnancy to term. Many of these couples who face difficulties conceiving turn to fertility centers for assistance, hoping to find a treatment or procedure that could increase their chance of having a child. Univfy’s mission is to assist the patients going through this process by helping to improve and expand access to fertility treatment.
Univfy combines artificial intelligence, machine learning, fintech, and human empathy to assist women and couples who are looking to have a baby and need financial services to help them. Fertility specialists in the Univfy network give each of their patients a personalized and complimentary Univfy PreIVF Report, which shows her probability of having a child within the first three cycles, how her chances compare with other IVF patients, individual factors impacting her chance of success, her reproductive history, and her IVF costs and financial options.
Decisions about fertility and treatment can be difficult to make for couples and individuals due to emotional, social, and financial factors. Univfy is focused on improving the clinical and financial counseling of fertility patients through personalization and transparency of information.
“We really believe in giving people their personalized information and letting them know what their probability of success with different treatments is and how much it costs to pursue different treatment options,” Univfy Co-founder Mylene Yao said. “We have a way to bring all this information together to help them make a decision that is best for them”
Although Univfy has no direct competitors, Yao noted that what sets them apart from other innovators in the fertility field is their use of machine learning and their fertility success prediction algorithm integrated with cost transparency models. No other companies can provide patients with such accurate, personalized, and user-friendly fertility information at Univfy’s scale.
According to Yao, there are more companies in the fertility field than ever before, and many of these innovators are using technology to expand access to care. Today, employers are more aware of the importance of fertility benefits and want to provide their employees with access to those services.
“The fertility space is still small, but it has amazing potential to grow. There are various market projections that it can grow to over 25 billion by 2023,” Yao said. “But I think in order to do that, and maybe exceed that projection, we need many options to help patients, providers, and employers because there is no one choice or technology.”
Co-founded by Mylene Yao, M.D., and Wing H. Wong, Ph.D., Univfy set out to assist patients in reaching their fertility goals and improve the transparency and efficiency of fertility centers. Yao and Wong began their research into IVF prediction modeling at Stanford University in 2005, published their first validated IVF prediction model in 2008, and officially launched Univfy in 2009.
When Yao was a faculty member at Stanford, she met patients who could have benefited from IVF, but missed their opportunity, as well as couples who did not have as high of a chance of conceiving as they believed. These observations prompted Yao to bring AI and machine learning into the conversation of fertility.
“There were so many fertility patients that I felt could have benefited from IVF and they were interested, but we really didn’t, as a field, have a way to personalize the counseling to each couple based on their health profile and find their chance to have a baby using this treatment or that treatment,” Yao said. “So, I thought it would be great to help these patients answer the one question every couple has when they come to the fertility center: what are my chances of having a baby?”
Last year, Univfy was a finalist in HITLAB’s 2019 Women’s Health Tech Challenge centered around the growing femtech industry. The company received second place and the Women’s Health Tech Next Disruptor Award presented by HTD. Yao noted how this event was one of the first of its kind and provided her with important opportunities to network with other entrepreneurs and stakeholders that HITLAB brought together.
Since Univfy participated in the challenge, they have focused on improving the fertility journey to make it more efficient and patient friendly. The company took a deep dive into everything patients go through once they begin seeing a specialist, and by working with providers, they have built patient maps from the fertility treatment journeys of 70,000 patients. They have used this data to help patients today have an easier, safer, and more cost-effective process.
At the beginning of 2020, Univfy was also busy adding new providers to their network. The company has in-depth collaboration with their providers and is expanding their partnerships in order to reach more patients and have a wider source of fertility data. However, since these providers were all in various stages of joining Univfy in March, those expansions have been put on hold since the rise of COVID-19.
“Just like all other companies, we were really excited and looking forward to the end of Q1 and Q2 that would bring many new providers to our system,” Yao said. “But I think those relationships are strong, so as the centers recover from the impacts of COVID-19, those will just pick up where we left off. In the meantime, it’s so important that we all focus on the safety aspect and on meaningful and impactful ways to support patients as they navigate from their initial virtual consultation with a fertility specialist to making decisions about treatment options.”
Since the crisis began, Univfy has seen fewer fertility consultations as everyone has switched gears to deal with safety issues of the virus and enhancing the experience of virtual appointments. Univfy’s team quickly realized the challenges and leveraged their technology platform to create and launch new Telehealth tools to help support providers.
“It’s a big switch because these are consults that were quite traditional with in person visits and quite emotional,” Yao said. “How do you do that in a virtual manner and how do you follow up with the patient if there now cannot be a frequent in-person visit? We’ve created a series of Telehealth tools to make virtual interactions and the follow up easier. I think that’s been well-received, so we’re glad to be able to support them in the way that we can.”
Although there is some information about how COVID-19 could impact a fetus, the research is incomplete. The fertility centers have closed temporarily and stopped treating patients in order to implement safety protocols. Women and couples who were planning to begin treatment in the last couple of months were put on hold and their new start date was uncertain. Their stress was compounded by the financial struggles these patients faced along with the rest of the nation.
“The immediate impact was tremendous for patients because so many were already scheduled to start treatment,” Yao said. “For many of these patients to even get to that point it meant they spent probably a year doing testing, trying to make really tough decisions, having tried other treatment options that have failed, or having to save up money for treatments. Realizing that their treatment can’t happen right away was devastating, especially because for many patients there is a real time sensitivity. “
During this time, fertility centers have continued to use Univfy’s counseling reports via Telehealth. Many fertility centers have started reopening and resuming treatments in accordance with local municipal or state regulations.
The Univfy team has continued to develop new features that they had planned to roll out before the rise of COVID-19 so that when the world is ready again, they will be able to serve their patients with a more enhanced platform.
In the future, Univfy plans to continue their ongoing process of finding the most effective way to combine human empathy and AI to enhance the patient-provider relationship and make counseling more holistic. They also want to discover the most cost-effective and supportive ways to council the LGBTQ community on their journey to having a baby.
“As my team and I learned more and more, there are so many layers to that transparency and counseling that we are still working on it and there are still many more ways that we can help these patients,” Yao said. “It’s like an onion, every time you peel a layer and think you learn something, there is more to learn,” Yao said.
As an innovator who has exponentially grown her business in this past year, Yao looked back at her experience to share advice with femtech leaders who are still working on the foundation of their companies.
“One important to thing to figure out, if you have an amazing idea that can benefit patients or providers, is how can you implement it in a way that is easy for providers?” Yao said. “They have a million things to do, so what is that one more thing they have to do now.”
Yao emphasized the importance of having empathy for the providers as well as patients by making the technology as easy to use as possible.
“I think a lot of the new advances or new ideas come from technology, which is great, that is what we as a society are moving towards, but what is that human element and that empathy that is so important to maintain while we are introducing a new technology,” Yao said.