Fertility pro Ovuline expands to pregnancy tracking, promise better health and peace of mind through big data

By Michael Carney , written on November 14, 2013

From The News Desk

Thankfully, despite the prevalence of photo-sharing and "box of the month" startups, there are many bold entrepreneurs turning to technology to address really ambitious life problems. Ovuline co-founder and CEO Paris Wallace and his team have been doing exactly this for nearly two years, harnessing the power of big data and machine learning to help women get pregnant faster. Today, the company is moving beyond fertility with the launch of a novel pregnancy tracking app called Ovia Pregnancy.

It’s a natural next step for the company which thus far has built deep and personal relationships with thousands of women, helping them to conceive and carrying them all the way through delivery. The company has collected 25 million health data points on its 150,000 users, adding over 1 million more every three days. The company has already used this data to reduce the average conception time for users from six months down to two. The idea is that some of this same technology can now be used to help women better understand their pregnancies and their maternal health at an incredibly personal level.

“Throughout pregnancy, women are searching for answers to important questions, such as ‘What does this symptom mean for me?’, ‘How is my baby doing?’, and ‘Is what I’m feeling normal?’” says Ovuline VP of Product Development Gina Nebesar.

The standard before Ovia was that, once pregnant, new parents signed up for email newsletters, read books, asked friends and family, and otherwise got generalized information that may or may not apply to them, Wallace says. Ovia aims to create a personalized resource that is visually appealing and highly engaging but also clinically accurate.

Within the app, mothers are invited to monitor their weight, nutrition, exercise, steps, and blood pressure, as well as record symptoms and moods in real time. Women who use health trackers, such as Fitbit and Withings, can integrate those devices into the app for easy data collection. The app also offers a kick counter and contraction timers, medication and food lookup, and crowd favorite, weekly fruit and vegetable size comparisons and mom versus baby hand size comparisons. Women are able to share the charts, checklists, and images created within the app with either their doctors, their friends and family, or the public via email, text message, Facebook, and Twitter.

Most importantly, according to Wallace, Ovia delivers personalized warnings called “critical alert” when a mother reports symptoms that suggest potential pregnancy complications. This could include, unusual changes in heart rate, low kick-rate, or extreme weight change. Just as important as identifying dangerous changes in data, however, is offering mothers reassurance when things appear normal.

“We’ve found in testing that the average user asks 200 questions over the lifetime of their pregnancy,” Wallace says. “With Ovia, they are able to get immediate feedback, as well as have relevant content pushed to them based on what data they are reporting and where their concerns lay.”

Ovia and Ovuline share a backend database, allowing the company to create a personal medical history for its users and to develop personalized health insights. According to Wallace, the company is even starting to notice new patterns and draw insights that have never been available to medical professionals because they lacked this broad and rich dataset. The next step will be to add new products to continue to track the health of mothers and their children during the first years of a child’s life.

“We are genuinely finding correlations every day that have never been discovered before,” Wallace says. “We have no idea what’s possible. Can we answer, 'Is it a boy or a girl?,' or 'Do you have fetal distress syndrome?' earlier and less invasively than is possible today?”

Wallace’s timing couldn’t be better either, as the quantified self movement is now in full bloom. But in most cases, the products and services available in this category are little more than a novelty that deliver limited actionable insight to the end user. Ovia and Ovuline are anything but. What’s more, 50 percent of all health and wellness app usage on iOS is already taking place within (dumb, generation one) pregnancy tracking apps, according to Wallace. The category is begging for something better.

“I feel like there’s recently been a tipping point where successful healthcare companies are not necessarily  discovering new treatments, but are focused on reducing cost and complexity of existing treatments,” Wallace says. “Also, consumers are more incentivised than ever to take greater control of their health care. I like to joke that for most people, a $5,000 deductible is another way of saying you are uninsured. We think we can help women have healthier pregnancies and greater peace of mind.”

Ovuline claims to be the first company to use big data and machine learning in a consumer-facing fertility and pregnancy product. But the company is no longer alone, as former PayPal and Slide founder Max Levchin recently announced his Glow platform that is taking a similar approach to solving infertility. Glow has raised $6 million, to Ovuline’s $2.5 million and has the benefit of a star founder.

Ovuline is banking on its 12-month head start, its deep relationships with existing users, and the strength of his technology team – which is quite literally headed by a former rocket scientist in CTO Alex Baron – to compete within the space. Wallace also jests that his all-female product team should offer some sort of edge in delivering an appealing product to this demanding audience.

The idea for Ovuline came to Wallace from consumer feedback within his previous company, pre-pregnancy genetic testing service, Good Start Genetics. And Baron’s first child is affectionately called the “beta baby” around the Ovuline office, as he was the first child conceived with the help of the platform while it was still under development. “Most people, when they want to have a kid, start having sex. He started writing code,” Wallace says.

Ovuline’s backers in the above rounds of funding include Lightbank, LaunchCapital, LionBird, Bullet Time Ventures, Techstars (it’s a graduate of the Boston program), and David Cohen. Glow, on the other hand is backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund. [Disclosure: Three partners at Andreessen Horowitz are individual investors in PandoDaily, as is Founders Fund.]

Ovia, like Ovuline, will be entirely free at the outset. Eventually, the company plans to monetize through helping women make effective health and financial decisions, according Wallace. As an example, he says, “We know that if our users have a history of genetic or chromosomal abnormalities, or are over 35, then they should be getting certain non-invasive prenatal tests. We can partner with and make referrals to top service providers that offer these tests and receive commissions for doing so.”

Neither Ovuline nor Ovia diagnose medical conditions. Rather, they raise alerts and make recommendations to the effect of, “We’ve noticed that you’re reporting these symptoms and according to clinical guidelines, you could have X condition and should speak to you doctor,” according to Wallace. “Oh and by the way, these are the questions you should ask him or her when in your appointment.”

All of this relies on data shared by the user, which given the private nature of pregnancy and health care, would seem to be a barrier to entry for Ovuline. But, given the benefit the company’s products promise in return, this has been anything but the case.

“We’ve actually been overwhelmed with the amount of info that people are willing to share,” Wallace says. “This is basically quantified self 2.0. Elite athletes and women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant are really the only two populations who are fully committed to engaging with and listening to their bodies. We’re collecting this data and applying it to deliver specific recommendations that improve people’s lives.”