While the male birth control pill is still a fiction (that may never become fact), a new company called Contraline is working to make at least one non-surgical, reversible birth control procedure a reality.
The new technology is aiming to be one small (snip-less) step for men, and one giant leap for male contraception.
Based in Charlottesville, Va., Contraline is the culmination of four years of research conducted by the company’s chief executive Kevin Eisenfrats at the University of Virginia.
Ever since Eisenfrats shadowed operating room physicians in his senior year at the Academy of Allied Health Science high school in his hometown of Monmouth, NJ the now 23-year-old chief executive was fascinated by reproductive health.
“There are so many problems at the center of reproductive medicine and biomedical enginering that really come with no solutions,” Eisenfrats says.
In fact, the young CEO’s entrance essay to UVA was on the male birth control pill and why it didn’t exist.
Eisenfrats graduated with a degree in nano-medicine engineering and immediately began working with his co-founder John Herr (a longtime professor at the University of Virginia who died in 2016) on the Contraline technology.
The two men developed a reversible procedure that uses a gel injected into the vas deferens to literally block sperm during ejaculation. “For lack of a better word, the guy is literally shooting blanks,” he says.
Unlike other procedures, which rely on surgery to inject the gel into the canal that conveys sperm to the urethra, the Contraline procedure uses ultrasound as a guidance. The gel the two men developed is ultrasound visible (so it can be injected) and is dissolvable so that the procedure is reversible.
It’s important to note that the gel won’t prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. “The people this is for are couples in a long term relationship,” says Eisenfrats. Although, he adds, most of his friends want to get Contraline-d themselves.
Other companies, like the non-profit Parsemus Foundation (the makers of Vasalgel), are also working with a polymer gel, but still rely on surgery to insert the gel.
According to Eisenfrats, Contraline is plowing fertile ground when it comes to the potential market it’s addressing.
“This is basically the male birth control of the future,” he says.
The company has raised $2.5 million from investors including Abstract Ventures, Jaffray Woodriff, the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, Jason Calacanis, and the strategic investor Afton Scientific, a vial filling and sterilization company. Founders Fund lead the latest investment.
It’s the second seed round for the company, which is bound to only raise seed financing (since it’s a contraceptive company) Eisenfrats joked.
For Cyan Banister, who shepherded the deal through to investment for Founders Fund, happening on Contraline was a combination of luck and persistence. The company had turned up as the best of the Y Combinator Fellowship companies in a search conducted by Founders Fund’s interns.
Banister put a note to herself on a post-it reminding her to check in on the company, and she periodically did. She began conversations with the young startup August 2016 and the latest investment closed in March.
“I just kept checking back,” Banister told me.
In the seven months since those conversations began, Contraline brought on the urology specialist Dr. Paul Turek as an advisor (and now Chief Medical Officer) who validated that the company had been making significant strides.
“He validated that there were very few people working on that problem. Nobody was really making progress in birth control for men,” Banister says. “I believe that men want more options over their reproductive choices.”
With assurances in place from experts in the field of urology, and a careful vetting by Founders Fund’s own chief scientist, Banister was ready to cut the check.
That money has gone a lot farther in the company’s home base of Virginia than it would in San Francisco, the founding chief executive said. “We have our own 2200 square foot lab. The amount of space we have would be $1 million in San Francisco,” says Eisenfrats.
There are about 500,000 vasectomies performed in the U.S. every year and 22.5 million men relying on temporary contraceptives. “The contraceptive industry is $18 billion and growing,” says Eisenfrats. “[Our procedure] is a $7 billion opportunity in the U.S. [and] contraception is a global issue.”
According to Banister, the company’s plans extend beyond just male contraception. “There are things you can do with the gel for female reproductive health,” she said.
For now, the company still has a long way to go before the treatment will be generally available. A rat study is currently underway (“What I will say, is that the rats are loving it,” says Eisenfrats), but the company will conduct a large animal study this year.
Contraline will conduct clinical trials beginning in 2019 and hopes to be on the market by 2021, Eisenfrats said.
The company is one of a growing number of technology startups focused on male reproductive health. Just yesterday we wrote about YO, a “sperm selfie” startup, which is competing with Trak, another device that’s looking at the health of a man’s “fallopian swim team”.
When the time comes, Founders Fund’s Banister has a good idea who the first patient will be.
“[Eisenfrats] said he wants to be patient number one,” she said.