Legacy, a male fertility startup, has just raised a fresh, $3.5 million in funding from Bill Maris’s San Diego-based venture firm, Section 32, along with Y Combinator and Bain Capital Ventures, which led a $1.5 million seed round for the Boston startup last year.
We talked earlier today with Legacy’s founder and CEO Khaled Kteily about his now two-year-old, five-person startup and its big ambitions to become the world’s preeminent male fertility center. Our biggest question was how Legacy and similar startups convince men — who are generally less concerned with their fertility than women — that they need the company’s at-home testing kits and services in the first place.
“They should be worried about [their fertility],” said Kteily, a former healthcare and life sciences consultant with a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. “Sperm counts have gone down 50 to 60% over the last 40 years.” More from our chat with Legacy, a former TechCrunch Battlefield winner, follows; it has been edited lightly for length.
TC: Why start this company?
KK: I didn’t grow up wanting to be the king of sperm [laughs]. But I had a pretty bad accident — a second-degree burn on my legs after having four hot Starbucks teas spill on my lap in a car — and between that and a colleague at the Kennedy School who’d been diagnosed with cancer and whose doctor suggested he freeze his sperm ahead of his radiation treatments, it just clicked for me that maybe I should also save my sperm. When I went into Cambridge to do this, the place was right next to the restaurant Dumpling House and it was just very awkward and expensive and I thought, there must be a better way of doing this.
TC: How do you get started on something like this?
KK: This was before Ro and Hims began taking off, but people were increasingly comfortable doing things from their own homes, so I started doing research around the idea. I joined the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. I started taking continuing education classes about sperm…
TC: Women are under so much pressure from the time they turn 30 to monitor their fertility. Aside from extreme circumstances, as with your friend, do men really think about testing their sperm?
KK: Men should be worried about it, and they should be taking responsibility for it. What a lot of folks don’t know is for every one in seven couples that are actively trying to get pregnant, the man is equally responsible [for their fertility struggles]. Women are taught about their fertility but men aren’t, yet the quality of their sperm is degrading over the years. Sperm counts have gone down by 50 to 60% over the last 40 years, too.
TC: Wait, what? Why?
KK: [Likely culprits are] chemicals in plastics, chemicals in what we eat and drink, changes in lifestyle; we move less and eat more, and sperm health relates to overall health. I also think mobile phones are causing it. I will caveat this by saying there’s been mixed research, but I’m convinced that cell phones are the new smoking in that it wasn’t clear that smoking was as dangerous as it is when the research was being conducted by companies that benefited by [perpetuating cigarette use]. There’s also a generational decline in sperm quality [to consider]; it poses increased risk to the mother but also the child, as the risk of gestational diabetes goes up, as well as the rate of autism and other congenital conditions.
TC: You’re selling directly to consumers. Are you also working with companies to incorporate your tests in their overall wellness offerings?
KK: We’re investing heavily in business-to-business and expect that to be a huge acquisition channel for us. We can’t share any names yet, but we just signed a big company last week and have a few more in the works. These are mostly Bay Area companies right now; it’s an area where our experience as a YC alum was valuable because of the founders who’ve gone through and now run large companies of their own.
TC: When you’re talking with investors, how do you describe the market size?
KK: There are four million couples that are facing fertility challenges and in all cases, we believe the man should be tested. So do [their significant others]. Almost half of purchases [of our kits] are by a female partner. We also see men in the military freezing their sperm before being deployed, same-sex couples who plan to use a surrogate at some point and transgender patients who are looking at a life-changing [moment] and want to preserve their fertility before they start the process. But we see this as something that every man might do as they go off to college, and investors see that bigger picture.
TC: How much do the kits and storage cost?
KK: The kit costs $195 up front, and if they choose to store their sperm, $145 a year. We offer different packages. You can also spend $1,995 for two deposits and 10 years of storage.
TC: Is one or two samples effective? According to the Mayo Clinic, sperm counts fluctuate meaningfully from one sample to the next, so they suggest semen analysis tests over a period of time to ensure accurate results.
KK: We encourage our clients to make multiple deposits. The scores will be variable, but they’ll gather around an average.
TC: But they are charged for these deposits separately?
TC: And what are you looking for?
KK: Volume, count, concentration, motility and morphology [meaning the shape of the sperm].
TC: Who, exactly, is doing the analysis and handling the storage?
KK: We partner with Andrology Labs in Chicago on analysis; it’s one of the top fertility labs in the country. For storage, we partner with a couple of cryo-storage providers in different geographies. We divide the samples into four, then store them in two different tanks within each of two locations. We want to make sure we’re never in a position where [the samples are accidentally destroyed, as has happened at clinics elsewhere].
TC: I can imagine fears about these samples being mishandled. How can you assure customers this won’t happen?
KK: Trust and legitimacy are core factors and a huge area of focus for us. We’re CPPA and HIPAA compliant. All [related data] is encrypted and anonymized and every customer receives a unique ID [which is a series of digits so that even the storage facilities don’t know whose sperm they are handling]. We have extreme redundancies and processes in place to ensure that we’re handling [samples] in the most scientifically rigorous way possible, as well as ensuring the safety and privacy of each [specimen].
TC: How long can sperm be frozen?
TC: How will you use all the data you’ll be collecting?
KK: I could see us entering into partnerships with research institutions. What we won’t do is sell it like 23andMe.