Female-Led Student Startups Pursue Innovation in Reproductive Health Products

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Two graduate student-led teams aim to innovate reproductive health products for women and people who menstruate.

Ovubrush and NovvaCup participated in the nine weeks of FastForward U Fuel Accelerator Spring 2022which is designed for early-stage startups to help them get to market and get ready for investors.

Ovubrush, founded by Bioengineering Innovation and Design Center graduate student Janis Yurovitsky, is a high-tech toothbrush that uses changing saliva patterns as a biomarker to monitor the menstrual cycle, specifically to identify ovulation windows for conception. An internal sensor analyzes the electrical properties of a user’s saliva to track changes in estrogen levels. The signal is processed and then displayed via a smartphone app.

Yurovitsky was taking a maternal health engineering course as an undergrad when she learned about unmet fertility needs while interviewing new mothers for the class.

“We would talk about [the patient’s] their journey of pregnancy and more generally their journey to motherhood, and I was surprised to hear how many people talked about the conception process,” she said. “It just didn’t make sense to me that knowing your body is so complicated.”

Through client discovery, Yurovitsky learned that the fertility tracking devices and techniques women were using were disruptive, cumbersome or inaccurate.

“Follow-up takes time and mental energy,” Yurovitsky said. “That’s what led us to look for a way to combine fertility tracking with someone’s daily routine.”

Cohort interactions and supportive mentorship at FastFoward U have been extremely helpful in moving the project forward, Yurovitsky said.

“It’s actually possible to make your own product and market it,” she said. “There is a way to make that happen. Being able to connect with Hopkins alumni and people in the community with experience in different aspects of building a business… I enjoyed meeting them and hearing their feedback and enthusiasm .”

Yurovitsky believes Fuel demo day event, where each team presents to a panel of judges for awards, allows teams to “zoom out and appreciate the bigger effort beyond the little frustrations that come up every day.”

“Just meeting other people working on fascinating and impactful projects, seeing people take research or products and turning them into something that actually works, and seeing people impact the work that ‘they do has been one of the most rewarding parts,’ she says.

Danielle Nicklas, doctoral student in pathobiology, had the idea of NovvaCup after meeting its co-founders in a medical entrepreneurship course. She had first tried using a menstrual cup after hearing about it from friends who had studied abroad. While Nicklas liked the idea of ​​reusable and eco-friendly menstrual products, she found the menstrual cups on the market to be uncomfortable. So Nicklas, who previously worked in a medical testing device position, decided to create a better alternative.

Legend: NovvaCup team members, left to right: co-founder Alexis Lowe, also COO of the company; Founder and CEO Danielle Nicklas; and co-founder and CMO Clarissa Ren

Image credit: Courtesy of Alexis Lowe

“All menstrual cups are of a static design — a rigid, one-state cup — and the user should be an origami master at bending and inserting medical-grade silicone, Nicklas said. “We are designing a cup that has different collapsible states so that it is easy to insert and remove and contains the mess. This would be one of the first collapsible cups to strategically solve feasibility issues with current designs. “

There is an 11% discontinuation rate of existing menstrual cups, according to a 2019 study in The Lancet, due to messy and complicated operation. The NovvaCup team designs a reusable, convenient and sustainable product that eliminates recurring purchases of disposable products.

“It’s something that aligns with our values ​​because menstrual cups are more environmentally friendly, so it would be something that would reduce a lot of waste and be more cost-effective in the long run,” said co-founder Clarissa Ren, a college student. in medicine at the medical school.

The NovvaCup team also views its work as a social enterprise mission.

“Something we try to convey through our social media and messaging is to educate about impact and make it an inclusive and welcoming environment,” Ren said. “Just being able to talk about these topics that are sometimes considered taboo normalizes them in society. It’s a biological function. Women shouldn’t be ashamed.”

Ren has explored clinical perspectives in gynecology and wants to incorporate those lessons into NovvaCup’s mission. The team also aims to include menstruating people who do not identify as female.

“A significant number of people still feel like their menstrual health education wasn’t enough,” Ren said.

NovvaCup has previously received funding through a Thalheimer Graduate Student Award from FastForward U and won the People’s Choice Award at Fuel’s Demo Day.

“[JHTV] really changed things for us, from scratching our heads wondering how to do this to so many resources and opportunities to really tweak and learn everything we want to do,” Nicklas said.

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