Female-led student startups pursue innovation in reproductive health products

Two teams led by female graduate students strive to bring innovation to reproductive health products for women and men who are menstruating.

Ovubrush and NovvaCup participated in FastForward U’s nine-week spring 2022 fuel accelerator, designed for start-ups at later stages to help them reach the market and become investor-ready.

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

Iourovitski took an engineering course on maternal health as an undergraduate student when she learned about the unmet needs in fertility through interviews with new mothers for the class.

“We would talk about [the patient’s] pregnancy journey and broadly their path to motherhood, and I was surprised to hear how many people addressed the conception process, “she said.” It did not make sense to me why it was so complicated to know your body. “

Through customer discovery, Iourovitski learned that the fertility detection devices and techniques used by women were disruptive, cumbersome, or inaccurate.

“Detection takes time and mental energy,” Iourovitski said. “This is what led us to look for a way to combine fertility detection with someone’s daily routine.”

The cohort interactions and supportive mentorship at FastFoward U were extremely helpful in moving the project forward, Iourovitski said.

“It is actually possible to make your own product and commercialize it,” she said. “There’s a way to make it real. To be able to connect with Hopkins alums and people in the community with experience in different aspects of making a company … I enjoyed meeting with them and to hear their feedback and enthusiasm. “

Iourovitski believes Fuel’s Demo Day event, in which each team participates in a panel of award judges, allows teams to “zoom out and appreciate the greater effort than the small frustrations that arise each day.”

“Just meeting other people who work on fascinating and impactful projects, seeing how people take research or products and turning it into something that really works and seeing how people have an impact with the work they do was one of the most rewarding parts, “she said.

Danielle Nicklas, a PhD student in pathobiology, came up with the idea for NovvaCup after meeting her co-founders in a medical entrepreneurship class. She only tried to use a menstrual cup after hearing from friends who were studying abroad. While Nicklas liked the idea of ​​reusable and environmentally friendly period products, she found menstrual cups on the market uncomfortable. So Nicklas, who previously worked at a medical testing device, decided to create a better alternative.

Three people pose for a photo

Caption: Members of the NovvaCup team, from left to right: Co-founder Alexis Lowe, also the company’s chief operating officer; founder and CEO, Danielle Nicklas; a co-founder a CMO Clarissa Ren

Image credit: Courtesy of Alexis Lowe

“All the menstrual cups are a static design – a rigid, single-state cup – and the user is expected to be an origami master in folding medical grade silicone and inserting it,” Nicklas said. said. “We are designing a cup that has different foldable conditions so that it is easy to insert and remove and contains the rubbish. This will be one of the first foldable cups to strategically address the feasibility issues with current models.”

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

“This is something that is in line with our values, because menstrual cups are more eco-friendly, so it will be something that will reduce a lot of waste and be more cost-effective in the long run,” says co-founder Clarissa Ren, a medical student at the School of Medicine.

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

“Something we try to convey through our social media and messages is to educate about impact as well as to make it an inclusive and welcoming environment,” Ren said. “Just being able to talk about these topics that are sometimes considered taboo makes it more normalized in society. It’s a biological function. Women should not feel ashamed.”

Ren has explored clinical perspectives in gynecology and wants to integrate those lessons into NovvaCup’s mission. The team also seeks to include menstruating individuals who do not identify as women.

“A significant number of people still feel that their menstrual health education was not adequate,” Ren said.

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

“[JHTV] really turned the table for us, from brainstorming to wondering how to do it to getting so many resources and opportunities to really polish everything and learn what we want to do, ”Nicklas said.

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