TechStars Grad Ovuline Gets $1.4M for Pregnancy-Tracking Software

1/7/13Follow @curtwoodward

Alex Baron is a pretty hard-core technical guy: Advanced degrees in computer science and statistics, expertise in machine learning, experience in the finance world and high-tech industry.

So when he was confronted with a sometimes-elusive piece of human biology—how to get two people together at just the right time to conceive a baby—it was pretty clear that an algorithm wouldn’t be far behind.

That work led to a new startup, Ovuline, that graduated from the Boston class of TechStars this fall. And, not coincidentally, two babies—both Baron and another Ovuline founder, Vasile Tofan, have welcomed children since starting to build the fledgling company.

Today, there’s a little more evidence that their idea could have promise. Ovuline says Lightbank, LionBird, Launch Capital, and TechStars CEO David Cohen have seeded it with $1.4 million in cash to continue building its pregnancy-tracking software.

The investment is targeted at helping Ovuline build the next phase of its service, branching out from the getting-pregnant part of parenthood (ovulation and period tracking) into pregnancy health monitoring.

The hope is that Ovuline can connect its online software with wearable, connected health monitors—products like the Jawbone Up or Nike Fuelband, which keep track of a user’s vital signs, sleep patterns, and activity to help people see how their health is affected by simple lifestyle changes.

Along the way, CEO Paris Wallace says, Ovuline hopes to push online health tools into their next generation of usefulness.

In the first wave of the Web, sites like WebMD took volumes of health information out of reference books and put it online, where people could more easily access it. In the social media-focused second wave, the emphasis shifted to building communities, where patients could talk to each other about their experiences and compare notes on various health problems.

“The next stage of the Web is actually using people’s information and telling them what to do—actually doing the work for people,” Wallace says. “Part of that is just, ‘Have sex today.’ But it also can be, ‘Take an ovulation test today, and give us the result.’”

That’s where co-founder and CTO Baron’s machine learning expertise comes into play. When an Ovuline user signs up and starts putting information about their cycle into the system, it’s doing more than just spitting back the likely days of high fertility. Ovuline also is comparing that data to other information about women trying to get pregnant, creating a database that has the potential of finding patterns about what tends to work for people in similar situations.

Compare that to the standard crowded Web forums, with endless threads of users discussing their own health and pregnancy particulars. Even a very popular consumer Web brand like The Bump, an offshoot of the wedding-planning site The Knot, offers a pretty simple ovulation calculator and a downloadable PDF of a standard cycle-tracking calendar.

Ovuline says its fertility software already has shown success and attracted enthusiastic users. The early version began about a year ago, and some 25,000 users have signed up, with more than 1,500 reporting pregnancies. Wallace says the users who are reporting pregnancies have been getting pregnant even faster than the national average—in about two months, versus four to six months.

Ovuline’s service runs on a pretty standard model for software services, with a free tier and prices for different levels of high features. The company actually offers a six-month money-back guarantee that women will get pregnant, provided they stick to some rules like entering all of their data and following Ovuline’s recommendations.

The next phase, Ovuline’s pregnancy health-tracking service, is still being tested. That’s much more complex than the relatively simple matter of tracking a woman’s fertility cycle. But Ovuline says the current state of online services is still not serving expectant parents very well—recall those crowded online forums, where a flood of anecdotes and worried patients can lead even the most self-assured person down the road of questioning whether every bump and blemish is the first sign of something serious.

“What’s currently being asked is for people to become pregnancy experts,” Wallace says. “We can figure that out using technology and explain that to them. They can just worry about getting that data in and being as healthy as possible.”

One of my immediate thoughts was whether a service like Ovuline starts walking a legally risky line once it starts getting into the business of giving out health tips to pregnant women. With a constellation of things that could possibly go wrong, is the startup just one heartbroken couple away from a crushing legal case?

While you can’t rule out the ability of almost anyone to file a lawsuit, Wallace says Ovuline is careful to not play doctor. “We don’t give people medical advice. We allow them to monitor their key health indicators,” he says.

So, if a pregnant user’s blood pressure were to show a steady rise that was outside the range of what’s considered safe by standard medical guidelines, Ovuline could alert the user to make an appointment.

“Our answer is, ‘Ask your doctor,’” he says. “We’re not trying to replace doctors. We’re just trying to give people better information so they can better understand their health.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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