It never occurred to Katie Brenner to worry about getting pregnant, until she couldn’t.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry postdoctoral researcher tried to conceive for a year to no avail. Understandably, she was disappointed and anxious. Searching for answers, her doctor sent her for several blood tests over the span of a month, but the results came back inconclusive.
“My doctor did not seem nearly as concerned as I felt,” Brenner told Free Enterprise in an interview. “I thought, ‘What’s wrong?’ I wanted more information about my body! By day, I was a researcher in biochemistry, but by night I became obsessed with reading scientific papers about the biochemistry of reproduction, trying to figure out what might be wrong.”
One night, she stumbled across something in a research article that gave her hope. “It revealed that women’s saliva contains the same hormones that my doctor had been testing in my blood,” Brenner, now a mom of four, recalls. “Suddenly, I knew that this was the key.”
Many women struggling to conceive—and many women battling the negative effects of perimenopause—often need to take blood tests that capture critical hormone information every single day, and they need results immediately. “Saliva is the perfect bodily fluid for tests like these,” says Brenner.
After all, not only is testing saliva fast, effective, and convenient, it’s also painless, unlike traditional blood tests. The moment these realizations hit Brenner, the idea for her women’s health tech startup, bluDiagnostics was born.
That was back in 2012, when she co-founded the small biotech firm in Madison, Wisconsin. Joining Brenner in the pioneering venture are co-founders Jodi Schroll, a biotech industry veteran, and Douglas Weibel, a fellow University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemist.
Together, they’re developing Fertility Finder, a first-of-its-kind diagnostics device that samples saliva and measures the presence of two key hormone biomarkers—estradiol and progesterone.
To collect these biomarkers, a Fertility Finder user will insert a disposable paper strip into an electronic reader that looks like a basal thermometer. Next, she’ll place the reader into her mouth for a minute, as if she were taking her temperature. The results of the saliva tests will then be sent to the patient’s smartphone through a mobile app. From there, she can quickly share the results with her doctor to help inform diagnosis and treatment.
Bottom line: She’ll have more control over the testing process, and over her reproductive health.
“I set out to make a test that would give every woman the information she needs to take control of her fertility,” Brenner says. But it’s about more than just control. “We’re helping women better understand their bodies, about when to try to conceive, and when to see a doctor.”
For now, however, Fertility Finder remains in development. Once its technology and components are complete, FDA approval will be the next hurdle Brenner and her team must clear.
Meanwhile, across the Great Lakes, about of 640 miles northeast of bluDiagnostics, Eve Medical is also busy disrupting women’s health through technological innovation.
The small startup, co-founded in 2010 by industrial product designer Jessica Ching and her husband, second-time entrepreneur, architect, and economist Evan Moses, is developing an $85 do-it-yourself screening kit for HPV, a virus that can lead to cervical cancer. Called HerSwab, the at-home test—which involves a sample collection device resembling a tampon—will also detect STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and common STI complication, pelvic inflammatory disease.
Ching says her mission is not only to empower women to take charge of their reproductive health, but also to remove some of the more awkward parts of routine women’s health screenings. That’s why her groundbreaking test, essentially a DIY Pap smear, enables women to test themselves in the privacy of their own homes—away from the cold, metal exam table stirrups and uncomfortable swabbing of the gynecologist’s office.
“It comes down to ‘[getting a Pap smear] is really awkward,’” Ching tells Rogers Media. “That’s such a bad reason to not do something that could potentially save your life.”