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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Happy Birth Data! A New App Tracks Fertility

High-tech companies keep trying to fix America’s health care woes. This time, the effort is a combination of Big Data research and an old-fashioned Christmas club.

On Thursday, a start-up called Glow began offering an iPhone app for women who are trying to get pregnant. The app combines a calendar and data-seeking questions around things like fertility cycles, emotional and health conditions, even the type and quality of intercourse the woman has had.

The idea is to improve the odds of pregnancy by showing optimal days in which a woman might become pregnant, and, at the same time, anonymously gather data on a subject that is difficult to study. An Android version of the app is expected soon.

People can also join a program in which they pay $50 a month. If, at the end of 10 months, they do not conceive naturally, they get that money back, plus a share of funds from participants who did conceive, which they can put toward fertility treatment. That kind of purposeful forced savings, way back when, was how banks got people to save for Christmas (only they didn’t get other people’s money too.)

“Once we have a few hundred thousand data points, we’ll know a lot more about infertility,” said Max Levchin, Glow’s co-founder. Of the optional pay-in program, he said, “we think of it as crowdfunding babies.”

Mr. Levchin is a well-known tech figure who was a co-founder and chief technical officer at PayPal, where he figured out much of its breakthrough fraud detection system. He then started Slide, a media-sharing service that was sold to Google for $182 million, and was also an early investor in Yelp and other companies.

Glow’s other founder, Mike Huang, also worked at Slide and, like Mr. Levchin, worked for a time at Google after the Slide acquisition. Investors in Glow include the Founders Fund, an investment firm started by several PayPal veterans, and the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Over the past several years, there have been many efforts by tech executives to address aspects of health care. The more successful ones have tended to focus on fitness and nutrition, which are not as heavily regulated as, say, prescription drugs or hospital stays, and which don’t infringe on the turf of powerful health insurance companies.

Mr. Levchin called fertility treatments “almost ridiculously poorly covered” by health insurance, “an elective treatment that nobody who wants to conceive would call elective.”

Of course, for the data to roll in, people will have to at least somewhat faithfully enter their data. The fertility treatment club could help in that regard. To seed the opt-in program, called Glow First, Mr. Levchin said he was contributing $1 million of his own fortune.

While the app is free, Mr. Levchin’s main goal seems to be to amass data on a poorly studied area. He said he could find little research, for example, on the connection between mood or stress and conception. That data will be donated to researchers, but it could also lead to new ways of addressing the finances associated with not just fertility, but other elective treatments.

“Giving people a better sense of decision-making, promoting activist health care, is the only way to change the system,” he said. “This is a transitional first step to building a new kind of way to finance things.”