Quantified Self

Disrupt the V: With Glow, Silicon Valley Wants to Get You Ladies Knocked Up

Or, why the cofounder of Paypal keeps talking about cervical mucous.
(Photo: Glow)

(Photo: Glow)

The quantified self movement, it seems, has finally reached America’s ovaries, which is how this reporter found herself listening to Max Levchin, the cofounder of Paypal, loudly hold forth about cervical mucous in an Upper East Side Le Pain Quotidian. He and his cofounder Mike Huang were in town to explain Glow, a fertility tracker that debuted in the App Store today. They’ve raised $6 million from Founders Fund, Andreessen Horowitz and others, in the hopes of helping more couples make babies.

That’s right: Silicon Valley has decided it’s time to disrupt your uterus.

At it’s most basic level, Glow is a period tracker–which are quite common–with lots and lots of bells and whistles. You input your information, and the app will plot it against crowd-sourced data to pinpoint the window where you’re most fertile. The more you use it (and the more women use it overall), the better the predictions. The design is warm and welcoming (and blessedly green and lavender, rather than vulva pink), asking personal questions gently but insistently like an RN with a great bedside manner.

“We truly believe by using machine learning, by collecting this data, we can solve this problem,” said Mr. Huang, the company’s CEO.

Mr. Levchin calls the situation “the classic information gap data science problem.” People in the industrial world usually average two and a half kids; even the Duggars’ve topped out at 19, which isn’t really statistically significant. There’s the chance to save people the enormous costs of fertility treatments, often treated as elective. Once you do start the process with a fertility specialist, you’re manually filling out paper forms.

Then, of course, there’s the social taboo: “You don’t go like, hey, so how do you check for cervical mucous, what would you compare it to? Is it more like egg whites or like shaving cream?” said Mr. Levchin, returning to the theme that had made the audience at the D conference so squirmy. Perhaps here is the best place to note that all the company’s cofounders are dudes?

“It’s just sort of stuck in the 1600s or so,” he concluded, sounding frankly a little scandalized at the analog inefficiency. Especially given the proliferation of quantified self technologies–which always seem to focus on amateur athletes, instead of alleviating suffering.

“I’m not a particularly emotional person in general–like, Mike was telling me, ‘Do not be a robot,’” said Mr. Levchin. But spend some time on the forums for women trying to conceive, and “you get pretty emotional pretty quickly,” he admitted.

And yet the audience, Misters Huang and Levchin insisted, is just as much women in their 20s who want to get ahead of the curve. (“Most women are not on a regular cycle,” Mr. Levchin helpfully informed this female reporter.) With all that crowd-sourced data, the app could eventually suggest you eat more iron or see an OB/GYN about possible endometriosis symptoms, whether or not you’re trying. When it is time to go to a fertility specialist, you’ll get a nice PDF of your cycles (because come on, none of us actually mark our calendars with that crap).

For those struggling, it’s a way to loop in their partners, cluing them in, for instance, that it might be a good idea to bring home some flowers. “That sort of thing that seems almost sort of old-wife-tale-y, homespun wisdom, but it’s actually fundamentally human actions that are driven by data,” Mr. Levchin explained, sounding for the first time almost sheepish.

There’s only so much the app can actually accomplish, though, which is why the company has created the nonprofit Glow Fund, an attempt to rethink how health insurance works. Anyone who chooses to participate can kick in $50 a month. After 10 months, the money is divided equally among those who weren’t able to conceive, and the cash goes to their fertility treatments. Mr. Levchin is seeding the program with $1 million.

Ultimately, the Glow team has bigger goals than simply making more babies. The idea is to pioneer methods of preventative care and battling skyrocketing healthcare costs. “It has to be changed at the cost level and the prevention level,”  Mr. Levchin said. “We can’t legislate our way to cheaper care.”

Of course, public health pros have been singing the praises of preventative health for decades, but patient compliance is a bitch. So the goal is more seamless data collection: “For every data point that you have might type in manually, we’re working on a partnership that’ll allow us to gather data passively.” So basically they’re sitting around the office trying to figure out whether it would be possible to build urinalysis into the toilet bowl.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that discussion with the dudes from Andreessen Horowitz.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com