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“Fertility benefits are the way to go, but European companies are not entirely convinced”

Employer fertility benefits have seen a dramatic rise in the US, but Europeans have not jumped on the trend

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Jenny Saft, Apryl co-founder

From Spotify and Facebook to Starbucks and Clif Bar, a growing number of US companies have introduced family-building benefits. Now, it’s time for Europe to support aspiring parents, says Jenny Saft.

When Jenny Saft decided to freeze her eggs aged 32, she was unaware of the many barriers women face regarding a relatively new procedure that was declared “no longer experimental” by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in 2012.

“After I spoke to my gynaecologist, I started to do a lot of research and I became really frustrated with the lack of transparency and stigma around this topic,” she says.

“It almost felt like doctors didn’t know how to have a proper conversation about this.”

Egg freezing retrievals increased dramatically from pre-pandemic levels with UK enquiries rising by as much as 50 per cent in the summer of 2020, compared to the prior year.

But although plans to extend the storage limit from 10 to 55 years are a welcome step in enabling women to freeze their eggs when they are younger, cost remains a major barrier to the treatment.

With the average total cost of egg freezing sometimes reaching more than £6,000 and additional yearly costs for storing the eggs, many aspiring mums like Saft are left disheartened.

“Most of these procedures, including IVF, are self-pay treatments. And even if the public healthcare funds partially cover them, it’s in very discriminating conditions,” she explains.

In her native Germany, the national policy reimburses 50 per cent of IVF/ICSI costs for up to three cycles but only for heterosexual couples in which women must be under the age of 40.

In England, whether you are able to access NHS fertility treatment depends on your GP’s postcode, with different regions offering different levels of access to NHS IVF and some offering none at all.

Women can be eligible for three rounds of NHS-funded IVF treatment if they have been trying unsuccessfully to start a family for two or more years, or if they have had 12 or more unsuccessful rounds of artificial insemination.

Unsurprisingly, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority found that the NHS funded only 35 per cent of IVF cycles in England in 2017 – the lowest level ever recorded by Britain’s fertility regulator – forcing many couples to go private or give up on treatment altogether.

This is due to a “scattered” system across Europe, says Saft. “We have to deal with a framework that doesn’t make sense and is not inclusive.

“If we look at the US where the concept of fertility benefits is exploding, we can see that more can be done for these couples.”

Although European healthcare systems are run at individual national levels, they are generally universal, unlike in the US where most citizens are covered by a combination of private insurance and various federal and state programmes.

However, Saft believes we can use this complexity to our advantage. Alongside her co-founder, Tobias Kaufhold, she brought the concept of fertility benefits closer to home by launching Apryl – a tech platform providing fertility benefits and working with employers across Europe.

“One of the biggest healthcare crises of our generation is infertility. Unfortunately, many people are still unaware of it,” she says.

“We started this journey because we realised that if you can’t afford treatment, you won’t be able to access fertility care.

“But if employers can implement strategic benefits, to give people access [to fertility care] they can make a huge statement not just by encouraging a more inclusive approach but by helping employees to plan their families and thrive in their career.”

Although Apryl is still an early-stage start-up, it aims to become the go-to benefits provider for progressive European companies, by offering employees fertility and family planning benefits, including consultations, access to clinics, as well as egg freezing, IVF and adoption.

“We want to be there for anyone in need of support regardless of sexual orientation or status,” says Saft.

“Diversity was something very clear for us from the very beginning and we knew that if we wanted to build this, we had to be something for everyone.”

Destigmatising fertility issues is another topic Saft is passionate about, as numerous studies have shown the major brunt of infertility is disproportionately borne by women.

“An increasing number of women choose to have kids later in their life and I think it’s important to speak openly about things like egg freezing or IVF.

“It’s funny that companies in Europe are still not entirely convinced that fertility benefits are the way to go. But part of the reason why they see this as niche is due to the stigma around fertility.”

Despite a lack of knowledge and a male-dominated VC space, she remains optimistic.

“I think the beauty is that we can develop solutions that can help employers and governments to work together and give more people access to care,” she says.

“In the US such benefits have come naturally because of their healthcare system. In Europe, they come more from a diversity inclusion angle, but I think we will see more companies implementing them soon.

“I also think governments will improve their set-ups and dedicate higher funds to this topic, in the long term.

“The best thing is that we have a business that people believe in and that can actually make a difference in the world.”

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Maven Clinic launches programme for couples struggling to conceive

The programme aims to address the gap between trying to conceive and fertility treatment

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The US virtual clinic Maven has launched a health coaching programme in an effort to expand family-building options for couples struggling to conceive.

With 86 per cent of women not receiving preconception care from their family physician or OB/GYN, Maven’s Trying-To-Conceive (TTC) health coaching programme aims to support people who may be struggling and want to get pregnant without IVF.

The programme includes one-to-one support, reproductive education, ovulation tracking kits, as well as referrals to resources for mental health and nutrition.

“Maven is making sure every family can access the shortest pathway to having a healthy baby,” said Kate Ryder, Maven Clinic founder and CEO.

“We have constructed a unique model that, for the first time, aligns incentives among the stakeholders in healthcare to support people who are trying to conceive.”

To address the gap between trying to conceive and fertility treatment, Maven’s TTC Coaching service brings the benefits of health coaching to fertility care, providing members with “personalised” support and reproductive education, Ryder said. 

Dr Neel Shah, Maven Clinic’s chief medical officer, added: “While most sex education is spent teaching people how to avoid pregnancy, very little time is invested in empowering them with the guidance needed to become pregnant when they’re ready.

“Our coaching program supports couples to understand why they are struggling to conceive and in many cases helps them get pregnant without needing IVF.”

Further product enhancements the Maven team has announced include the Maven Managed Benefit platform, as well as an expansion of the company’s reproductive urology provider network for male fertility support.

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Brazilian fertility network FertGroup partners with Future Fertility to launch innovative oocyte assessment software across all clinics

The collaboration marks a significant milestone in advancing fertility care in Brazil

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FertGroup Medicina Reproductiva, a dynamic network of fertility clinics in Brazil, is proud to announce its partnership with Future Fertility to introduce cutting-edge oocyte assessment software, VIOLET™ and MAGENTA™, across its expanding network of clinics.

With nine clinics currently under FertGroup ownership, the network is poised for significant growth, aiming to surpass 15 clinics within the coming year.

This expansion is a response to the escalating demand for fertility services in Brazil, a market that has seen remarkable growth (17.6 per cent CAGR compared to the global average of ~10 per cent).

Factors driving this growth include an underserved market, rising medical tourism, and evolving population dynamics emphasising the need for advanced fertility solutions.

Led by private equity investors XP Private Equity fund, FertGroup is committed to revolutionising the fertility care landscape in Brazil and beyond.

Future Fertility is the first and only AI company to offer a comprehensive and easily integratable solution to oocyte assessment for clinics around the world.

With the world’s largest oocyte dataset, the use of this software (VIOLET™ and MAGENTA™) is at the forefront of this partnership, enabling clinicians, embryologists and patients to gain broad access to AI-driven insights about oocyte quality.

Nelson Guerreiro Pestana, CEO of FertGroup Medicina Reproductiva, highlighted the importance of integrating such innovative technologies: “At FertGroup, we are committed to bringing forward medical innovation that directly benefits the lives of Brazilians.

“Partnering with Future Fertility reinforces our market-leading position and reputation for excellence in fertility care.”

This technology optimises decisions regarding oocyte cryopreservation, ICSI IVF treatment approaches and oocyte donation. It also empowers patients by offering valuable insights into how their health status impacts expected fertility outcomes, helping clinics differentiate their service offering and provide a more patient-centric approach to fertility care.

Christy Prada, CEO of Future Fertility, expressed excitement about the expansion into the Brazilian market: “We are thrilled to partner with FertGroup Medicina Reproductiva in introducing Future Fertility’s innovative oocyte assessment software to Brazil.

“FertGroup is leading the market as the first network in Brazil to implement this technology, marking a significant step forward for fertility care in the region.”

Dr Edson Borges Jr, chief medical officer of FertGroup Medicina Reproductiva, emphasised the significance of oocyte quality in care delivery: “As a scientific leader in the field, we believe in bringing cutting edge technology to our patients, and supporting further research into new approaches to measuring and assessing progress in fertility treatment.

“Oocyte quality is a critical aspect of fertility care, and we believe that by integrating Future Fertility’s advanced tools into our care models we will advance the science in this space and demonstrate the value of leveraging oocyte quality in decision making.”

“Integrating the Future Fertility technology into our labs has been completely seamless” remarked Maria Cecilia Cardoso, group lab director.

“We already can see the value of the workflow integration, and this was a major decision factor for us. We are excited to see the benefits this will bring to decision making, providing an objective and personalised view of quality control into the process.”

This collaboration between FertGroup Medicina Reproductiva and Future Fertility marks a significant milestone in advancing fertility care in Brazil.

The introduction of VIOLET™ and MAGENTA™ software underscores FertGroup’s dedication to innovation and patient-centric care, solidifying its position as a pioneer in the Brazilian fertility market.

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Don’t politicise fertility, leaders warn after MP’s ‘patronising’ intervention

It is worrying to see a “deeply personal” women’s health issue being debated by politicians, fertility benefits providers told Femtech World

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UK femtech leaders have warned of the dangers of playing politics with fertility services following what they call “unhelpful, patronising and disrespectful” comments from an MP. 

The Conservative MP Miriam Cates raised concerns this week that women are being exploited into freezing their eggs, claiming that “most hopeful mothers are sold a lie”.

She said she fears women are being given “false promises” by large corporations offering them money to freeze their eggs to put off having children to a later age.

However, reproductive benefits providers labelled the comments as “unhelpful, patronising and disrespectful”.

Eileen Burbidge MBE, executive director at reproductive health start-up Fertifa, said: “Policymakers should absolutely be giving more attention to protecting reproductive health access and treatment options for women, given how shamefully ignored women’s health has been for too long.

“However, characterising egg freezing in the way that Miriam Cates has recently done is unhelpful, patronising and disrespectful to women who rely upon the option to freeze their eggs whether for medical reasons, to donate to others who suffer from infertility or for their own future optionality to relieve patriarchal societal pressures of finding a life partner or starting a family.”

Far from being exploitative, employers who offer financial and wellbeing access to reproductive healthcare are responding to what their talent is asking for, Burbidge, who served on former British prime minister David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group, told Femtech World.

“Data has consistently shown that women do not choose to freeze their eggs in order to work longer or prioritise their careers, but rather because they’ve yet to find a life partner and wish to not succumb to patriarchal societal pressures to do so.

“The fact that companies are supporting this will hopefully mean more women recognise the fact that the likelihood of success increases the earlier they freeze their eggs.”

Leila Thabet, UK general manager at Maven Clinic, said it is concerning to see a highly emotionally charged women’s health issue being debated by politicians and commentators with their own agendas.

“It is correct that egg freezing will not work for all women, but rather than paint an entirely bleak picture of the practice, it is vital that we empower women with facts around the procedure so they do not fall prey to exploitative clinics and operators who may not have their best interests at heart,” she said.

“At a time when data shows that women’s health care needs are still largely being neglected, it is unhelpful to dismiss the provision of women’s and family health benefits in the workplace as exploitative. This is as unhelpful as it is untrue.”

Jenny Saft, co-founder and CEO of fertility benefits provider Apryl, said there is a misconception that fertility benefits platforms offer egg freezing to keep women in the workplace.

“This is not how these programmes are designed or implemented. From my experience, it’s rare to find a company that limits its fertility benefits to egg freezing alone,” she explained.

“Typically, employers provide a comprehensive suite of fertility and family-forming options, including but not limited to egg freezing, sperm freezing, IVF, adoption, and surrogacy.”

Egg freezing has seen a sharp rise in the UK. More women than ever before are undergoing procedures, with egg and embryo freezing now the fastest growing fertility treatments in the country.

According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HEFA), egg freezing and storage saw a 64 per cent increase in 2021 compared to 2019.

The procedure, which is not available on the NHS, is largely carried out by private clinics at a price tag of £7,000 to £8,000. Fertility benefits platforms claim to provide financial and emotional support for egg freezing, giving women more freedom over when to start a family.

“When egg freezing is offered as an employee benefit it takes away the financial burden of egg freezing,” said Dr Catherine Hill, head of policy and public affairs at Fertility Network UK.

“However, it does not remove the health risks and side effects associated with the invasive medical process, or the emotionally demanding and often upsetting nature of freezing your eggs – all of which women need to consider before making any decision.

“Because this is such a big life choice, it is vital women do not feel under any obligation from their employer to take advantage of this employee benefit.”

Although the procedure enables some women to delay motherhood until the time that is right for them, egg freezing should never be seen as a fertility insurance policy, Hill said.

She added: “Making a decision on the right time to approach parenthood or to attempt to postpone it is a very individual commitment and must be made without pressure from anyone else, including employers. Egg freezing should be about widening women’s reproductive choices on when to have a baby, not enabling a scenario where women feel forced to delay motherhood.”

Becky Kearns, co-founder of Fertility Matters at Work, said it is crucial that companies educate employees and empower them to make informed choices.

“While egg freezing will be seen as a huge benefit and attraction for the next generation of workforce, it needs to be balanced with information and facts to allow people to make informed choices,” she told Femtech World.

“Organisations should be supporting fertility treatment as a whole where possible, not just for those early in their careers. If the focus is solely on egg freezing there’s the risk that this may be perceived as a means to encourage employees to delay having a family, to the short-term benefit of the employer.

“This benefit on its own, without balanced information and education about outcomes and overall fertility awareness, may result in people purposely delaying having children, thinking they have a guarantee for when the time is right, when in reality it gives them a chance.

Miriam Cates has been approached for comment.

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