Max Levchin wants to get you pregnant. He wants you to pop a sprout so badly he’s actually willing to pay up if his new free fertility app Glow doesn’t help you conceive. The 37-year-old co-founder of PayPal is all about harnessing big data to solve problems. A tech transition from payment models to the Big Payload may seem surprising, but as Levchin sees it, fertility is a field both misunderstood by clueless wannabe parents and neglected by the medical insurance model. But do we really need another pastel-themed ovulation app, even one with advanced analytics and a clever financial gimmick?
Levchin, a toned and T-shirt-wearing tech genius, reportedly once graphed his preferences for breast sizes. The wunderkind has grown up, and to prove it, he said the phrase “cervical mucus” five times on stage last month at the D: All Things Digital conference. The premise of the app, set to launch in the coming weeks, is this: Most people who have trouble conceiving are not as infertile as they think. They just need better information to help them find their peak days and nights. “Twenty percent of women think they’re infertile, but the real number is more like 2 percent,” Levchin told the audience at D. (The CDC cites the figure 11 percent, using the definition of “infertile” as being unable to conceive after 12 months. Levchin thinks most of those women can get pregnant.) To gauge your odds on any given day, Glow will crunch many points of data, from the length of your menstrual cycle to your temperature to your weight and mood. In a rather silly nod to partner involvement, the app also signs up your mate, who can provide “objective” readings of your disposition. (If you’re crabby, the app prompts Hapless Partner to send you a thoughtful love text.)
But lots of apps already do most of that. Glow’s notable distinction is that while you’re trying to get pregnant, you have the option of contributing $50 a month to a “mutual assistance program.” If you’re not knocked up at the end of 10 months, you’ll get a share of the pool to help pay for fertility treatments. To kick off the fund, Levchin, who already has two children, is contributing $1 million of his own money. “I couldn’t live without [children],” he told the crowd at D. “This isn’t an optional thing. They are part of me. The fact that some people know every day that want to have this part in their life and they can’t have it, that’s pretty profound.”
It’s also good business. The insurance-pool idea may seem like a gambit, but it’s actually quite brilliant. One cycle of in vitro fertilization runs about $12,000, and currently only a handful of states require insurance companies to cover all or part of the cost of fertility treatments. Of course, in order to work, Glow needs a large pool of earnest, honest, diligent people, but that is the app’s natural audience. These are people willing to place a bet. (And should someone be not so honest, faking answers to claim the treasure chest, it won’t work: The money goes straight to a Glow-approved fertility clinic, not into your grubby thumb-powered hands.)
So Levchin has it all planned out. But do we really need his help? Sadly, it seems we do. If insurance companies have failed couples, the medical establishment has failed them too, by removing fertility from the realm of grandmothers and midwives, disconnecting us from our natural hormonal cycles through pharmaceuticals and providing pretty lame, generic advice.
Levchin wants medicine to be more personalized, and thinks his app can do what your doctor cannot. A better OB, though, isn’t the model. A better midwife should be. When Levchin describes “how ridiculously 15th century the fertility industry is,” he’s right, but not in the way he intends. The best ways to monitor your fertility are still the old-fashioned ones: Count the days, take your temperature, and handle the mucus. If it’s clear and stretchy, it’s time to do the deed (or let’s be real: avoid the deed. Perhaps the greatest subversive power of knowing when you’re fertile is in pregnancy-avoidance, as your ancestors knew perfectly well). But Levchin’s got a point in that most modern, career-building women don’t know our egg whites from our omelets. If much of the ancient wisdom has been lost, technology, ironically, can help us regain it.
When I was trying to conceive a decade ago and it was taking longer than I hoped, I found my way to Toni Weschler’s seminal (sorry), life-changing manual Taking Charge of Your Fertility, originally published in 1996. It lays it all out there, the primordial but simple secrets of the female body that my comprehensive post-collegiate education had failed to elucidate. Somehow, in our collective pill-induced ignorance of all things cyclical, we’d missed the most obvious facts of our reproductive biology: Our temperatures go up, considerably up, after ovulation, and our—yes, ahem—cervical mucus changes rather drastically, if only we care to look.
Weschler’s book was a revelation, and it has informed my reproductive life ever since. It appealed to my Our Bodies, Ourselves politics and it brought out my inner protractor-wielding geek. Granted, not every couple wants to sit around with graph paper, but the lures of (and aversions to) parenthood can be very motivating. I’m happy to report this book still consistently ranks very high on Amazon, and every Girl Scout troop in the world ought to get its hands on a copy. Weschler herself sought to digitize the information with a now quaintly archaic software program called OvuSoft, complete with CDs.
Given all that, Glow could perform a real service by further spreading the Weschler gospel and making it ever easier to use. Levchin is a charismatic evangelist. The app looks simple, it’s attractive, and most intriguing, it’s uniquely primed to interface with personal sensors. Expect to see a Glow-enabled basal thermometer coming to an iPhone near you. Although Levchin didn’t offer specifics, Glow will also likely market an ovulation monitor (it reads your daily hormone levels). And of course, all of your personal reproductive data will be PayPal-strength encrypted (so is the graph paper on your night table, but never mind).
In addition to getting you pregnant, the real purpose of Levchin’s project is to showcase a new model for personal, data-assisted medicine. “Health is a big information problem waiting for data analytics and wearable sensors,” he said. “I wanted to start somewhere to make a difference … I found it in procreation.”
Will Glow get you pregnant? It just might. Of course, there are lots of reasons couples don’t conceive, and lack of accurate ovulation data is just one of them. By focusing on temperature and mucus, Glow perpetuates the myth that infertility is a woman’s problem. According to the British Medical Journal, nearly half of “subfertility” can be attributed to male health problems like low sperm count and sexual dysfunction. Beyond that, some recent studies note a disturbing association between how long it takes to get pregnant and the presence of industrial substances like flame retardants coursing through our bodies. Maybe Levchin will next market a personal sperm motility monitor or a urine test to measure your and your partner’s load of endocrine-altering chemicals. Pretty soon there could be even more babies named Max.