My meeting the other day with a hot new San Francisco startup began routinely enough. Ikea-furnished office full of Macs, shaggy company dog, high-end iced coffee—check. Then former PayPal CEO Max Levchin walked in and started talking about cervical mucus. And about sexual positions, and whether certain configurations work best for conception. “Does female orgasm make a difference?” asked Mike Huang, one of the startup's co-founders.* It was around the time that Levchin declared his intention to “help crowdfund a lot of babies” that I worried I’d been sucked into an Onion parody of TechCrunch. (Or a @FakeJeffJarvis tweet.)
In 2010, Levchin sold Slide, the social-media company he founded, to Google for more than $200 million. He left Google in 2011, and now he’s assembled a team of software engineers and designers at a tech incubator called HVF, which stands for “Hard, Valuable, Fun.” The incubator’s latest incubation is Glow, a fertility-tracking app that launches in the iOS App Store on Thursday.*
There are lots of apps and sites that do what Glow does, plus several products that are much more precise at predicting fertility than calendar-based tracking. (My wife and I found these pee-on ovulation tests messy and hard to read, but also cheap and effective.) But Glow isn’t a mere ovulation calendar. Instead it’s something more ambitious and, depending on your views about your personal data, it’s creepier.
It’s a data tracker. Rather than just letting you know when you should try to have a baby, Glow asks users to routinely enter extremely detailed information about their health and sex lives. The app is the first instance of a dream Levchin has been talking up for the past few months—to improve health care through the large-scale collection and analysis of data.
But I’m skeptical that Glow can do that, for one simple reason: It is astonishingly intrusive, asking you more about your life than you’d feel comfortable telling even a doctor. For most people, though, the app won’t provide much immediate benefit in return for the data they divulge. Glow is inspired by the rise of the much-hyped “quantified self” movement. These tech-loving, early adopter types argue that as we all begin to collect our health information through apps and small wireless sensors, we’ll all gain a greater understanding about illnesses, sleep cycles, and even emotional well-being. Yet more than showing off the possibilities for how data might change medicine, Glow underscores all the hurdles to making large-scale tracking a mainstream pursuit—and shows why, for the foreseeable future, quantifying yourself seems destined to remain a fad.
Every day, Glow wants to know as much about you as you have time to answer, including your morning body temperature; the texture and “wetness” of your cervical mucus; whether you had sex and, if so, the position (the choices are “On bottom,” “In front,” “On top,” and, helpfully, “Other”); if you are experiencing “emotional discomfort” (select green check mark or red X); your weight, if it’s changed; and whether you’re menstruating. The app also asks the male half of the couple questions about his nutrition and physical activity. And Glow isn’t just for people who are trying to have—or actively want to avoid having—a baby. Ideally, Levchin would like every woman to use Glow, even those who haven’t given any thought to having babies.
Why? Because data. Data, data, data, data, the vague and all-powerful buzzword at the core of Levchin’s—and quite a few other startups’—ultimate goals. In the short run, the more information that Glow collects about women’s menstrual cycles and sex lives, the more precisely it can predict when people should try to have a kid. With enough data, though, HVF hopes to make much larger predictions about people’s health, nutrition, relationships, and reproductive outcomes.
Hence our discussion about sexual positions and female orgasms. “Surely you have heard position matters, but is that true?” Huang says. “There’s talk about it, but we don’t know. With this, we’ll know.” That is, if the Glow team notices that women who chose “On top” end up getting pregnant more often than women who selected “On bottom,” it will have answered a question for which medical science has no definitive proof. (I don’t know what would happen if “Other” turned out to be the most effective position.) With enough data, Glow could even spot correlations that few in medicine might ever think to study. “Like if we find that men drinking 10 Mountain Dews a day is the surefire solution,” Levchin jokes. Then he adds: “It would be awesome if we could be partly responsible for finding a cure for infertility.”