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Bird&Be founders Samantha Diamond, left, and Breanna Hughes at a pharmacy in Vaughan, Ont., on July 10, 2021.

Galit Rodan /The Globe and Mail

Breanna Hughes’s fertility problems started five years ago. After the Toronto technology product specialist went off birth control at age 32, her period didn’t return for months.

For years, she struggled to conceive while health care professionals didn’t consider her situation abnormal.

But when she and her husband were finally referred to a fertility specialist, Ms. Hughes was told it was too late. Because of unaddressed fertility issues, she had no choice but to attempt in vitro fertilization (IVF), a lengthy and expensive process.

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“I look back and think, that was a loss of time,” she said.

Frustrated, Ms. Hughes co-founded The Bird&Be Co. in 2019 to help others identify and address fertility concerns early on, through ovarian and sperm tests, plus personalized supplements. On Tuesday, the e-commerce company will announce it has raised $2.2-million to launch new products, expand production and grow its team of 11.

It joins the burgeoning “femtech” space, which targets the needs of women and girls. The sector has seen increased activity in recent years, with businesses such as Toronto-based apparel company Knix Wear Inc. and Bumble Inc., a female-focused dating website, making headlines for raising US$60-million in funding and reaching a US$8-billion valuation, respectively.

Smaller companies, too, are attracting interest: Last year, Montreal-based Eli Science Inc., which creates personal hormone monitoring devices, attracted $1.9-million from investors based in Hong Kong.

The global fertility market, considered a subset of the femtech category, had an estimated value of US$33.1-billion in 2020, with growth expected to reach nearly USD$47.9-billion by 2030, according to a 2021 study by Precedence Research, an Ottawa-based market insight company.

It’s easy to see why: One in six Canadians experience infertility issues, reports the Canadian Fertility & Andrology Society. Meanwhile, 15 to 20 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to estimates by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.

Bird&Be’s co-founder Samantha Diamond, who has a background in public relations, also experienced fertility issues. Diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder where ovaries may fail to regularly release eggs, Ms. Diamond said it was only because she found out early that she was able to find intervention and care and have a child without additional medical assistance.

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The women’s own struggles helped catch the eye of investors.

BAM Ventures in Los Angeles, an early-stage venture fund that focuses on health and wellness products, led the seed investment for Bird&Be. Managing director Brian Lee said he was attracted to the startup because of the market demand and the mission-driven founders.

“I don’t know a single person who doesn’t know someone who had a tough time conceiving,” he said. “This company was born out of their own pain points, from when they were going through their own fertility journeys.”

Launching Tuesday, Bird&Be’s personalized supplements for women – and men – will be manufactured at a pharmacy in Vaughan, Ont. Each customer’s specific formulation is created according to an online survey they fill out. The supplements will be available in individual packs, as a bundle or as a monthly subscription.

“What’s currently on the market is very much a one-size-fits-all prenatal, but then you have to buy all these additional vitamins and minerals to get comprehensive support,” Ms. Diamond said. “I literally have a box of twentysomething bottles. It’s a full-time job keeping track of when I’m running out and when I need to replenish them.”

In the fall, Bird&Be will offer inexpensive at-home pregnancy tests, ovarian fertility tests, sperm quality tests and a patented follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) test, which can help identify a shortage of eggs.

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The company worked with Dr. Dan Nayot, a reproductive endocrinologist who serves as its chief medical adviser, to create the products. He is also the medical director of the Fertility Partners, Canada’s largest IVF network.

One of Bird&Be’s early investors was Arati Sharma, a partner at Backbone Angels. The group backs female and non-binary founders, with a focus on Black, Indigenous and women of colour-led companies.

Ms. Sharma previously spent eight years with Shopify, where she witnessed the rise of direct-to-consumer and e-commerce brands. Bird&Be, she believes, will tap into that trend.

“We don’t want to just walk into a pharmacy and see something on a shelf anymore. We want to experience the brand, read their content, and purchase online from the comfort of our home,” Ms. Sharma said. “This is serving a huge gap in the market.”

The successful funding of Bird&Be is Ms. Hughes’s second good news story this month: After five years and a third round of IFV, she is finally pregnant. If she had known to take action sooner and had the right tools at her disposal, she said, she could have avoided years of worry.

“After high school, there’s literally 15 to 20 years of radio silence on anything to do with proactive family planning. And then, suddenly, you find yourself in the fertility clinic, and you’re thinking, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me this earlier?’”

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