What is it like to be the first startup in your industry? The first to disrupt? The first to see the problem and know that you can fix it? I’ll Go First, a podcast from The Globe and Mail, takes us on a journey to find out.
Alyssa Atkins: We’re the most ambitious generation with the most access to data at our fingertips except what’s, for most of us, one of the biggest decisions of our lives: when and whether and how to have kids.
Takara Small: From the Globe and Mail, this is I’ll Go First.
[Music fades in - Main theme song]
TS: I’m Takara Small, welcome to the show where we sit down with people who’ve seen a problem with the world, and decided to fix it.
Technology is changing the way we think and interact with our bodies. A device on your wrist can track your heart rate while you check your e-mails. Your phone knows how many steps you took today and where you took them.
If you have fitness goals, you’re not just looking in the mirror - you’re looking at a screen.
So health is big business. According to PwC Canada, a record 177 million dollars of venture capital was invested in digital health companies in 2018 alone.
But there’s still so much we don’t know about our bodies.
For people trying to get pregnant, or even just trying to learn about their own body there can be so many unanswered questions.
The average age that women give birth in Canada has been rising for the last forty years - currently it’s just under 31, and right now it’s actually not that easy to find out about your own fertility here in Canada.
So we spoke to someone doing something about that.
AA: My name is Alyssa Atkins and the founder and CEO of Lilia. Lilia makes it easier for women to get fertility information about their bodies and their options with an at home fertility hormone test.
TS: Lilia is hacking fertility to empower women with the knowledge they need to take control of their bodies.
When we recorded this the company was just a few months old, and already backed by a serious amount of venture capital.
The global fertility services market is expected to reach thirty billion dollars by 2023, but for Alyssa Atkins this isn’t just a business opportunity, it’s pretty personal. Like all the people we speak to she ran into a problem and instead of living with it, she decided to fix it.
Commercial: This episode of I’ll Go First is brought to you by National Car Rental, where you can skip the counter and choose any car in the aisle. Keep listening to find more ways to stay in the driver’s seat when you’re travelling for business.
TS: Tell me a little bit what was behind the founding of it. Why did you decide to create this type of startup?
AA: It really didn’t feel like a choice. It felt like something I was... I was pulled into it because I was in response to my own problem that was experiencing.
So around the same time my 10 year long relationship came to an end. Someone in my family went through early menopause at 37 altering her prospects at a large family. My career started coming together and all of a sudden I started thinking about my fertility for the first time. And so when I went to seek information about this I was mostly met with Huffington Post opinion articles online and I learned that you could get information about your fertility through hormonal testing but to get this testing I had to call my GP make an appointment go up to the fertility clinic to get a blood draw, go back for my results…. And so I had had the idea of Lilia. You know the idea that this should be much easier to obtain more convenient and more comfortable and really rooted in science. I was scouring the Internet for scientific journals and I thought this should just all be much easier. And then I talked myself out of the idea.
AA: I was like Nobody’s gonna want this. It’s just me. You know the market’s too small. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So one weekend I was like OK I’m gonna spin up a website as if it existed. I’ll put a bit of money behind some Facebook ads. No one will. No one will want this and I can move on with my life.
TS: And this was just a team of one.
AA: This was a team of one. You know I was at a Starbucks I remember one Saturday night doing this into the night and I went to bed and said to my partner you know I put up a site I put some Facebook ads, nobody’s gonna want this and I can just move on with my life. And what happened was overnight I got all these orders these people trying to buy Lilia and I realized there’s something here. It’s not just me who wants this. And as I started looking into the market the market’s not small at all. The market is anybody who might want kids one day or want to learn about their body in this way.
And it’s the right timing and it’s growing and I realize I’m really the person to do it. I’m building the company I wish existed for me today because as I started building Lilia upon these realizations I also went through the traditional channels of getting this information which was like I said an appointment at my GP going to the fertility clinic having to go back and in order to get the information I had to pretend with certainty I knew I wanted to freeze my eggs for anyone to take this proactive fertility testing seriously.
TS: Interesting. So you had to have a certain mindset you had to be dedicated to the long road of fertility in order to access that.
AA: I couldn’t just say hey I want to learn about my body. Yeah. It was like Well do you want to freeze your eggs. I learned a ton of information about myself that’s really important and I am freezing my eggs.
TS: You are?
AA: Yeah. And I’m really happy that I’m taking this step. I feel more confident in the career decisions I’m making in the life decisions and relationship decisions I’m making. But it was a cumbersome process. I also learned really important information that I have. It’s called polycystic ovaries which is a misnomer. But one in 10 women has PCO, or PCOS they call it and.
TS: Tell me a little bit about PCOS.
AA: So not only does PCOS affect fertility but affects all kinds of other health factors like weight and mood and likelihood for some cancers and yet it is surprisingly difficult to get the information required. And for me because I’ve been on birth control since I was 16 and I have a hormonal IUD so I don’t get a period any symptoms I would have had are masked like a regular period.
AA: So this is maybe too much information but
TS: No I think it’s it’s I think it’s interesting as well because not everyone has access to a GP to be honest.
AA: And a lot of people actually they just don’t have a GP, they just go to the clinic. And so you know it took me like I said three months and three in-person appointments.
TS: Three months!
AA: Three months to get
TS: And you had a doctor
AA: and I had a doctor. I literally started and funded the company in that time.
AA: And so this same information that you would get at a clinic learning about your ovarian reserve AKA your egg count, menopause timing and markers of PCOS is the same information that you can learn with Lilia.
TS: And so you started the company of one at the time and now it’s grown. How many people work for your company?
AA: We’re a team of five now.
So yeah including our medical lead doctor Prati Sharma. She’s incredible. She’s a Cornell and Columbia educated fertility specialist who’s been practicing for over a decade. She’s really meticulously designed the test and what hormones we test and for whom and built a really comprehensive report that people get upon testing to understand their hormones.
TS: Yeah. So that was my next question because I think when you have a medical startup and it includes a lot of information that the average person might not understand you would want the startup to have the medical expertise on hand.
So you do have that. I think with Theranos that’s definitely become a topic of conversation. So you do have individuals with the experience
AA: Oh yes I am leaving the science to the scientists on this one. So we work with an accredited lab as the highest accreditation in the country IQMH they validated the science behind what we’re doing. And you know we’re we’re actually not reinventing or not reinventing new science. It’s the same blood test you would get at the fertility clinic and you’re just able to collect your sample at home from a finger prick and send it in and they validated the science behind what’s called the venous draw and a capillary draw to ensure that the hormones read the same. And so that’s all all validated again I was hands off. You guys tell me this is possible, and the validation came out amazingly.
TS: And so in with you or your company you’re an entrepreneur. But I feel like also you’re an educator in some sorts because you are educating women who maybe don’t have the information or don’t have access to an expert who can explain these things to them. Is that challenging?
AA: Well you know what’s crazy. We’re the most ambitious generation with the most access to data at our fingertips except what’s for most of us, one of the biggest decisions of our lives: when and whether and how to have kids. And it was remarkable to me that I’d never thought about this information I’d never heard about PCOS until I was diagnosed with it. And so educating people that one you can proactively get this information, two that you’re better off knowing it sooner because the sooner you have this. The more options you have the more confident you can be.
TS: And you are empowered to make decisions about your own life.
AA: You are empowered to make decision… Takara I can’t tell you what a difference it’s made for me in my life. Knowing this information about my body feeling more confident the decisions that I’m making I feel powerful. And I want this for other women and that’s why I said it behooved me to start Lilia. It was it was a pull because I want every other woman to have a much easier time getting this information about herself than I have.
TS: Do you see a gap in the current healthcare system or a gap in the education system.
AA: Yes so the way our system works right now is it’s designed to be very reactive to infertility instead of proactive about fertility. So you know societally A lot has changed. We’re getting married later if at all. There are more women chasing their careers.
TS: If you didn’t see it she fist bumped me. I agree with that fist bump as well.
AA: So. So we’re getting married later, more women are chasing their careers which is incredible.
And so we’re having kids later but biologically it still is the best time to have kids when you’re in your early twenties. And so what’s happening is people wait until they start trying to have kids and wait to find out that something’s wrong before they start going through this process. But there’s a lot that you could know proactively and so people ask you when should I test with Lilia or when should I try and get this information. And the answer is there’s really not a bad time. Whether you’re trying to conceive now or you’re thinking about kids someday off in the future. The more you know about your body and the sooner you know it the better off you are. Right. So after people learned about Lilia up my inbox was flooded with stories from women sharing what their fertility journeys have been. A heartbreaking number shared that they wish they had had this information sooner. Because they didn’t they waited too long and they ended up not being able to have kids.
TS: There’s been a great response and outpouring of support included in that support though is financial investment and it’s you know very few women can raise the type of capital necessary to grow in scale. But you mentioned that in three short months you’ve actually turned away some investors. What was that like?
AA: So for the last four years I was V.P. marketing at care guide. I was the sixth employee. The very first marketing hire and care guide is a portfolio of care services. We owned sites like CanadianNanny.ca, petsitter.com, sitter.com helping people find home child and pet care. And so I had seen firsthand how challenging it can be fundraising or at least how long it takes and what the process looks like and I’d heard from friends of mine about how difficult fundraising is. And so in preparation for this I’d spent a couple of months saving up all my pennies and making sure that I could float myself for a pretty long time. I changed my lifestyle.
No more buying champagne as well as making my lunches begrudgingly and...
What happened next was I started just talking to a couple people about Lilia and the test I had run and
TS: A couple of investors or?
AA: They were more friends or people in my network about the company. And at the end of each convers.. Just having coffees, at the end of each conversation people would ask Are you raising money? Can I invest?
TS: That’s like the dream!
AA: My fundraising experience is really atypical.
And so I want to preface that because I know they don’t all go like this. And so in response to that I was like OK I’ll raise a small 250 K. It’ll take me the whole summer but it’ll help us move a bit faster. And what happened was I ended up raising an oversubscribed 800K in five weeks and we’re still turning down cheques.
TS: And how do you I guess evaluate which investors you want to work with or which individuals?
AA: Of our angel investors we have a 50/50 gender split. This is important not only from a business perspective. We’re building a women’s health company but it was important to me personally and from the beginning. I realize now that I had an incorrect notion of how difficult it would be to find female investors and that ended up being incorrect. What I really needed to do was stop only responding to inbound requests interest and just reach out to women and they were very excited to invest some of them invested you know sight unseen.
And so it really was a matter of just taking the steps to involve those folks.
TS: So let’s talk a little bit about your journey though. So you yourself have frozen your eggs or you’re in the process.
AA: I am about to.
TS: You’re about to. And how was that experience? What was that experience like?
AA: Oh Gosh. It gives me all kinds of ideas for what Lilia’s next steps will look like and how we can support women better down this journey because it was not pleasant.
So I started with this testing again it took me three months three in-person visits and after the third visit I had only tested for AMH, one hormone. So I had to go back for another round of blood tests which Lilia tests for in the first go.
And even going through these the channels of talking to clinics and fertility specialist I didn’t feel really seen or heard as a human. I kind of felt more like I was just being pushed through as a number and so I had to do all kinds of research on my own to decide whether this was the right decision for me. And ultimately I’ve decided that it is for a few reasons. One I have a high AMH which tells me I have a high egg count which means I’m probably a good candidate for egg freezing which means I’ll be able to retrieve a large number of eggs because what people get wrong about egg freezing is they think it’s a guaranteed insurance and it’s not. When you freeze your eggs you freeze a certain number a certain number of those make it through the process a certain number of those can be inseminated later in life in a certain number those make it through to a live birth. What we know about egg quality is that it’s most tightly correlated to age and so the younger you are the higher quality the eggs are and the more likely they are to survive. And so I’m really glad that I have this information now because I’m freezing them now at twenty nine. I almost wish I’d frozen them last year or the year before because they just would have had higher odds. So once I had made that decision I felt relief like peace of mind knowing that even though I know this isn’t 100 percent guarantee I’m not going to have kids right now.
And so this is the best decision I could make for myself to protect my future of my fertility.
TS: So let’s talk through the process. I sign up for Lilia and I get a kit. Walk me through what happens next.
AA: Yes. So you get your kit and you will collect a small blood sample from a finger prick. We put in a little piece of candy in the kit… I mean you know you’re not programmed to want to poke yourself.
But we also will walk people through doing the kit together on Instagram live and we have a video. Yeah yeah. So make it kind of a bit more communal. And so you ship your blood to the lab. The lab processes it the same way they would at a fertility clinic. You get your results online and then you can choose to schedule a call with a fertility nurse.
TS: Why did you decide that you have to schedule a call in order to get your results instead of just sharing it with the individual online.
AA: Oh yeah you can. You can have the results. Yeah I thought adding the ability to chat with somebody is an important part of this because while the report is very comprehensive and we put a lot of work into explaining what the hormones do and do not do and what information you can draw from this some people just want to chat through What do next steps look like. That was something I really wanted after I got my results. It’s like OK this is what my fertility profile looks like. Here are options 1 2 and 3. You know I could wait and test again next year I could freeze my eggs now which I have decided to do. I wished I had someone to really walk that through in a way that was much more convenient.
[Music starts - bouncy, upbeat]
TS: I’m gonna butt in here real quick and warn you that we’re about to drop some massive Game of Thrones spoilers, so if you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen the final episode yet you’re gonna want to skip ahead a couple minutes.
TS: So I’m gonna switch tacks a little bit because we were talking a little about Game of Thrones. Is it fair to say we’re both disappointed with the ending.
AA: I was disappointed.
TS: And so we’re talking about the female characters. What did you like about the female characters and how did I guess seeing them on screen impact you?
AA: Well originally what I liked about the show is they offered such a spectrum of female characters it wasn’t only the one anti-heroine and we usually get. And particularly they were very ambitious women.
TS: That’s very true. I’m seeing that.
AA: I loved seeing that, and I was really disappointed by how they portrayed Khaleesi in the end. She was so intelligent so calculated the entire time.
And then they wanted the audience to believe that she wouldn’t have seen Jon coming for her at the end and she dies in her lover’s arms because she didn’t see it coming
TS: I know, what a cliche! Do better
AA: Do better.
TS: Speaking of Khaleesi see that leads me to your nickname because you have an alternative ego kind of like Sasha Fierce to Beyonce. Tell me about it.
AA: OK. So the woman I want to be is Aleesi I call her. And so it’s a mix of Khaleesi and Alyssa. And so those days when I’m just feeling like I need you know a bit of an extra push and some more inspiration I think of what would Aleesi do. You know she is super ambitious. She goes for it. She’s confident there are no saboteurs whispering in her.
TS: There’s no Jon Snow around the corner
AA: There’s no Jon snow around the corner. So yeah Alessi is the woman that I want to be. Yeah.
TS: A lot of the time in the entrepreneurial community you talk about taking risks but in order to take a risk it also comes with some amount of privilege because you have something to fall back on. How did you navigate that? Was it challenging taking the risk of launching your own business knowing.
AA: Yeah well I don’t … you know. Being a cis gender white women I have all kinds of privilege as well. So it’s not as though I’m without it. It’s funny I. I forget who says this but somebody says entrepreneurs aren’t... they’re risk averse or they take very calculated risks. And so that’s how I felt about this. I had validated it you know before I left my full time job I had saved up enough to float myself for a while. All the signs pointed to. Yes. And it just made sense. And so I saw it as yes it was a risk.
But at that point it’s going to sound cliche but the riskier thing was almost to not do it. Because it it really just made so much sense. I do probably have a higher than average propensity for risk but I don’t think of myself as.
You know I'm a risk taker necessarily or you know a thrill seeker in that way.
I actually try and mitigate risk.
TS: And so if there is a you know there’s a woman who’s listening to this and she’s thinking about taking that leap is there any advice you would offer her or him?
AA: What worked for me was. Gathering as much information I could. While I felt safe. Such that I could take the leap and I knew even if the worst case scenario were to come to fruition I would still be OK. And that’s really hard for an overachiever to accept that you know this might not work out. And so I forget who it was but this really stuck with me. She talks about risk taking and the way she thinks it through is what’s the best case scenario and how can I increase the likelihood that that happens. What’s the worst case scenario? How can I mitigate that risk? And that’s what she just does every day. So that’s how I thought about Lilia. And so people say there is no right time. You know you really just need to jump. There may be a right time for you. And if you’re not ready. You may just need to collect a little bit more information. But what I will say is you’ll never have the amount of information you wish you had to make a decision. And that’s what running a company is every day. You have 30 percent of the information you actually need to make a decision and yet you have to make it. And so get used to that.
TS: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable?
AA: Get comfortable with that. It’s so cliche but it’s so true. You have to be ready to sit in the uncertainty and you know wait for the feedback loop on your decisions because it’s not immediate.
TS: And so and so inherently there’s a certain amount of risk taking. How do you maintain your wellness your mental health through what can be a very challenging time.
AA: Yeah. This is something I’m hyper conscious of because I think there was a time when -and it’s probably still true today, But where we laud entrepreneurs who work 100… 120 hour weeks and don’t sleep and don’t eat and that’s just so dangerous. And I know that it doesn’t work for me. So I need to be really serious about ensuring that I’m operating at times of day when I have the most amount of energy getting enough sleep and managing my anxiety levels. And so things that are important to me are all the things you’ve heard about you know meditating working out eating healthy. And it’s really easy when you’re running a company not to do those things because you have an infinite number of things you could be doing and you always feel a pull to do those things. But the advice entrepreneurs have given to me which I’ve taken quite seriously is not everything is urgent. You’re not going to be able to do all of the things and this really is a marathon. And so if you burnout in your first few months you’re actually not doing the company a service. And so just this last weekend you know I went to Barrie where my partner’s family lives and just went for a walk in the woods and unplugged for a full day. I feel so guilty doing these things so it really it’s a. It’s a tumultuous pull inside of me but I if I’m using my prefrontal cortex to assess what’s the best for the business. A rested Alissa makes better decisions and has more energy. And you know if I want to give Lilly the best shot and I can’t burn out there after six months.
[Dark music break]
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TS: We’re gonna start a new section. It’s one of my favorites. It’s called Rapid Fire.
AA: Oh boy.
TS: It’s gonna be exciting. Just answer as quickly as possible.
AA:I’m so scared of what I’m going to say.
TS: You can’t pass a question. There’s no passing, no skipping. What motivates you?
TS: Favorite TV show?
AA: The Office!
TS: Oh UK version or the U.S. version?
AA: The U.S. version!
TS: Tell me about your perfect day off.
AA: I go to the gym I read underneath a tree it’s warm. I go for a long walk. I eat some seafood, some nice wine. Probably go to bed early. Oh I sound so lame!
AA: No you sound like an entrepreneur who puts herself first it’s important. How many hours do you work a week would you say?
AA: About 70.
TS: How many hours do you sleep at night?
AA: Eight and everybody should get eight hours of sleep.
TS: You heard it here first class. Eight hours of sleep people exclusive right here. Greatest fear?
AA: Lilia failing.
TS: One word your friends would use to describe you.
TS: Go-to song?
AA: Ru Paul. Champion.
TS: What do you do to destress?
AA: I walk in nature or just walk. Walking.
TS: Even in the winter?
TS: It’s Canada.
AA: I know but I bundle up. I. I’m learning this myself. What I actually do to destress and it appears... the data would tell us that walking
TS: You talk like such an entrepreneur.. “I’ve analyzed the data”
AA: No I have a heart of pathological obsession with analyzing my life. Really it’s sick.
TS: Is it tiring?
AA: No I love it. It’s energizing but I track I track everything I track. How many drinks I have a week. Meditation. I’ve tracked happiness levels. I’ve done it for about a year now so I can see the trend lines and I can see the curves.
TS: Does it help you be more productive?
AA: It helps me understand where I get energy and where I don’t. And it helps make decisions. I guess that’s part of what has me so excited but Lilia too is personally I want data to inform decisions. I do this everywhere else in my life and so I want really big decisions to be based on facts as well.
TS: I love how analytical you are. It’s not even with your business but with your personal life. I want to apply that to your personal life but I know it’s not gonna happen I just messed up the rapid fire code. It’s not that rapid.
AA: Oh shoot
TS: No it’s my fault! OK your favorite - and you can’t say Khaleesi... your favorite fictional character.
TS: Well done well done. OK good. We’re done with Rapid Fire.
AA: Cool, that was hard.
TS: Let’s do the Big Three. What’s one piece of advice you would tell your younger self.
TS: Just one. I know.
[Alyssa and Takara laughing]
AA: Relax! ]You know it’s advice my mom gave me just the other day that I would repeat to my younger self which is if you don’t stop worrying and you don’t start having more fun with what you’re doing you’re going to miss out on what’s the greatest adventure of your life.
TS: Mm hmm mm hmm. I think it’s really good advice. Something I try to tell myself you don’t have to put so much pressure on yourself
AA: So much pressure to get a perfect and you get it right. And everybody’s looking like nobody’s looking at you. Just try it!
AA: You know it’s OK if it’s not perfect the first time you’ll learn and you’ll do better the next time.
TS: Where do you see yourself in five years?
AA: I see myself still running Lilia. By then I hope we’re globally defining company and that we’ve helped millions of millions of people get information make decisions about their fertility and our team is happy and thriving and we are leveling up folks and they’re building their careers and Lilia has made a real dent in the world.
And I look good too.
TS: And you look good.
[Takara snaps her fingers]
TS: Snap fingers OK. And last but definitely not least. You know. If you could do it all again and by all I mean launching the company. Is there one thing you’d do differently.
AA: So many things. I mean there are just little things that you know really do come from experience. I didn’t expect how long it would take to get boxes and so that will have delayed our launch by some time. I am probably like most CEOs and founders. I get to action quickly and I think a couple of steps ahead but not 15 and so I think it’d be worthwhile exercising more stillness you know sitting and really thinking through what are the next 15 steps instead of just the next three.
TS: That must be hard though when you’re growing and scaling.
AA: It’s so hard. But my coach tells me you take that time every week to think at a twenty thousand foot level because you’re going to end up going faster. There’s this saying that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” and so it’s like to go quickly you need to go smoothly and to go smoothly you have to go slow and by going slow you ultimately go faster and as a person who gets to action quickly and and wants to move really quick the times I’ve done it, it has benefited me to stop and think through what’s next
[End theme fades in: Mid Tempo with steel drums]
TS: So if people want to find out more about you or they want to follow you where can they do that.
AA: So we’re at HelloLilIa.com and I’m on Twitter @AlyssaAtkins.
TS: And your Instagram handle
AA: My Instagram is super embarrassing but it’s AllyGagaAtkins. I made this when I was younger ok!
TS: That was Alyssa Atkins, thanks to her for sharing her story.
We are back each week with a new episode from another person who is changing the way our world works.
Joseph Emerson: A quantum computer is a new kind of computer reinventing computing from scratch to achieve things that can’t be achieved with traditional computers
TS: We also want to hear your story. You can reach me online @TakaraSmall on Twitter and Instagram or you can email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll Go First is a Vocal Fry Studios production. Our producer is Jay Cockburn, with research by Cecilia Keating and additional writing by Vicky Mochama.. Our executive producers are Kiran Rana and Katie Jensen.
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I’m Takara Small, this has been I’ll Go First. See you next episode!