Democratising access to fertility through at-home treatments

By Tess Cosad, CEO and co-founder of Béa Fertility

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I’ve worked in technology for a number of years and have always had a particular interest in female-led ventures and femtech. In 2018 I dipped my toes into the world of femtech, and later that year was the first woman to lead a digital startup accelerator programme in Saudi Arabia.

These experiences gave me a deep understanding of how the technology sector operates around the world, as well as an insight into the lack of space and investment being given to technologies designed by and for women. After working with many inspiring female entrepreneurs, I felt determined to build a company that would change lives.

It was around this time that I met my co-founder David, who was an embryologist driving change in new fertility technologies. 

I’d seen friends and family go through the heartbreak of trying to conceive and was acutely aware of the inadequacies in the system that made fertility treatment inaccessible or unaffordable for many. Factors as arbitrary as your age, sexual orientation and postcode can prevent you from accessing NHS fertility provision, and the lack of regulation at private clinics means a round of IVF can cost you anything from £3,000 to £15,000. 

Through talking to and (in David’s case) treating women who were currently awaiting or undergoing fertility treatment in the UK, David and I were confronted with how the current approach to fertility offered so few options and lacked transparency. I was shocked to hear the stories of people who’d racked up thousands of pounds of debt using sperm donors and fertility clinics - and had been upsold treatment ‘add-ons’ that have little clinical backing. It became clear to me that this was a sector where, together with David, we could drive meaningful change by bringing something entirely new to the market and empowering people with more choice.

Béa Fertility was born of a shared vision for a world in which every family, whatever they look like, can access the care they need to grow. Family is a human right, and the sector as it is structured today does not honour that. 

Béa is putting the heart back into fertility treatment, ensuring anyone who cannot conceive naturally is able to access care on their terms. At Béa we’re building a supportive community built on transparency, compassion, humanity and science, designed to support and empower people when they are at their most vulnerable. We understand that starting a family is a basic human right - and that every fertility journey is unique and precious - so our mission is to make it as easy as possible for everyone to access the fertility care they deserve.

Fertility is something most of us won’t even think about until we’re ready for children. If a family is indeed what you want, to suddenly realise - after failed pregnancies or a failure to conceive at all - that it may not be available to you is one of the most painful revelations a person can experience.

Yet it’s more common than you might think: approximately 1 in 7 couples in the UK will struggle to conceive. Fortunately, advancements in medicine mean that this is not the end of the road. But the system designed to help couples conceive is far from perfect.

NHS fertility treatment provision in the UK is notoriously patchy - and going private doesn’t come cheap. The pandemic has also compounded pre-existing access problems, with the longest patient waiting lists in NHS history seeing some CCGs cancelling fertility treatments to make space for other procedures.

You only need to speak to somebody who has experienced fertility struggles and navigated the system to feel their pain, frustration, hope and heartbreak. The fertility sector is broken. And after meeting my co-founder David O’Rourke (an embryologist) two years ago, we realised that together we could combine our skills to drive change and help fix it.

With Béa Fertility we’re building the first at-home fertility treatment to come to the UK. Our aim is to democratise access to safe and affordable fertility care and enable more people to get the fertility support they need. We want to create better treatment options and trade on transparency to offer genuine support, honest advice and impartial guidance.

We know that new options are needed. Currently, the only fertility treatments on offer in the UK are IVF, IUI (intrauterine insemination), ovulation induction and egg/sperm/embryo freezing. All of these involve some degree of hormone stimulation and medical procedures that can put a strain on the body. If you’re able to access any of these treatments on the NHS, you’re one of the lucky ones. Meanwhile, going private is prohibitively expensive, with the average UK couple spending £12,000 on fertility treatment. When clinical treatment costs this much, only a very small group of people can afford to ‘choose’ it. The system prices people out.

After all, fertility clinics are commercial entities. It’s common to hear stories of couples who’ve racked up thousands of pounds of debt using sperm donors and fertility clinics; or who’ve been encouraged to undergo IVF to drive up clinics’ success statistics, when another (less invasive and costly) treatment might have been just as effective.

Some clinics have even been openly accused of upselling treatment add-ons that have little clinical backing. The Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA: the UK government’s industry regulator) uses a traffic light system for ranking the efficacy of these extras. Of the 11 most popular add-ons typically upsold at most clinics, not a single one received the HFEA’s green light.

To drive down costs, address inequalities and improve access, we are building a complete at-home fertility treatment (supported by a digital app) which will enable people to carry out  treatments at home. More specifically, we’re championing  a treatment called intracervical insemination (or ICI) which doesn’t require hormone stimulation and is safe to self-administer.

Up until the mid 1970’s, ICI was the go-to clinical fertility treatment on offer in the UK. But advancements in IVF saw intrauterine insemination (IUI) come about and start to replace ICI as the mainstream treatment offered by clinics. Today ICI is no longer offered by fertility clinics.

Yet it works, and it works well. A significant body of recent research shows that ICI is just as effective as IUI and can increase chances of conception by up to 60%. It can also be carried out without intercourse and using either donor or partner sperm. This means it can be accessed by those less able, women unable to have intercourse due to sexual trauma or other pelvic conditions, LGBTQ+ families and single women using a known donor’s sperm.

For couples with no specific diagnosis as to why they’re struggling to conceive, ICI also offers a non-invasive, effective and affordable first step on the fertility journey, before clinical treatment options are explored.

These are the important reasons why we’re bringing it back.

When we launch in summer 2022, the Béa ICI kit will cost just £300 and will be available on subscription, making it 16x cheaper per cycle than IVF. It will create a new first step on the fertility journey for couples and individuals trying to conceive, and will be supported by a digital health app which will help users track their fertility journeys. Over the next few months we’ll be perfecting the kit, ironing out our distribution logistics and fine tuning the user experience to ensure we’re more than ready to give every family the start they deserve.

It’s time to shake up the fertility sector and put the heart back into fertility treatment, ensuring anyone who is trying to conceive is able to access care on their terms.

To be notified when the Béa Fertility kit becomes available, you can sign up to our mailing list for early adopters via our website.

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