Despite the fact that getting pregnant usually takes two to tango, conversations and solutions in fertility tech often leave out a dance partner: men.
That’s part of the reason Tom Smith, an entrepreneur and tech veteran of companies including Apple and Giphy, started : a modern, millennial-friendly sperm testing and storage company. Its mission statement? To educate the public, make semen storage more affordable and accessible (men send in samples from the comfort of home), and de-stigmatize the role men play in creating new life.
“Our mission is to normalize the conversation around reproductive health,” Smith said in conversation with Mashable. “We want to help our customers understand their fertility, and then be empowered with that knowledge to make the right, appropriate life choices, either with themselves or with their partner.”
“Historically, females have been far more likely to seek consultation regarding their reproductive health, but male factor infertility is estimated to contribute in half of all cases,” said Dr. Matthew Ziegelmann, a consultant urologist at the Mayo Clinic (who is not involved with Dadi). “Despite these recommendations, it is common for the female partner to field the brunt of the burden when it comes to the fertility evaluation.”
Smith doesn’t think it should be this way. And since Dadi’s January 2019 launch, the company’s early days have shown that there’s more of a market for at-home sample collection, proactive testing, and storage than the sperm bank-averse might think.
Dadi launched after a $2 million funding round this past January. Now, six months later, and with “thousands” of customers from every state in the contiguous U.S., it is announcing a new $5 million round, led by The Chernin Group affiliate TCG. It has also brought on a high profile scientific advisory board filled with leaders in urology and some of the pioneers of assistive reproduction science.
“Something that was missing was a resource for not just expectant mothers, but men who are thinking about their own timing, to really understand the tradeoffs between the decisions they’d be making,” Marco DeMeireles, a TCG partner who will join the Dadi board, told Mashable. “There’s an increasing need happening in parallel with an increased social acceptance.”
While more gender equity in the conception process is welcome, some experts wonder about the need for a service like Dadi. Before the contemporary tech industry’s entrance into direct-to-patient fertility services, men and women would typically only turn to infertility assessment and sperm banking options after being unable to get pregnant in the first place.
“The bigger question is,” Ziegelmann posited, “is sperm cryopreservation even needed for the average man?”
Smith and the Dadi team are betting that, thanks to , the degradation of a man’s sperm quality over time, the delayed age at which couples are conceiving, and, the knowledge and power to make informed choices about one’s life, the answer to that question is yes.
Dadi provides two main services: semen analysis and sperm banking. When customers sign up, they will receive an overnighted cold storage container, shipping, and instructions, all together called a Dadi Kit. They then make a sperm deposit into the container, and overnight it back to Dadi (with the provided shipping materials). Within 24 hours, customers receive the results of their sperm assessment, which compare various semen metrics to World Health Organization averages.
The lab doesn’t just toss that sample away once it gets the necessary info. Dadi has partnered with NE Cryogenics, an existing laboratory and sperm banking facility based in Boston, to store cryogenically frozen sperm samples that customers send in.
The Dadi Kit and testing costs $99, while storage costs $99 per year. The company says this is 10 times cheaper than clinical testing and storage, on average. That “aggressive pricing,” as DeMeireles put it, is intentional. Smith and the Dadi team say that affordability and convenience are two big ways they’re trying to break down barriers to engaging with male fertility.
“We’re trying to motivate men to take a proactive step in checking their fertility and understanding it, it is not something that they currently engage with,” Smith said. “Men have a biological clock, just like women. In today’s society, that’s really not understood.”
Smith is referring to statistics that show that today’s men are – as in, their sperm is half as viable – as their father’s generation. Frighteningly, the cause is unknown. Some men may want to bank sperm in their 20s to retain that sperm at higher quality and concentrations, but this is . Additionally, some that sperm produced by older men may cause more genetic problems for any conceived child.
Because of these factors, the drive to reduce stigma around male fertility issues, and the often high price and convenience barrier to analyzing and banking sperm, Smith thinks proactively monitoring and storing sperm is important. But how to get the guys on board?
Along with pricing, one of Dadi’s main draws is the mail-in model. Rather than going to a clinic, men can masturbate to produce a sample wherever, well, they usually do.
“There are psychological barriers to a man walking into a clinic and providing a sperm sample,” Dr. Jesse Mills, a urologist at UCLA (who is not involved with Dadi), said. “It’s hard to be in the mood in a clinical setting.”
Smith also touts the fast results that Dadi provides as one of its advantages. Anyone who has waited for sensitive lab test results can know how excruciating they can be. Dadi makes it a point to tell men about their swimmers within 24 hours. Plus, they get to see an actual video of what their sperm look like under a microscope. Neat!
But the value of patients learning more about their reproductive viability should be the biggest draw here. The Dadi Kit test results give men information about their sperm compared to WHO averages. If all is well with the test, consumers can simply move on, knowing that their sperm are living happily frozen in Boston should they need them at a later date. But if there’s cause for concern with below average results, currently, Smith recommends that customers take their results and go see a doctor.
That recommendation may change over time. With the new round of funding, Dadi will be providing customers with more education and customer support. That could take the shape of telehealth, or guidelines composed by scientists on the advisory board. That board lends some serious credibility to Dadi, with IVF and assistive reproductive pioneers Dr. Michael Eisenberg, Dr. Jacques Cohen, and Dr. Grace Centola coming aboard.
These customer support, scientific backing, and educational components are important next steps for Dadi, but the service is still very much a work in progress.
“We really look at the last six months as the first step, Smith said. “But as an organization, as a team, we’re 100% committed to helping men really be supported both before and after they collect and store their deposit.”
Analyzing sperm is an important part of assessing a man’s fertility, but doctors say it doesn’t paint the whole picture.
“A particular sperm parameter may not accurately reflect a patient’s fertility status, as many men with abnormal parameters are fertile while some men with normal parameters may be infertile,” Ziegelmann said. “These measures must be taken within the context of the specific clinical scenario.”
To truly assess fertility, doctors say a man’s environmental, medical and family histories, and a physical assessment need to be taken into account.
Another issue could be thinking through whether the men who choose to use sperm banking have the adequate information about what freezing their sperm actually means for their future.
“The main pitfall is men need to be informed what it means to store sperm and why,” Mills said. “The cost of banking is pretty cheap but when they go to use it, the cost of getting that sperm to a uterus or egg is often tens of thousands of dollars.”
These reservations don’t necessarily mean doctors are against services like Dadi. In the long term, the heightened visibility of the issue, along with the ease of a mail-in test paired with more advanced lab capabilities, is a net positive for men’s health and gender equity in reproductive treatment.
“The concept of mail-in semen cryopreservation has come into the mainstream,” Ziegelmann said. “Overall, I think this is great technology and I am very excited about the opportunities we have to bring more men into the clinic for evaluation.”
With prestigious scientific partners, a thoughtful launch, and a promising first customer response, Dadi could provide a solution for men (and couples) whether they are learning and banking for a more nebulous or concrete future. Still, along with all the logistical and product challenges, one of the biggest hurdles yet might be the emotional one. But that, Smith says, comes with the territory.
“Ultimately, the reason that this subject in a lot of ways is so emotionally charged is it’s just heavily important,” Smith said. “We really believe the more information we can pass on to customers and society would help shine a light on it and take away the unnecessary stigma and pressure.”
And as for the name, Dadi? It’s approachable, Smith said, just like the company wants to be. Unlike other potential names, it’s based not on fear, but on potential.