This interview with Elizabeth is part of our series highlighting women-led startups, which are providing accessible solutions to address the unmet healthcare needs of women, including reproductive and maternal health.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how unscientific the process of selecting birth control was, and how much unnecessary suffering it causes. I decided to dedicate my expertise to making personalized birth control a reality and closing gaps caused by historic inequities in medical research.
Can you tell us about your background and how it led you to starting your company?
In my academic career, prior to founding adyn, I studied human genomics and medical genetics (PhD from Duke followed by a post-doc at UCLA). During my research, I repeatedly encountered knowledge gaps that hindered discovery for non-Europeans and females.
Around the same time, my own symptoms from birth control side effects were dismissed by medical professionals. Both times I started using birth control pills, I became depressed to the point of experiencing suicidal ideation. After talking to friends about my experience, I learned that this was not uncommon: while people experienced different side effects on different methods, the trial-and-error approach of choosing birth control seemed to be the default.
I was shocked that so little went into the selection process and angry at the subsequent dismissal of my life-threatening side effects. I couldn’t stop thinking about how unscientific the process of selecting birth control was, and how much unnecessary suffering it causes (not to mention the money and time spent treating side effects – a phenomenon so common it has a name: "prescription cascade".) All my training assured me that this problem has a solution rooted in precision medicine.
I decided to dedicate my expertise to making personalized birth control a reality and closing gaps caused by historic inequities in medical research. I left academia to found adyn in 2019 and was accepted into the Y-Combinator startup accelerator in the summer of 2020.
Can you explain what your product or service does and the main problem it's trying to solve?
Until now, there was no intelligent way to pick between nearly 200 highly-effective birth control options in the US, which meant that healthcare providers and patients were forced to rely on trial-and-error and risk life-threatening side effects (e.g., blood clots).
adyn introduces science to the process with The Birth Control Test, an at-home test in which customers collect samples (saliva and blood) to measure their hormone levels and genetic predisposition to specific side effects. Each customer receives a personalized report with medically actionable recommendations and meets with a licensed medical provider to select the best birth control for their biology and goals.
Our goal is to not only help people select a safe and effective birth control, but also to change the standard of care to use evidence-based prescribing.
Can you share any success stories or positive impact that your product/service has had on women's health so far?
We’ve gotten such incredible feedback from our customers. It is humbling and motivating to hear directly from women empowered by The Birth Control Test to drive their own health decisions. One customer reported she believed the entire experience made her more confident to enter ALL of her health care appointments going forward. Incredible!
And that was our goal: not only saving birth control users from irritating or life-threatening side effects but to share personalized, medically actionable information directly and accessibly.
In the words of a few of our customers:
- This makes sense, why aren’t all doctors doing this. - Chelsea, Texas
- I like the overall experience and how even just doing it has empowered me to want to learn more about birth control. I wish this information was more readily available for people. - Lily, Washington
- I like how unique this is in terms of its approach to giving you another tool to figure out what type of birth control is best for you…. I wish I’d had this earlier in my life, like in my 20’s, when I was trying out a bunch of different birth control methods. - Jen, Oregon
- I found my experience with adyn to be incredibly empowering. I was able to make a more informed decision about my next birth control post-baby. After going through a pregnancy and IVF with lots of changing hormones along the way, it was liberating to understand where and how my body had changed and how to best find the right medication at this point in my life. - Alee, California
What is the biggest misconception about your work or business or space?
adyn provides scientifically accurate education in a landscape of (d)evolving rights and disinformation. In the US, nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended. The UNFPA’s 2022 State of World Population report on the crisis of unintended pregnancy found that stigma outranks lack of access as the primary reason women do not use contraception globally. While providing education is critical to changing the status quo, access to contraception remains a problem, even in the U.S., where almost 20 million women live in contraceptive deserts. adyn’s digital-first platform is able to serve these contraceptive deserts.
Can you explain the scientific underpinnings of your product or service? What role do you see for technology and digital health in improving women's health outcomes?
The Birth Control Test collects approximately 150 data points in a Medical Biography, assays six hormones and over 600,000 genetic markers. These are combined and analyzed to test for risks of specific side effects. While a patient’s medical background alone can reveal established contraindications, the addition of genetic data and hormone levels introduces precision.
The laboratory techniques we utilize are well established and widely adopted. This includes our method for analyzing blood from a finger prick which is nearly identical (99-100%) with the same analysis run using blood from a venus (arm) blood draw. The DNA analysis can vary by sample, but typically this analysis is 99.5% accurate. Any samples not passing our quality control thresholds are repeated.
In order to make scientifically accurate recommendations, we leverage over 50 peer-reviewed research studies that meet our scientific and statistical standards.
The Birth Control Test’s personalized recommendations are a decision-making tool preventing life-threatening contraindications, while guiding birth control users towards options that offer health benefits and meet their goals. These precise recommendations can be lifesaving.
The Birth Control Test guides users towards safe birth control options that offer health benefits and align with their goals.
For example, venous thromboembolism (blood clots) are a possible side effect of specific hormonal contraceptives. The risk of blood clot while on these contraceptives rises significantly when an individual has a genetic predisposition. Rather than guessing whether a patient is at risk (current standard of “care”), The Birth Control Test directly assays two well-established genetic risk markers known to lead to a higher risk of clotting. If a patient carries either of these markers, the test informs them of the risk and advises against specific hormonal contraceptives.
Our precision medicine approach creates a rich dataset, unlike any that currently exists. These data not only enable us to improve the specificity of The Birth Control Test over time, but also fuel the discovery of novel biomarkers and the development of additional clinical decision making tools, diagnostics, and therapeutic targets.
How do you envision the future of women's health research and innovation, and what role do you see for your organization in shaping this future?
I hope to see more women’s health research done by us, for us. 70% of birth control users cite health benefits besides pregnancy prevention as a motivation for use. Hormonal birth control can help regulate the menstrual cycle, alleviate cramps, PMS, anemia, clear up acne, and is frequently prescribed for a range of other reproductive health issues.
As such a popular and necessary medicine, it is unacceptable that the majority of women suffer from trying numerous methods in an attempt to avoid unwanted side effects. Many write off contraceptives entirely – 37% of women who want to avoid pregnancy do not use contraception due to fear of side effects.
The conventional prescription selection process is insufficient for the majority of us because our biology and lived experience has been so long excluded from medical research. That’s just the basic idea of a pill not being “one size fits all” - if women continue to be funded and positioned to lead research and STEM organizations, we will cure more diseases faster.
adyn applied for and received IRB approval in 2022. This milestone is the foundation of our R&D efforts. Our patient community can opt in to our Close The Gap research initiative, which seeks to achieve equity in science and medicine to improve the standard of care and long-term health outcomes, not just for underserved groups, but for everyone.
What is the biggest thing you learned in your work that you'd want others interested in pursuing careers in women's health leadership to know?
Trust what you’re passionate about - there’s probably a way to turn that into a career path. Find something you love doing because it makes life a lot more fun. More here!
Join the Movement and Apply for the Women's Health Research Initiative Grant
We're on a mission to support researchers helping make a difference in women's health. The Women's Health Research grant is open to all researchers (students included) researching or planning to research a topic in women's health using data from wearables.
Labfront is a global startup specializing in health data analytics. It is currently disrupting academic health research through its Labfront platform, a code-free digital biomarker collection and analytics solution. With the recent explosion of sensors in the scientific community, Labfront is helping health researchers process the overwhelming amount of complex data and transition to the data-rich future.