Since launching in 2016 in New York, Extend has overseen nearly 2,000 egg-freezing cycles, the process of retrieving and then freezing a woman’s eggs. A co-founder of the company, Dr. Joshua Klein, anticipates tens of thousands more cycles in Extend’s future. Extend plans to open locations on the West Coast before 2020.
“Just looking at the numbers, I think egg freezing as an industry is here to stay,” Santemma said. “The market’s growing 25 percent a year.”
Santemma isn’t the only investor shelling out for egg-freezing startups. Kindbody’s backers, Silver said, include Perceptive Life Sciences, a biotech hedge fund, and RRE, a venture capital firm.
Trellis Fertility Studio, which launched in November 2018 in New York, with plans to expand throughout North America, is under the umbrella of IntegraMed Fertility, an extensive network of fertility clinics backed by the private equity firm Sagard Capital.
As early as 2017, Wall Street investors were identifying the fertility market as one to watch. “The U.S. fertility clinic market has come of age and is ripe for a merger and acquisition cycle,” Capstone Partners, an investment banking firm, wrote in 2017. “The wave is already beginning.”
Investors are betting big on the buying power — and interests of — millennials, zeroing in on independent, proactive single women marrying later in life than previous generations, if at all. These women are fully aware of ticking biological clocks as in vitro fertilization struggles for many couples have become more mainstream.
“I’m a graduate student, I haven’t even started my career yet and I’m very single,” said Alex Yoss, 28, at a recent egg-freezing informational session hosted by Kindbody. “I’m trying to take over what I want with my life.”
In 2009, just 475 women in the United States froze their eggs, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. By 2016, that number had skyrocketed to nearly 7,300. And, according to Gina Bartasi, founder of Kindbody, the numbers continue to grow.
But doctors are growing worried by the rush to private egg-freezing facilities like Extend Fertility and Kindbody. Dr. Sherman Silber, head of the Infertility Center at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis, helped pioneer the vitrification process that makes modern-day egg freezing possible. But he’s still concerned that private boutiques are more focused on wooing — and taking money from — patients than they are about providing quality care.
“Investors see it as a potential for a big killing, and they’re not going to have any interest in medical quality,” Silber said. “Most of these investors are just looking to show an increased profit every year, and they plan to sell for a huge gain in three to five years.”
Silber said he’s concerned women who turn to profit-driven egg-freezing boutiques are not necessarily getting all of the information they need, especially when that information is being provided at cocktail party-themed informational sessions, like the ones Kindbody hosts.
“We think the women need to be properly and soberly informed, not with wine in their head,” Silber said.
Silver defended Kindbody’s decision to serve alcohol, noting most of the women at the events never have more than half a glass of wine or prosecco and that alcohol is served in an effort to make attendees comfortable.
“Everything is totally optional and we trust women can make their own decisions as to whether they want to have a glass of prosecco,” Silver said.
Dr. Pasquale Patrizio, director of the Yale Fertility Center finds the fear-inducing marketing strategies many of the studios employ problematic, particularly by suggesting that women may never become mothers if they don’t freeze their eggs.
“These entrepreneurs are trying to capitalize on the fears of the young women,” he said, adding that the decision to freeze eggs is “nothing to trivialize.”
“It’s an important decision, and it’s not an easy one,” Patrizio said. “It requires a long discussion with a physician.”
Investors see it as a potential for a big killing, and they’re not going to have any interest in medical quality.
Dr. Sherman Silber
Bartasi argues that egg-freezing startups like Kindbody are filling a need that traditional medical establishments have overlooked, particularly for women who want to avoid sterile clinics that can be long on wait time and short on personal attention.
“The medical system is archaic,” Bartasi says. “We’ve brought accessibility to the patient.”
Physician assistants at Kindbody use Facetime to communicate with patients after-hours, walking them through the steps of daily injections.
A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” Bartasi has no medical degree, but has been involved in the fertility industry for more than a decade. She launched Fertility Authority, a platform aimed at sharing fertility information, in 2008, and then its egg-freezing offshoot EggBanxx in 2014.
Kindbody is Bartasi’s most ambitious business to date, with a clinic on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and other locations, including on the West Coast, slated to open in the near future. The company offers attractive price packages and payment plans. The most popular is the three-year plan, which allows clients to pay in monthly installments for packages that start at around $6,000 per retrieval, not counting the $3,000-5,000 in medication costs.
Extend Fertility and Trellis also offer payment plans, and while the prices differ slightly, they all are aggressively courting would-be patients with highly produced marketing campaigns that fill the social media feeds of millennial women.
Extend Fertility’s social media ads include a photo of a cup of frozen açaí next to a cartoon image of a woman’s egg that suggest freezing eggs is as easy and cost-effective as purchasing a frozen treat.
The ad is part of what Extend Fertility’s new CEO, Anne Hogarty, calls Extend’s “Let’s Chill” campaign. Hogarty had been at BuzzFeed for four years, where she oversaw its international revenue-generating strategy, before segueing into the fertility industry.
“We have ads on Facebook and Instagram for women to start the conversations,” Hogarty said in response to criticism that the ads trivialize a medical process that involves injections and anesthesia. “We are very careful, when women follow up to get more information, that the information is transparent and truthful and lists all the risks and benefits of egg freezing.”
Klein acknowledges there’s a business side to Extend, but says the company places an emphasis on medical quality.