Rethinking the Search for an Egg Donor with Tulip
Tulip co-founder and chair Gail Sexton Anderson started Tulip and her first company,
Donor Concierge, with the vision of helping alleviate the stress and complexity for those seeking third-party fertility services by offering a resource to help identify donors and surrogates with greater ease and higher quality matches.
Tulip has aggregated donor information from 90% of US agencies. The new online egg donor exchange platform recently received $1.7 million in seed-stage funding.
SH: Can you give an introduction to Tulip and how you came up with the idea?
GSA: I've been dreaming about this tool for a long time. I've been in this field for about 25 years and have worked to help people anytime someone needs to use more than just two people to create a baby, what we call third-party fertility. Tulip was an offshoot of my original company, Donor Concierge, which I launched 15 years ago.
When I first started working with intended parents, I found it challenging for them to decide who would replace them in the gene pool because that's not something any of us grow up dreaming about or expect to have happen.
So after many years, and with the advancement of technology, we launched Tulip to help us internally make it easier to help intended parents find what they're looking for.
Tulip gives us more time to spend helping intended parents solve issues along the way. We can help them find potential candidates in a far shorter time rather than them needing to go into every agency database and research prospective donors.
Secondly, Donor Concierge often serves people who are financially stable and have the financial wherewithal, and that often makes more choices available. I didn't feel like that was fair. I wanted anyone who is going through something like this to be able to see what their choices are. And often, people aren't aware that they have any other options beyond what's being presented by their clinic because all of this will be new to them.
Tulip has brought together many different agencies in one platform. Anyone who is looking for a donor can look there and find the possibilities. They have a vast choice of donors. We also have experts and knowledgeable coaches that can help them along the way. And, ultimately, Tulip allows them to be able to make better choices.
SH: You’ve spoken a bit about how Tulip developed from Donor Concierge. What advice do you have for companies that are trying to digitize a portion of their business?
GSA: We built a tool because we saw a market that's very fragmented and unregulated. If a company wants to create a market platform, it will help to be in an emerging market where there are no clear leaders. They should look for an opportunity to create a central market where there isn't one that currently exists. It's helpful if there is an incentive for other participants in the market to participate in that platform. And that's something that we are lucky enough to have.
I’ve worked with these agencies for a long time, so they trust us and are open to working with us because we are essentially like Switzerland; we’re not competing with them. We're bringing business to them, and this just makes it much more efficient.
SH: Was there any fear that you might be cannibalizing a portion of Donor Concierge by building out Tulip?
GSA: Not really because what I find is that they're addressing somewhat different markets. Suppose you were to compare the market to renovating a house. In that case, Donor Concierge is for those people that when they renovate a home, they will have an architect and designer and have someone who will be taking charge of the project and with Tulip, it is more do it yourself. The analogy is that you are going to be going to Home Depot and gathering everything yourself.
SH: Are intended parents drawn to the platform approach of Tulip because of the anonymity it provides?
GSA: I think so because it's a very private decision, and I think quite often people may want to tiptoe into it. They may not necessarily be sharing this with all their friends and family. We encourage people to be open, but it's a slow process for people to start feeling comfortable sharing.
One in eight couples suffers from fertility issues
but users of Tulip are creating their family in what they may see as being a non-traditional way. If Tulip did not exist, they would have to sign up with many different agencies and share a bit of their information as they try to find a match.
The agencies will be following up with them and saying, Oh, do you see this donor? Have you decided on that donor?
When someone is just starting this process, they want to just look without anyone hanging over their shoulder and pushing them.
They need to have that space to feel comfortable seeing all the options to find a donor they connect with.
And in the very early stages, they may not even be able to make any decisions because they're still getting adjusted to it. I think it usually takes people anywhere from six to eighteen months to get their head around the idea that they may need a donor.
And then after that, when they stopped seeing it as being this horrible thing that could be an option for them, and start seeing this as being an opportunity to grow their family. The advantage of Tulip is that they don't have someone hanging over their shoulder and can feel like they're doing this in the privacy of their own home.
SH: How has Tulip decreased the search cost of looking for a donor, and how do you think about match quality- accuracy of search algorithms and the intuitiveness of the search tools?
GSA: I'm going to address the intuitive part first because since we have had access to all of these different agencies, we have seen every type of database that's out there for donors.
Quite often, they have been created by someone who maybe is an engineer, but they haven't thought about it from the perspective of making it intuitive for an intended parent. We have that perspective, and we've been able to take the best of all worlds and then improve on it to see what we would like to see in there.
From the feedback, we've gotten from clients over the years. Time is money, and because it's so very time-consuming and daunting for intended parents when they have to log into all these different agency sites and have no idea which of these programs are trusted programs or which ones aren't.
We pull all of this together. We vetted the agencies that we work with so that when intendant parents go on Tulip, there is an opportunity for them to explore all the options from very reputable organizations.
SH: Earlier in our conversion, you mentioned incentives to participate in the platform since launching in November; how have you thought about trying to scale both sides of the platform proportionally?
GSA: Finding all of these components can be daunting. The donors are already part of these agencies, and for an internal program, we already have them on the platform.
It was more about working with the agencies to make sure that things would flow well on their side too. We work very closely and well with the agencies so that we've been able to make it so that things flow very well.
SH: Do you think it's more challenging to secure financing when your company is focused on femtech or in an area that is considered femtech adjacent?
GSA: Definitely. We face the same issues that we've always faced. Men still dominate the venture capital market, with 95% of all the seats belonging to men. According to Harvard Business Review, in 2019, 2.8% of funding went to women-led startups, and in 2020, that fell to 2.3%.
When we spoke with potential VC investors about Tulip, we began every meeting, which was often all men, with a long discussion about fertility and the market opportunities. And that is why we raised funds from market insiders and angel investors, they know me, and they understand the opportunity.
SH: What additional opportunities do you see for platforms in the fertility market?
GSA: Tulip started with egg donors, both fresh and frozen, but soon we'll be adding sperm donors, surrogates, and eventually embryos for those who are looking for(or are donating embryos) to be able to unify all of those things. We want to make it accessible for intended parents to search all in one place.
Fifteen years ago, I disrupted the market with Donor Concierge, and we're doing the same thing now with Tulip. Rather than simply automating a broken system as others have done, we are rethinking the system to make it more effective for intended parents. Intended parents have always been our true North, and they always will be.
I've always felt if you take care of the intended parents, then the revenue will follow, and that's been my experience.