Interview by Michelle Hua @MadeWithGlove.
Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Dr. Elina Berglund is the CTO and co-founder of Natural Cycles the fertility app which allows women to help prevent, plan and monitor pregnancies. As a top physicist, Elina was part of the Nobel Prize-winning team that discovered the Higgs boson at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Following this success, Elina and her husband, CEO and co-founder of Natural Cycles, Dr Raoul Scherwitzl, were looking for an effective natural contraceptive. Elina and Raoul’s mission is to educate and empower women worldwide to take control of their fertility and future, championing a vision where every pregnancy brings happiness.
Today, Natural Cycles is the world’s first, and only, app to be certified as a contraception, and has been shown in clinical studies to be similarly effective as the contraceptive pill. The app has over 200,000 users in 161 countries.
What is the idea behind your project / product and how did you come up with it?
The ambition behind the Natural Cycles app was to use technology to offer women worldwide greater choice and freedom when it came to contraception - without the side-effects of traditional methods like the pill. The idea came about as I was in a stable relationship and didn’t want to use hormones or condoms anymore. We looked at the various natural family planning options but there was nothing easy and reliable available - and, when you analyse the data, this option is prone to human error. The few devices that were in reach were out-dated, expensive and, most of all, used basic, ineffective algorithms. Both Raoul (CEO, co-founder and husband) and I are PhDs and PostDocs in Physics, so we applied our maths intel and created an algorithm to make it safe and easy for women worldwide to use. We packaged the algorithm into a mobile app and made it user-friendly and scalable at the same time.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
It started around the summer of 2012. I was fortunate to be part of the Nobel Prize-winning team that discovered the Higgs particle at CERN - and thought about leaving physics and what to do next. I had started developing the first version of the Natural Cycles algorithm for my own use and this was something I wanted to develop further. I spent 2013 working to finalise the algorithm, and the first version of the app, which was released at the end of 2013. Today Natural Cycles is a team of 25 people with more than 200,000 users worldwide.
How does it work?
Based on an advanced bio-statistic algorithm, Natural Cycles analyzes a woman's basal body temperature (BBT) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH) data to identify her fertile and non-fertile days. This is by analyzing the BBT to confirm that ovulation has occurred and the woman is no longer fertile. By measuring and adding the basal temperature in the morning (5 values per week is recommended) the app gets to know the woman and her unique menstrual cycle. After 1-3 cycles of measuring the app has gotten to know her well enough to be able to confirm when ovulation has occurred.
What has been your biggest obstacle or challenge and achievement?
One of our biggest challenges was to demonstrate that technology, and specifically our algorithm, could work as effectively as other types of contraception without the side-effects e.g. the pill. To do this we conducted a series of large-scale clinical studies with some of the world’s best researchers in the most respected fertility institutes. The results proved that Natural Cycles is just as effective as the pill in preventing pregnancies. This was a huge achievement for us - at last, we had demonstrated that technology could replace traditional contraception and offer women worldwide more choice and freedom without any of the health risks involved.
Following the publication of the clinical study we set out to get Natural Cycles officially certified as a CE approved form of birth control. After in-depth talks with auditors across Europe we got the go-ahead. Following a lot of work, documentation, clinical studies and audits we finally got the app certified as a contraception at the beginning of 2017. Natural Cycles is now the world’s first, and only, approved contraceptive app. This is amazing and I think not only important for women and the field of contraception, but also a milestone for innovation and technology because, for the first time, an app and the tech that underpins it, can replace a pharmaceutical drug that focuses on prevention instead of treatment.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in this niche?
Often the case with something as pioneering as Natural Cycles is that we are working in unchartered territory so we are continually learning and achieving new milestones. Health apps like Natural Cycles don’t easily fit into the regulations, as they were written before there were such things as apps, so part of what we try to do is to have foresight into potential challenges and be prepared for them.
Is the #WomenInTech initiative important to you and if yes, why?
Yes, definitely. I have given many talks at ‘women in tech’ events and it’s great to see the passion and excitement they bring - I love the ambiance at such events, it’s so empowering. I received the #womenintech Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2015 and, at this year’s International Women’s Day, Wired magazine named me as one of their most inspiring women working in tech today for which I felt incredibly proud and fortunate. I feel it’s very important to be involved as much as possible and to set a positive example for the next generation of women and female entrepreneurs. My daughter is 3 years old and I want her to grow up in a world where it is perfectly normal for women to code or study/work in technology as it is for a man - and where opportunities exist for women to excel in this field.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
Don’t focus on how rare it is to be a women in the world of start-ups as this may inhibit you. Just carry on what you are doing and what you are passionate about and then good things will come.
What do you think will be the key trends in the wearable tech/IOT industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I’m really excited about the future of wearable tech and how tech is rebooting and improving traditional ways of doing things. Data will always take a key role in this process and if you see how it’s applied to things like MVPs (Mobile Visualisation Platforms) you notice how they will improve significantly as people use them and more data is collected. I hope to see a lot happen in this area, especially within health, in order to prevent diseases rather than treat them.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in tech?
Fabiola Gianotti who is currently the Director General at CERN. She used to the spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment when I was in particle physics. She is an incredibly smart and tenacious woman.
Anne Wojcicki, CEO and co-founder of 23andme.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.