Torkia Mahloul and Majd Abu Zant cofounded Abu Dhabi-based start-up Ovasave to empower women to take control of their fertility by making timely and informed decisions about their health.
The HealthTech platform seeks to ease the complexity and anxiety of navigating the health care system, finding the right medical professionals and opting for the most affordable packages to freeze their eggs.
The co-founders are advocating for women to start testing their ovarian reserves as early as 30 to understand their fertility and improve their chances of becoming pregnant in future.
Ovasave's digitised process allows women to take a self-administered hormone test at home, select a doctor from a vetted network of fertility clinics, set up a free tele-consultation and then decide on freezing and storing their eggs according to eligibility.
The business partners attempted to streamline and digitise the process on their platform to address the current problems in the market.
“Access to fertility services is a major issue. Women are delaying having children, so their fertility is declining, but they are not acting on it because of a lack of awareness … and because the fertility journey is fragmented and complex,” Ms Mahloul says.
“Women don’t have access to transparent prices, honest reviews and real ratings. It's difficult to make decisions about health without all this information.”
Freezing eggs to buy reproductive time is an option increasingly explored by women worldwide and is gaining traction in the UAE.
In the UK, egg-freezing cycles have increased 64 per cent from 2,576 in 2019 to 4,215 in 2021, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
In the US, the number of healthy women freezing eggs rose to 12,438 in 2020 from 7,193 in 2016, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.
Recent changes to UAE laws on reproductive health that came into effect in January 2021 allow single and married women to preserve their fertility for social reasons (such as pursuing education or career advancement) or medical reasons (such as undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment).
Ms Mahloul – a former banking and tech executive – says the idea of Ovasave was born when she undertook her own anxiety-filled and complex journey as an egg-freezing patient marked by uncertainty and difficulty.
She realised that fertility preservation was an underserved market where many women struggled due to a lack of support and innovation in the field.
Soon after, a mutual friend introduced her to Mr Abu Zant, chief executive of UEMedical, an operator of medical facilities, including fertility clinics, in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“We both realised that there was a lot of pain, struggle and frustration for women like me to start fertility testing and to pay for it … something needed to be done to empower women to make decisions about their fertility,” Ms Mahloul says.
The duo set up Ovasave in November 2022, with a soft launch in July 2023, aiming to make the fertility journey simple, convenient and affordable. Ovasave was selected to join Abu Dhabi's Hub71. Backed by the Abu Dhabi government and sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Hub71 supports the growth and development of tech start-ups at all stages with incentives and access to investors and mentors.
“What I’ve learnt over 20 years in health care is that when it comes to fertility, the system is broken. Women come to a clinic when they have difficulty conceiving and when it's too late,” Mr Abu Zant says.
“We want to turn the table and make it more proactive: it's about applying modern day digitisation tools to the technology of egg-freezing that’s existed for 15 years.”
Women can order an anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) test from Ovasave's web application, which is delivered to their home along with instructions for use, saving time and trips to laboratories, the co-founders say.
The FDA-approved at-home AMH test costs $100, which includes a free virtual consultation with an IVF specialist from Ovasave's network of clinics to discuss the results with the patient. The test measures anti-mullerian hormone levels, which correspond to a person’s egg count and can help diagnose an ovarian mass, but it does not predict fertility.
Depending on the results and the consultation outcome, patients can opt for an egg-freezing package with one of the clinics in the network.
Freezing the eggs comes with a price tag of about Dh25,000 per cycle, according to Mr Abu Zant. Storing them at a unit in the clinic can cost an average of Dh1,500 per year, which is paid from the second year onwards. In the UAE, frozen eggs can be stored for five years, with an option to extend for an additional five years, he says.
Ovasave offers payment instalment plans to split costs over six months using Cashew, a 'buy now, pay later’ platform.
Ovasave is currently adding to its platform eight fertility clinics and 20 IVF specialists from across the UAE chosen based on criteria such as their accreditation, location and reputation. Users can rate the doctors after their experience so that other women can see the reviews when they make a selection.
The process is digitised so clients can keep track of the eggs, pay for storage online and opt for an annual auto-renewal on their credit card to be charged for storage fees, Mr Abu Zant says.
Ovasave's business model works by offering the services via its website and then charging the clinics a fee, Ms Mahloul says.
“It's one thing having problems conceiving, but egg-freezing patients are different … some of these women don’t have a partner, don’t know the process and have not tried conceiving, so the approach needs some hand-holding. They need a community and a support platform to walk them through these steps,” she says.
The simplicity of the integrated process and the transparency of comparing all the prices on the platform drives more customers to the clinics and will help to bring down the costs over time, Mr Abu Zant says.
He says that most of Ovasave's revenue will be made from the home-testing service as it seeks to create more awareness among women to test for the quality and quantity of eggs at a younger age.
Ovasave aims to have one million women in Mena tested by 2028 and hopes to establish a presence in Saudi Arabia.
It plans to hit 20,000 tests and earn revenue of $3.5 million by the end of 2024, reach a break-even point by mid-2025 and bring in about $50 million in revenue by 2028.
A “typical client” is a working woman aged between 28 years to late 30s and with enough disposable income to afford egg-freezing services, Ms Mahloul says.
“Most will be single, not ready to settle or have a baby in the next few years because they don't have a partner or want to focus on their career or want to travel or have other priorities … They’re educated, understand fertility is an issue after a certain age, they value their health and are looking at options to be empowered and not leaving it to chance,” she says.
Other patients include women in different stages of their life who want to assess their fertility and want to plan having a second child, she says.
Ovasave is also convincing large corporations to add fertility benefits such as egg-freezing and IVF for their female workforce.
“We are in talks with large employers with a mainly female cohort to see how we can collaborate on costs and improving access to fertility services. We are planning to approach Amazon, Google, Etihad Airways, Emirates Airline and medical insurance companies in the next few months,” Mr Abu Zant says.
Demand for egg-freezing in the UAE is growing, he says, citing statistics by clinics in Ovasave's network.
The market will evolve as more women take the AMH tests, find out their ovarian reserve at a younger age and opt for egg-freezing to preserve their fertility, he says.
Factoring in the mental strain of undertaking the fertility journey, Ovasave plans to offer mental health services to its clients starting in the fourth quarter of 2023, Ms Mahloul says.
“There’s still a stigma attached to fertility and egg-freezing and we want to debunk that and make women feel that it's empowering and full of pride, not that they've failed somehow in the journey. We want to reverse the narrative and make it positive,” she says.
The co-founders, who invested $400,000 to start the business together, are seeking to raise about $1.5 million to $2 million over the next six months. The funds will be used for tech development, product expansion, recruitment and market growth.
They are seeking funds from regional and local investors, with a focus on female angel investors.
Q&A with Ovasave co-founders Torkia Mahloul and Majd Abu Zant
Why is setting up a business with social impact important to you?
We firmly believe that businesses play a pivotal role in tackling society's pressing challenges. Addressing the gender gap, particularly in women's health access, is a driving force behind our business idea. Women often face inequities and limitations in health care, which is why we're committed to enhancing their well-being. Women make up half of society and deserve equal opportunities in every aspect of life.
What new skills have you learned in the process of launching your start-up?
Through this journey, we've picked up some really important skills. Customer discovery, product development, and storytelling have been key. Figuring out our customers felt like detective work initially, but now it has become like second nature. Product development has been quite a challenge, and leading the team to deliver the vision is a super valuable skill. Story-telling is an art we've had to learn to make Ovasave's story really engaging, and honestly, we're still learning.
What is it like starting a business in a post-Covid world?
Starting a business in a post-Covid world has been an interesting ride. The pandemic pushed the health industry towards digitisation, which works in our favour. Plus, initiatives like the Hub71 incubator programme have been a real game-changer, offering the support and connections we need as an early-stage start-up. All in all, we can't really complain about the post-Covid landscape.
How is your service different from other health care platforms in the region?
Our service takes a different approach to solving fertility challenges. While many online platforms focus on wellness, we recognise the importance of medical expertise in women's health. We're not just giving insights; we're also paving the way to care through our network of top fertility clinics. On Ovasave, women can test, connect with the right clinic and receive the support and treatment they need, all at the best cost.
What changes in digital health care should patients expect in the next decade?
In the next decade, patients can look forward to a more seamless and personalised digital health care experience. Tele-medicine will likely become even more integrated into routine care, enabling convenient virtual consultations. Advanced health monitoring through wearables and connected devices will provide real-time insights for proactive management. AI-driven diagnostics and treatment recommendations might also play a larger role, enhancing accuracy and efficiency. Overall, digital health care is set to empower patients with greater control and accessibility.
Who is your main competition and what is your competitive advantage?
When it comes to competition, other platforms in the at-home testing and women's health space could be seen as our main rivals. However, we see the online ordering and booking of these services becoming fairly standard. What sets us apart is that our focus isn't just on the “click and buy” aspect. Our real edge lies in the depth of medical insights and health expertise we offer throughout the intricate journey of fertility.