Interviews with our businesses

Five minutes with Lily Elsner, CEO of Jack Fertility

June 14, 2023

The Oxford Trust welcomed a new science & tech company to the Wood Centre for Innovation this month. Jack Fertility is a young start-up with a big mission. They aim to change the conversation about fertility and address a gender imbalance in the lack of fertility testing and support available to men.

As the only mail-in sperm testing company in the UK, they are giving men a new way to help them navigate a challenging experience, and in doing so, give couples a more balanced approach to their fertility journeys. We spoke to CEO and co-founder, Lily Elsner, about their beginnings and what they aim to achieve.

The gender imbalance in fertility support

Lily and co-founder Nick Shipley met and became good friends in 2019, when they were in the same study group during their MBA at University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. When planning his own family, Nick shared with Lily the lack of support he had encountered in relation to male fertility.

With her undergraduate science background, Lily knew that male and female factors were just as likely to be responsible for a couple’s challenge to conceive. So, she dug deeper and found that research into male fertility, outside of erectile dysfunction, was surprisingly limited and underfunded.

Various fertility tests are available for women, even before trying to conceive a child, and when a couple experiences challenges conceiving, women’s fertility is usually investigated first. Very few testing options and little support are available for men.

Having identified this gap, Lily and Nick spent about 9 months mapping the ecosystem and understanding the market, greatly benefitting from Nick’s background in consumer insights.

Removing barriers to male fertility testing

Their research showed that few men talk about fertility. Men avoid fertility testing because they find visits to the clinic inconvenient; they find the experience awkward and emasculating; and they often avoid testing because they fear the results. This gender disparity in exploring reproductive health surprised Lily. She also says she was taken aback by how little the average person, as well as many medical professionals, know about male reproductive and sperm health. She realised that things needed to change.

Lily and Nick noticed how people had become more familiar with the idea of mail-in medical testing through the Covid pandemic and mail-in Covid PCR testing. This gave them the idea of offering a mail-in option for laboratory-conducted sperm health tests, and so remove one of the key obstacles – the awkward and inconvenient experience of a clinic visit to collect sperm samples.

Jack Fertility was formed as a commercial entity in 2022. They aim to remove barriers and destigmatise male fertility testing. Lily says: “sperm count is decreasing at over 2% annually and male infertility will become an increasing problem for couples wanting to conceive a child. Our aim is to shift and normalise the conversation around male infertility.”

Even the choice of the company name, Jack Fertility, aims to break down a barrier and engage men about their fertility. ‘Jack’ is masculine, approachable, and ‘one-of-the-guys’, and with its familiar use in crude phrasing, brings a smile to a conversation that men often find awkward.

Sperm health testing

None of the home sperm test kits currently on the market offer the full range of parameters measured in a laboratory that are needed to assess overall sperm health and male fertility. Jack Fertility’s laboratory tests of preserved sperm samples received by mail will look at five parameters to give an holistic picture of sperm health, including how much and what concentration of sperm there is, what it looks like, and how it moves. They will be the first company globally to offer the mail-in service, allowing the samples to be put discretely into a priority mailbox.

The team also hope to connect men with the correct levels and points of support. If anything outside normal parameters is detected through the lab tests, customers will be directed to the appropriate professionals to talk to and advise solutions. Alongside testing, they aim to improve awareness of male infertility and educate people about how to improve sperm health.

Having just moved into the Wood Centre for Innovation, the team is now setting up their lab space. Lily and Nick have been joined by a third team member, Maryam Rahbar, a qualified embryologist and andrologist, who has recently completed her PhD at the University of Oxford. They will be working hard over the next six months to validate testing and processes, and, with further investment, intend to launch a product by the end of the year.

Team photo of 3 people standing underneath ohm-shaped sculpture in front of building

The Jack Fertility team (L-R): Maryam Rahbar (CSO); Nick Shipley (CCO); Lily Elsner (CEO)

Mission-driven company

The team at Jack Fertility aim to accelerate the number of men taking control of their fertility through sperm testing and, in the short term, become a major force in male reproductive health testing. In the long term, they hope their processes will become a global standard.

In the broader global context, Lily and Nick value their role and impact on sustainability. They hope to contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services (SDG target 3.7). They also aim to be leaders in environmental sustainability in the health tech sector, and have worked with sustainability and legal experts to develop a company sustainability statement.

Grateful for the support from Oxford innovation ecosystem

Lily became familiar with the Oxford start-up environment, including The Oxford Trust and Advanced Oxford, when she was paired with a local start-up in the Creative Destruction Lab at the Saïd Business School, who then employed her as head of strategy.

At a ‘Started in Oxford’ event in 2020, she met The Oxford Trust’s CEO Steve Burgess, who, she says, has been a great mentor and support to her and the company. Because of this relationship, when it came to choosing a lab space, their first choice was the Wood Centre for Innovation, where they have been accepted into their Escalator Support Programme.

Lily also appreciates the strategic location of the innovation centre, with its proximity to TheHill, where they are part of their pre-seed accelerator programme, Oxford Brookes Enterprise Centre, and Headington’s network of health tech companies. The Wood Centre for Innovation is also home to Barclays Eagle Labs, which has been a great support to the business in the early stages.

Lily has been fortunate to participate in Innovate UK EDGE and Young Innovators Programme, Femtech Lab Accelerator programme, Barclays Eagle Lab Female Founders Accelerator programme and University of Oxford’s IDEA programme, providing mentorship and helping connect her to the start-up ecosystem.

Their initial funding has come through a Young Innovators grant from Innovate UK and a non-equity grant prize for best startup from Femtech Lab.

Having had immense support while starting up in Oxford’s innovation ecosystem, Lily also feels strongly about giving back where they can.

To find out more about Jack Fertility visit their website. They are actively testing as part of their validation processes. Anyone is interested in free sperm testing can sign up here, or get in touch with the team at [email protected]. .

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