Lauren Goode

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Max Levchin’s New Plan: To Get You Pregnant (And Improve Health Care in the Process)

IMGS5714-LWhen I called PayPal co-founder Max Levchin last week, we talked about ovulation cycles, not payment cycles.

That’s because Levchin’s newest start-up involves an iPhone app aimed toward helping women get pregnant.

Called Glow, the company has built a fertility tracker that uses cutting-edge data analytics and published information on ovulation cycle forecasts to help advise a woman on the best times for her to conceive.

Users must enter in personal details about their menstrual cycles, their body temperatures and other habits to inform the Glow app. According to Levchin, the app adjusts to the individual as she logs more and more data.

Then, it gives the user — and her partner, if he or she opts to use a version of the app — insight into her fertility window.

The next step is on the part of the users, and it’s advisable that the iPhone might be put aside for that part.

Levchin appeared onstage today at the D: AllThings Digital conference to demo the free app for Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.

Onstage, Levchin logged into Glow as his wife, told the app that he and his wife were trying for their third child, entered in menstrual cycle information and was presented with a swipe-through calendar that is color-coded based on peak fertility times.

Another data point that goes into the app is the texture of the cervical mucus, which Levchin explained is an important indicator in fertility tracking.

Glow also offers clever prompts and notifications. For example, Levchin said, the app might remind a woman on an especially fertile day that it’s a good time to wear nice underwear. Her partner might receive a notification on the same day to bring flowers home.

“Many of the reasons why people find it difficult, when they’re keeping on the clock, is because it becomes unpleasurable when it’s a routine,” he said in the pre-interview.

Glow app

To say Levchin’s Glow is well timed is both an understatement and a bad pun. The topic of women’s roles in the workforce and at home have been pushed to the forefront of conversation in recent months, thanks to published works like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story for the Atlantic. Three weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal featured an editorial by a woman who chose to freeze her eggs at age 36, spending $50,000 over the course of the two-year process.

Due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, more women are having children later in life. A 2010 Census Bureau study called “Fertility of American Women: 2010” compared childbearing patterns with those in women from 10 years earlier. The study found that a “delayer boom” was under way, in which highly educated women — those with a college degree or above — were more inclined to delay childbearing into their 30s than those with less education.

When I asked Levchin whether the app was inspired by personal experience, he said, “My wife and I were lucky. We had our children without any issues.” (Levchin and his wife, Nellie, have two kids.)

“But we have people close to us that have gone through multiple IVF trials,” he added, “and we’ve heard them say, ‘We’re not going to put my wife’s body through this anymore.’”

To be sure, there are many other apps available that track women’s periods and ovulation cycles.

But Levchin’s goal, ultimately, isn’t just to help women get pregnant. He believes arming the average citizen with data about his or her health will ultimately cut down on health care costs in the long run. He said he plans to eventually apply this financial model to other areas of health.

Glow app

Last month, at D: Dive Into Mobile, an entrepreneur named Geoff Clapp stood onstage and demoed another app aimed at offering accessible health care. Called Better, this iPhone-only app connects users directly to the Mayo Clinic’s vast database of health information and, for a monthly fee, will also put you in touch with a Mayo Clinic nurse or doctor for consultation.

At the top of the tiered pricing plan is what Clapp referred to as the “Black Card” service, referencing the American Express card for the uber-wealthy, which includes access to emergency health care.

“We’re taking the best of Silicon Valley and best of clinical health and making it happen,” Clapp said in an interview at the time.

Unlike Glow, the Better app is HIPAA-compliant and pre-tax dollars can be put toward a monthly Better subscription.

There will be some, of course, who are dubious about an iPhone app’s ability to make a difference in the current healthcare system in the U.S. This sentiment is probably best encapsulated in a recent New Yorker story by George Packer, which quotes the Belarusian, dark-side-of-the-Internet scholar Evgeny Morozov as saying, “They think that anything that helps you bypass institutions is, by default, empowering or liberating. You might not be able to pay for health care … but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.”

Levchin is underscoring his commitment to Glow, and to the new age of digital health, by contributing a million dollars of his own money to a mutual insurance fund that goes to pay for fertility treatments for those who fail to get pregnant after 10 months of using the app.

Users also have the option to contribute $50 a month to the fund, a hundred percent of which will then be put toward their treatments. If they do get pregnant, they forfeit the funds.

In the case of the former, Glow will recommend fertility treatment facilities based on users’ locations.

“The rates of success from facilities is required to be published by law, but most people don’t know how or where to access that,” Levchin said. “We have data on the best places.”

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald