Zeta was started by one person with a laptop and a dream. A kernel of an idea occurred in late 2014 while watching cable television when an advertisement for egg donors came across the screen. The following years brought plenty of research, conversations, engineering, design, and soul searching. With the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, a solution for the logistical issues with in vitro fertilization seemed more relevant than ever. Software had changed everything. Maybe it could help this industry as well.
So, how could software help couples have babies? Finding the answer required a deep understanding of the business behind fertility and the challenges that it faces. The most obvious issue is the cost associated with alternative fertility methods. Secondarily, though less of a barrier to entry is the time required to follow through with the process from start to finish. Software is very good at solving logistic problems, so it was not hard to imagine a solution for the second problem -- more or less, a data-driven matchmaking service similar to a dating app in function, but for matching with egg donors, sperm donors, surrogate mothers, and fertility clinics.
Solving the issue of cost proved to be less obvious. Part of the cost for parents requiring an egg donor is the compensation of the egg donor, which made sense. Putting a pin in that issue, perhaps there were ways to bring down the cost elsewhere. For instance, fertility clinics sometimes work with donor agencies to acquire embryos for parents. Advertisements just like the one from that day in 2014 are paid for by these agencies to acquire new donors, the clinics then pay the agencies a fee for finding the donor, and that fee ultimately gets passed to the client or couple.
Reducing the cost of acquiring new donors seemed like part of the solution to make alternative fertility methods more accessible, but then, were new donors truly needed? Additional reading revealed that thousands of frozen embryos exist in the U.S. at any given moment. There’s such a surplus that egg and sperm banks are concerned about what to do with them. Demand for embryos and sperm exist, but since there’s no way to match the surplus embryos with the couples who need them, the market breaks down. Here we seemingly had a textbook resource allocation problem, which software is also very good at solving.
By giving the parents a choice between finding a new donor or a previous donor, perhaps this would reduce the cost by reducing the need for clinics or agencies to spend money on marketing. It was a hypothesis worth testing, however, it is known that frozen embryos have a lower success rate than unfrozen embryos. This means that a lower cost came with a potential lower success rate, which makes sense when buying lottery tickets, but not when trying to start a family. Although it still seemed important to solve the resource allocation problem to bring down the cost, the answer wasn’t entirely in frozen embryos because it’s assumed that parents would rather choose new embryos to increase the chance of success.
In many other industries, reducing costs happens with an economy of scale. Ordering in bulk saves money because each item costs less. What is the fertility clinic version of this? When researching the landscape of fertility clinics, donor agencies, and sperm & egg banks, a common pattern emerged. Each operated as its own business, with its own identity, its website, its advertising campaigns, bidding against each other for the same spot on a computer screen, television show, or radio or podcast spot, driving up the cost of advertising. The competition seemed as intense as with any other industry. A simple Google search for “egg donor” would reveal an entire page of ads recruiting egg donors or prospective parents and 22 million results!
For an industry built to provide prospective parents and donors with the best care and guidance, it seemed a shame that there was a marketing war driving it below the surface. Perhaps, the fertility clinic version of “buying in bulk” is the consolidation of competitors. A larger organization could, in theory, use its scale to more efficiently acquire donors and allocate them to prospective parents while passing on the savings to the parents or the donors in the form of more compensation. Also, this would enable fertility clinics to focus entirely on their practice. This seemed like a good start.
And so, six years after viewing the recruitment advertisement for egg donors, Zeta went live with the mission of making alternative fertility methods more accessible and affordable for all. We will always make decisions in the best interest of the many prospective parents, donors, and professionals that use the platform every day to make couples' dreams come true. Then, once and for all, it should be settled that TV doesn't always rot your brain. Sometimes it can spark a multi-year odyssey.