Picture a pregnancy test, and chances are that some version of the following image will pop up: a clinical plastic stick, possibly with a pink handle and the words “pregnant” and “not pregnant” printed at one end. Now try and imagine a vastly new-and-improved version of the product that's become so integral to women’s lives, but hasn't changed in three decades. What would that even look like?
Bethany Edwards has an idea. As the founder and CEO of Lia, a startup with designs to change the way we think about pregnancy tests, Edwards has spent the past four years developing the first-ever fully flushable incarnation. And, if you ask her, it’s an innovation that’s been a long time coming.
“Nobody has innovated on the home pregnancy test [structure] in over 30 years,” Edwards says. Since the 1980s, when ClearBlue put the first pee-on-a-stick style test on drugstore shelves, kicking off the so-called Wand Era, not a whole lot has changed—and the truth is that it took centuries upon centuries of human history for the product to progress to that point. Ancient Egyptians purportedly mixed urine with grains to predict if a woman was expecting (germinating grains were that civilization's equivalent to a tiny “plus” sign); medical textbooks from the Middle Ages reveal similar experimentation with urine and wheat bran.
Just a century ago, pregnancy testing still resembled something out of a Flintstones cartoon. The “Hogben test,” developed somewhat accidentally by the British zoologist Lancelot Hogben, consisted of injecting a woman’s urine under the skin of a female frog and then checking to see whether or not, hours later, the creature produced a cluster of eggs. If the answer was yes, congratulations were in order. Though similar procedures were performed on mice as well as rabbits, tens of thousands of frogs were subjected to this fate.
That is, until scientists developed amphibian-free tests which detected the presence of the so-called pregnancy hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin, a.k.a. hGC. It was a game-changing discovery that ultimately reshaped the experience of finding out you were expecting. In-office chemical tests became the new standard: A woman would give a urine sample to her doctor, who would send it off to the lab and then inform his patient of her results when they arrived back.
Predictably, the male-dominated medical establishment had plenty of reasons why women couldn’t be trusted to administer pregnancy tests on their own—how could an emotional woman be trusted to follow even the simplest of instructions?! at least one doc asked—which meant that confirming you were pregnant almost always happened in the presence of a professional.
Then, in 1967, a 26-year-old product designer named Margaret Crane helped usher in a new era of women’s health by developing an at-home test that brought the science lab into our bathroom. Though the test Crane created (not coincidentally, against the backdrop of the women’s liberation movement) had the look of a DIY science kit, it would ultimately pave the way for the Wand Era: the simple pee-on-a-stick tests we’re familiar with today. Unilever launched its Clearblue Easy test, the first of its kind, in 1988, and the first digital test was released in the early aughts. And, like Edwards said, the design of at-home tests hasn’t changed much in the intervening years.
But, with Lia, women could have a potential new option. In research conducted, one of the things that kept coming up from women was the fact that they wanted a more private test, Edwards explained to Glamour.com over the phone. Pregnancy, and pregnancy testing, is a highly unique and personal experience for every individual; for women in particularly vulnerable situations, the need for privacy can even be a matter of life and death.
“We’ve heard stories from people [about] wrapping [their pregnancy test] in tin foil and putting them in dumpsters or garbage cans across the street,” says Edwards. “It can also be as simple as not wanting your housecleaner or your mother-in-law to be snooping through your trash.” Though Lia follows the same pee-on-the-thing principles—take it into the bathroom, aim, and wait for pink lines to appear (two for positive, one for negative)—there’s no telltale plastic applicator left behind, and it flushes like 2-ply toilet paper.
Which brings us to the next point: the sustainability factor. Data from 2017 shows that 10.95 million American women used an at-home pregnancy test. And, if any of these women followed in the footsteps of Kim Kardashian—who once documented the fact that she used six tests in a row, on an airplane—the number of plastic test applicators starts to get a little mind-boggling: used pregnancy tests add up to around two million pounds of waste every year.
For that reason, Lia was designed to be as earth-friendly as possible, and it's made from paper, not plastic. ”The idea that all the materials are bio-based in some kind of way so that they can degrade on their own as opposed to having to be recycled,” says Edwards. The materials her team has developed are water disposable and 100% biodegradable, so Lia can go straight back into nature without another processing step.
But while a product that ups privacy and sustainability seem like a no-brainer, Edwards acknowledged encountering some resistance while raising capital. For one thing, introducing the idea of a new pregnancy test to rooms full of male venture capitalists proved to be an uphill battle; she recalls a lot of confused faces, as well as at least one executive who was under the impression that women inserted pregnancy tests like tampons. For another: She has observed that a business with a social good mission isn’t always seen for its profitability potential, making it harder to get buy-in.
It’s an issue that’s bigger than the women’s health space. “Things that are being done in agriculture or different kinds of textiles or different recycling techniques, that naturally have a sustainable kind of bend to them: They might not be statistics-based tech businesses, and they might not be making virtual reality headsets,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not set up to be profitable businesses. They’re just solving problems that are trying to be in a benefit for the planet.”
As for how the hope for profitability applies to price per unit, Edwards said that the company is really focused on making Lia affordable, and keeping costs comparable to other name brand tests. Though Lia has officially cleared FDA hurdles—it received clearance last December—the next challenge is finding a producer who can make Lia at volume.
“We’re taking techniques from the paper and textile industries and integrating them with techniques from the diagnostic industry,” says Edwards, “so it’s a completely new way of making a product like this.” And so, while the Wand Era might not yet be behind us, the way we think about pregnancy tests—and women’s privacy—has come a long way. Flushable, earth-friendly, and completely private? All positive.
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