In a world where the subject of infertility centers around women, Fargo native Greg Sommer is pointing the attention towards the other half of the equation with a new male fertility testing device.
“Most people don’t understand the magnitude of how big the problem really is,” Sommer said.
According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, approximately 40% of infertile couples are caused or partly caused by the male partner. In addition, Sommer said, one in five men report a low sperm count.
That’s where Trak comes in. Trak is a product designed by Sommer and his team at Sandstone Diagnostics as way to give men more feedback on their fertility. It includes an engine, a disposable test plate and seal, a sample collection cup, and a dropper.
To use it, one collects a semen sample in the cup, swirls it around, and places it in the test plate using the dropper. It’s then loaded into the centrifuge, which spins the sample for several minutes, using centrifugal force to isolate the sperm cells. Afterwards, the test plate is calibrated like a thermometer to deliver a sperm cell count reading.
The device is paired with the Trak app, which takes the sperm analysis and offers personalized results on how to improve your reproductive health. For instance, it can track your diet, exercise, stress, heat exposure, toxin exposure, and general wellness, and offers a score for each. (A Beta version of the app is available now for free on Google play.)
Sommer, a research scientist with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan, began thinking of the idea for Trak while working on a device that could give a count reading on white blood cells. He and his partners on the project, Ulrich Schaff and Sara Naab, realized they could use the device to track fertility health as well.
“When it comes to fertility testing, there are not a lot of options for men,” he said. “We saw that there is absolutely a market for it.”
Together, the three formed Sandstone Diagnostics, based in California, and have been developing Trak for the last three years.
They closed a Series A funding round last year, and have $2.3M in funding to date, said Sommer, who serves as CEO. Now, they’re on track to launch the final version of the app by the end of the year, and offer Trak as an over-the-counter device by the middle of next year.
Don’t Cook Your Balls
Along with other hurdles such as meeting FDA requirements, Sommer and his team found that educating the public was a big part of the process.
“It was pretty clear early on that we were facing customer education awareness challenges,” Sommer said.
In response, one of the first steps they took was to build a website as a resource on male fertility health. It’s called www.dontcookyourballs.com, “a light-hearted guide to men’s sexual and reproductive health.”
“Fertility treatment is incredibly expensive, and it’s not covered by insurance,” Sommer said. “So we get inundated with couples going through fertility issues.”
What many couples don’t know, Sommer said, is that the risk for infertility can be lowered by taking steps for personal health, without spending buckets of money on special treatments.
“What research shows is it [infertility] is very much tied to a man’s overall health and lifestyle habit,” Sommer said. “We want to improve men’s sperm quality so that over time it can move that couple to conception.”
Take the Power Back
Part of this is Sommer’s own personal experiment, he said. By tracking his own personal health, he decided to get in shape over the summer. He doubled his workout, and lost over 15 pounds.
“I exceeded what I thought I could do,” he said.
Putting the power back in the hands of patients is their main edge over competition like SpermCheck, Sommer said. Rather than giving patients a test that tells them whether to see a doctor or not, the Trak device and app offer ways you can take control of your own fertility health by improving lifestyle habits, he said. This is the direction Sommer sees healthcare moving in general.
Hopefully, he said, they can begin to shift the attention on infertility issues to men as much as it is on women.
“Women are taking a lot of steps to use similar products to track fertility,” Sommer said. “But you realize men are half the problem. Men need to be tested to see where they’re at. They can make the change.”
Come see Greg Sommer speak at this week’s 1 Million Cups. Join us at 9:15 AM at the Stage at Island Park!
Photos courtesy of Sandstone Diagnostics.