As a professor who teaches entrepreneurship, I’m often asked if it can truly be taught. Unsurprisingly, my answer is yes. To back up that assertion, I’d like to share the story of a terrific company that came about because of a school assignment: Lia Diagnostics, co-founded by Bethany Edwards and Anna Simpson.
Here’s Bethany’s elevator pitch for Lia: “Lia is the first flushable, 100% biodegradable at-home pregnancy test.” Listen to her give the complete elevator pitch here.
Anna and Bethany’s idea for Lia originated during their time in the University of Pennsylvania’s Integrated Product Design (IPD) program which integrates design, engineering, and business education. (Full disclosure: IPD is a program I helped to start.) Anna and Bethany started early work on Lia while in the program, motivated by their insight that there had to be a simpler, easier way for women to conduct private at-home pregnancy tests. The IPD program gave them the opportunity, education, and support to explore the concept and to design an innovative prototype
Before they started work on Lia, neither Anna nor Bethany had a background in health devices or technology. So they had to start from square one: with a great idea and a lot of motivation.
Anna and Bethany conducted surveys with hundreds of thousands of women and did a huge amount of detailed market research to develop the product. “At the beginning, we had this formal idea of what a paper pregnancy test used by a woman would be and the basic research to understand how the technology could work,” Anna says. “From there, we had to research the technology and learn. [We took] about a year and a half from that concept phase to having a product with over 99% accuracy.”
“Pregnancy is personal,” Bethany says. “One thing we learned in speaking with hundreds of women is: who hasn’t hidden a pregnancy test? We wanted to provide a test where women would have complete discretion.”
During that same time, the duo met with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to discuss the potential of Lia. The FDA categorizes a pregnancy test as a class-2 device. As Anna told me, “They are low-risk, but not low enough risk they’re unregulated.” To register their device with the agency, they submitted Lia to rounds of reviews. “We benchmarked ourselves against the existing pregnancy tests on all of their performance metrics and we developed a plan for the testing and the data we would show to the FDA. We met with the FDA before we started any of this, to get their approval.”
Founded in 2015, the duo began work on Lia, a first-of-its-kind product. Anna explains the product: “It’s white. It’s made of paper. It’s a bit curvy. It has a wider collection area than a typical pregnancy test and there’s a window, like a traditional pregnancy test, where you can see your results.” It’s paper-thin and houses the test strip within a biodegradable and water-dispersible film window to see through. An added layer of discretion comes from packaging the product in a “white, unbranded, nondescript pouch” which avoids calling any attention to the fact it’s a pregnancy test.
One challenge that Lia faced was moving from a prototype to a viable product. “The existing pregnancy tests are bulky, large plastic units that [can be] hard to dispose of properly,” Bethany says. “There’s been no innovation in this category on the form factor side in over 30 years.” Innovation doesn’t come without a price and getting a product just right can consume a fair amount of capital. “We were looking at contract manufacturers to work with, not only the manufacturing side but on the product development side,” Anna says.
One of the critical decisions that startups face is whether to spend money on R&D resources or put the cash elsewhere. R&D doesn’t come cheap. Ultimately, Anna and Bethany concluded that they could do more themselves than they initially realized: “We were just dictating work and paying them for it,” Anna says. “We knew this was something we could do ourselves, so Bethany and I took the development work in-house.”
Want a discrete, biodegradable pregnancy test of your own? Lia is working on moving its product into the marketplace. When I asked about distribution channels, Bethany told me: “We plan to sell directly to the retailer. We’re also exploring direct-to-consumer, because we know there’s a real opportunity there.”
“I met Anna and the entire co-founding team [at Penn],” states Bethany. “It [all] started as a thesis project while I was here.” To circle back, entrepreneurship can be taught, and the result is Lia Diagnostics.
I’m happy to say a very nice postscript to this interview is the recent announcement that Lia Diagnostics has raised $2.6M to further develop the business.
Listen to our entire half-hour conversation for more details on Bethany, Anna, and Lia Diagnostics. For more information about Lia Diagnostics, visit their site at meetlia.com.