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June 13, 2018 | The Philadelphia Citizen
In a now decade-and-a-half old episode of Friends, Phoebe finds a positive pregnancy test in the bathroom trash and assumes it belongs to friend Monica, who just so happens to be getting married that day. Phoebe quickly spreads the news, and Monica’s soon-to-be-husband Chandler catches wind. He flees with a case of cold feet, but returns just in time to marry Monica, having come to terms with and even grown excited about being a father.
The test, though, isn’t Monica’s. It belongs to Rachel—fans of the show know that this positive pregnancy test ultimately led to the birth of Emma, Ross and Rachel’s daughter. And Monica’s wedding day probably would have gone a lot smoother had Lia, a flushable pregnancy test developed by Temple—and then Penn—graduates been around at the time.
Though co-founders Bethany Edwards and Anna Couturier-Simpson embarked on creating a flushable and biodegradable pregnancy test in the name of sustainability, they quickly realized that an added benefit of their product was empowering women to take control of their own health information. “People are testing at work, people are testing on the go,” says Edwards. “There’s no real element of privacy besides wrapping it up and hiding it in the bottom of the trash can.” Which clearly didn’t work for Rachel—or Monica.
After a year and a half of development and testing, Lia was approved by the FDA in December and is currently being manufactured. It will be available for purchase later this year on MeetLia.com and Amazon, and is set to run for the same price as a standard pregnancy test—between $13.99 and $15 for a two-pack. Lia is made from the plant fibers found in most toilet papers, but its coating is engineered to repel liquid for up to 10 minutes—enough time for women to “run the test, understand their results, and decide how they want to dispose of it,” says Couturier-Simpson. It begins to dissolve in water 30 seconds after flushing and degrades in soil in 10 weeks.
The name was specifically chosen to avoid the clinicalness of the names of competitors, and to be feminine, short, and easy to remember. The name Lia in Greek means bearer of good news, and in Spanish the letters are the last three of the word “familia,” or family, both translations the co-founders looked to in naming the product.
Temple grads Edwards and Couturier-Simpson—along with two other co-founders who have since moved on to other projects—began designing Lia while completing their theses in grad school at Penn’s Integrated Product Design program. Both founders are from Central Pennsylvanian small towns but now live in Philadelphia, and had careers in other fields—Edwards in advertising and Couturier-Simpson in jewelry design and manufacturing—before meeting at Penn during their graduate program.
The partners were motivated by two different impulses: An interest in developing something in environmental sustainability, and an interest in women’s health. That led them to pregnancy tests, an area seemingly-overlooked for decades. “Nobody had innovated in over 30 years,” explains Edwards.
Traditional pregnancy tests—primarily plastic and glue—have an incredibly short shelf-life but an overwhelming contribution to waste, adding 2 million pounds of plastic into the environment each year. And plastic—including everyday items like straws and bags but also encompassing a variety of medical tools, such as collection cups for human specimen—is devastating the planet, as National Geographic points out in its June issue dedicated to the subject.
Through the Wharton program, Edwards and Couturier-Simpson studied business, engineering and design; they made the pregnancy test themselves with the help of input from a chemist. It was a challenge: They needed to create a product made of paper-like material that behaves like plastic, and that must both hold up and break down in response to liquid. The pair tested more than 1,000 prototypes that included a stand-out early failure involving the use of wax as a coating for the test, which turned out to be difficult to mass manufacture and to break down in water.
“Diagnostics are traditionally designed to last, so this was a unique engineering and design challenge,” says Edwards. “It’s counterintuitive.”
Designing the product included finding materials suitable for the product’s flushability and biodegradability, but also suitable to perform the specific testing abilities of a pregnancy test—detecting hCG in urine—and pass FDA regulations as a diagnostic medical device. The duo also sought to eliminate unnecessary components of the test, such as glue to hold together the top and bottom pieces. To replace this, they designed a custom tool with “mating teeth” that resemble the edges of a coffee filter and allow the two pieces to stick together.
Edwards and Couturier-Simpson knew they also needed the test to be user friendly. With this in mind, they made the area that catches urine larger than it is on the traditional pregnancy test—making “aiming” less stressful—and made the lines that tell you whether you’re pregnant—one line for no, two for yes—thicker and easier to read.
Designing for the environment and the user did not mean sacrificing accuracy—the test is 99 percent accurate, as are all other pregnancy tests.
In the course of designing Lia, Edwards and Couturier-Simpson won more than $150,000 at design competitions ranging from Temple University’s Innovative Ideas Competition to, most recently, TechCrunch’s Disrupt Berlin Competition, where they bested 14 other startups to win about $50,000. Early grants also helped spur the company’s success, including frequent support from Ben Franklin Technology Partners. The pair won’t say when they expect to be profitable.
Though making a pregnancy test a more private process has eliminated an oft-used storyline for sitcoms, it has proven to have a more serious impact in its ability to help women living in situations of domestic abuse. At a time when a woman is particularly vulnerable, an unplanned pregnancy or the stress of caring for a child can make an abusive situation worse, and can make disposing of a positive pregnancy test nerve-wracking and risky.
“Our clients are coerced into sex, often unprotected sex, with their partners, and so are at risk of unwanted pregnancies. If she remains pregnant, that puts her at a higher risk of abuse because she is more emotionally and physically vulnerable,” explains Irene Brantley, a Program Director for Women in Transition, a Philadelphia nonprofit that helps women escape abusive relationships. “Anything that puts her in control of that information would make her safer in the short- and long-term.”
Lia Diagnostics also has a philanthropic side; on the website, visitors can donate $10 to preorder a Lia test to be sent to a women’s health organization—such as Planned Parenthood or the International Women’s Health Coalition—free of charge. The company also plans to provide unbiased women’s health information to the public via their website as part of an effort to “start to change some of the social narrative around women’s health and women’s products,” according to Edwards.
In the founders’ eyes, Lia is more than just a single sustainable product; it is the beginning of a movement toward a host of sustainable products. They have already begun using their research to test other medical diagnostic tools, such as for urinary tract infections and ovulation; eventually, the company may also move out of women’s health into other areas of medical diagnosis as well.
“We see this as a step in the right direction in showing that you can create not only sustainable but beautiful products that are also effective and affordable,” Edwards says.