Many patients with fertility-related diagnoses in the United States experienced cancelled treatment or delays during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The time-sensitive nature of fertility treatment however, can translate any delay into a missed opportunity. The team at Reproductive Solutions had developed the ProteX, a noninvasive container for collecting semen that could be utilized in IUI and IVF procedures years before. They had a company takeover in 2021, brought new leadership and experienced an uptick in demand from fertility clinics during the pandemic.  

“When we talk about infertility, it’s such a stressful process, cofounder Dustie Johnson said. “And we take such an intimate activity and we put it in a clinical setting.” Being able to collect sperm at home and taking it to a clinic at one’s convenience is a game changer for the industry, she said. 

The global fertility treatments market is expected to reach $21.7 billion by 2025. With the ProteX, the team aims to help people struggling with conception while tackling it from the male side. Studies illustrate that the male is the only cause or a contributing cause of infertility in 40% of couples dealing with infertility. But facilitating sperm collection and ensuring men are comfortable with in-clinic processes can be challenging. In the past two years, collecting at one’s home versus in a clinic during a time of uncertainty has brought new meaning to these scientifically engineered containers, and a three-fold increase in use. 

Dustie Johnson is one of the two women behind the invention, developing it out of her graduate study research for her doctoral degree at Texas Tech University. The initial studies were done over a five-year period. Dr. Lindsay Penrose, who currently works the infertility program lab at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and is a scientific advisor in the company, was completing her doctoral degree and was working alongside Johnson and Dr. Samuel Prien to develop it.

They bootstrapped the initial version of the company in 2009 with Jonathan Smothers. By 2019, they soft launched ProteX, became FDA listed and sought funding to market the product. That seed round brought two small investors with approximately $300,000, but shortly after the pandemic hit in 2020, they found themselves at an unexpected pause. The search for capital eventually led to a group of investors buying the company and turning it into today’s Reproductive Solutions with Diana Peninger, an investor, serving as CEO. Peninger’s vision was that the company will provide “opportunity to couples who can fulfill their dream of a family,” she said. That investment of $2.25 million closed in February 2021 according to her, and the four founders remain shareholders.  

Peninger worked in the chemical industry for years and served in leadership positions including as vice president of Acetyl Intermediates, a $2.3 billion global commodity portfolio. Her focus was transitioning technology to a commercially marketable product, and after identifying Reproductive Solutions through angel investing, she was keen on bringing investors to take it to the next step. Peninger was inspired by the journeys of many of her friends, particularly businesswomen, who had gone through IVF. She saw that many would postpone fertility treatments until later on in life due to busy careers, and even then, men would have to take time off work to provide semen samples, often many times over for years. 

“A lot of the focus on infertility has been on the female side of the equation,” Dustie Johnson said, pointing out that traditionally, it’s more common to look at women and ensure they have more available eggs used for infertility procedures. This inspired the team to design a product to collect semen that met the physiological needs of the sperm—maintaining a stable temperature inside the container and allowing it to survive for several hours before being processed. 

An academic institution is assessing data from a study of nearly 2,000 patients to further measure ProteX’s performance. The rate of embryo development however, which is a strong indicator of sperm quality has already proven to be quite successful for ProteX users, according to Dr. Eric Forman, M.D., infertility specialist and medical and lab director at Columbia University Fertility Center. When fertilized eggs grow into a blastocyst after five or six days, those are good quality embryos that we can transfer to a woman to attempt pregnancy, or freeze or genetically test,” said Forman. 

Forman first got in touch with ProteX manufacturers in 2020 as they were placing fertility treatments on hold due to the pandemic. When offices reopened, “how could we minimize this traffic and allow distancing,” was important he said. Some male patients are stressed to the point that they can’t produce a semen sample in the clinic— “and if we don’t get the sperm then we can’t fertilize the egg and then he’s even more stressed out,” he said. Texas Tech University professor of obstetrics and gynecology Robert Kauffman, M.D. witnesses a lot of men opting to collect at home because at clinics, “it’s stressful, it’s embarrassing and every once in a while, they come out and say, ‘I just can’t do it.’” 

A number of medical clinics in New York, Texas, Florida, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago actively use ProteX for their patients, according to Peninger. The company’s next goal is to introduce ProteX to the international market.

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