Trak Fertility: Helping Men Become Dads
Karen Drexler is the CEO of Sandstone Diagnostic a medical device company that is focused on developing products for point of care testing. She is involved with numerous boards in the Medical Device & Diagnostic sector as well. Karen received her degree in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University and an MBA from Stanford.
Question: Can you tell us a little about your background?
I'm an entrepreneur in the medical device segment. What really got me here was an illness in my family. When I was in high school, my father was diagnosed with diabetes and ended up passing away pretty quickly from complications of the disease. It motivated me to get into the medical area and to want to do things that would change the treatment paradigm. I started with a chemical engineering degree at Princeton and went on to get an MBA from Stanford. Currently I'm running a [male fertility company] that I joined as an investor and board member so it’s related to my investment activities. I ended up moving in as CEO about two years ago.
Question: When you look at the medical sector focused on diabetes and their advancements, do you see a cure being developed for the disease?
Unfortunately diabetes is one of the few chronic diseases that is increasing dramatically in incidents year over year. It's a disease of aging and obesity. If you look at the population with type 2 diabetes, we now have children being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes children as young as 6 or 7 who will have this lifetime burden. In terms of a cure certainly a lot of people are working it. I think we'll see a cure for Type 1, where it's an autoimmune disease and the pancreatic cells that make insulin are wiped out. There's work to replace those cells. Type 2 is a very different kind of disease and it's the one that's much more prevalent in the population. It's very much related to our lifestyle, so the way we eat, what we eat, our exercise or lack of exercise- I'm not very optimistic that we will in the near term overcome Type 2 diabetes, but with advances in health IT and our ability to use data, I think that's really the big news in that sector. Drugs are getting better at controlling the complications, but I'd rather not have us even see the complications. Being able to control it early on or being able to intervene when someone is insulin resistant before diabetes fully manifests.
Question: So what does insulin resistant mean?
It means that the cells in the body are the cell walls don't easily transmit insulin which is circulating in the blood stream into the cells where insulin is needed. As someone becomes insulin resistant, when they eat food and the food is converted into sugar, to power the body, to power the mitochondria and the other cell functions, the body can't get rid of the sugar, it builds up in the bloodstream and that causes all sorts of complications. Insulin resistance is not only a precursor to diabetes, but it's an underlying condition that is linked to a lot of other things like Alzheimer's and other chronic ailments, so getting a handle around insulin resistance early, before it's fully manifested would be a great goal.
Question: Can most people turn it around?
There's really good data showing that people who are very early in the pathway, with changes in diet and exercise can become more insulin sensitized. Some people completely get off medications and can be stable that way for a very long time. I don't know if there's data showing that they're totally out of the woods, that they'd if they stopped being careful that they wouldn't end up with difficulties down the road, but certainly there are many examples of people who've been able to completely get off with medications by making very careful changes in the lifestyle.
Question: Can you tell us about Sandstone Diagnostic?
Sandstone Diagnostic was founded in 2012 based on technology that the founders had developed while working as research scientists at Sandia National Labs. They were looking to develop a portable flexible platform that could be used on many complex samples so it could be used in the event for example of a bioterrorism scare if we wanted to analyze crops or soil or animals. It's also applicable in many biological conditions so the founders started the company in 2012 and it took a little while to hone in on what the first application of this technology would be. It turns out what the focus was is in the fertility space. The first product is a home male fertility test, FDA-approved product that's sold directly to customers and is really quite remarkable. The founders went out to raise their first real funding in 2014 and that's when I became aware of the company. I had been an active angel investor for a number of years and this came to my attention as something that could be of interest. I invest in teams that include at least one female founder, one of the three founders is female, so it met that criteria and I fell in love with the technology. I just loved how flexible it was, I also was really attracted to the fertility application. Infertility is a very large segment, one in seven couples experiences infertility. The average age of first birth for women is getting older and more women are experiencing infertility. What's really unknown, is that half of all infertility cases now relate to male contribution and there's virtually nothing in the way of products and services on the male side. Our first product is something that couples can use at home. Men can assess their fertility status and what's especially motivating here is that many men can make a significant improvement to their fertility status by making changes to their lifestyle. They can get a little healthier, lose a little weight, start exercising and most men will see their sperm counts go up which has a direct correlation to the time it takes a couple to get pregnant. Most couples who can't afford advanced fertility treatment. This is something that couples/men can do to really feel empowered to help with the fertility objectives for the couple as opposed to just being a bystander while the woman goes to the doctor and gets treated and gets tested. This is something that really makes it a couple activity now.
Question: What role does a doctor play in this home testing?
This product is FDA approved for direct-to-consumer, so you don't need to have a physician involved. If you look at our target audience, which is mostly millennial men, most of them don't go to the doctor, so they don't have primary care doctors. They're not going for regular physicals or checkups. If a couple is not getting pregnant right away, it's usually the woman going to her OBJYN. The OBGYNs definitely tell women if they're trying for a while and things aren't happening that it could be their husband. Even if the doctors recommend that their partners go in for testing, for a semen analysis, it rarely happens. Most couples, men and women both assume it's more likely to be the female. We have all this information in the media talking about women and their aging eggs and egg freezing and if a woman's over 35 she's going to have trouble getting pregnant so people it's not even in people's consciousness how much of the time men contribute to this. So even if the OB brings it up and says, it could be your partner, women are thinking, but it's probably me. We're really not at this point marketing through physicians, although we do see that OBGYNs for example could be a great purveyor of information for us. We are marketing directly to men and to couples who are looking for solutions.
Question: Can you tell us about some of the other projects that Sandstone is working on?
We do have some products that are not available on the market yet. We have other projects underway that will help with improving outcomes just from general blood testing where we're able to separate plasma right at the point of blood draw and increase the quality of the plasma to increase the ability of diagnostic tests to provide the most information.
Question: Where do you see the future going in the next 5-10 years?
In general healthcare is moving more toward point of care, more toward home, certainly you look at millennials and they want to take more control over their health care. This is where some of the health IT information our companies come in. People want control of their data and they want to be able to manage their health care more proactively. We're also seeing that hospitals in many cases trying to get patients to go home or going into less intensive settings more quickly and hospitals of the future maybe more like intensive care settings or surgery recovery settings but not broad care settings. I think we'll see a lot of changes in where care is delivered and that's one of the reasons we're so excited about the platform that we have here at Sandstone. It really enables more things to be done at the point of care in a physician's office, at an employer clinic, or even in the home environment as people want to take more control directly of their other health.
Question: What role does stress play in infertility?
Stress is a really important factor both in male and female infertility one of the ways it manifests is in poor sleep quality. If you look at the male side of the equation, men tend to produce most of their testosterone when they're sleeping and testosterone is important for producing sperm. If men are stressed and they're not sleeping well, they probably are not producing as much testosterone as they should and they may have a lower sperm count.
Question: In society today with the rapid change of technology in social media, the internet it seems like time is compressed and anxiety is increasing. How do you recommend an individual reduce stress in their life?
I find that getting up and moving around is a huge stress reducer for me. I don't do well sitting all day long and I find when I'm talking with folks- especially employees, it can be a little intimidating. I don't think I’m an intimidating person, but to an employee coming in sitting across the desk from the boss… that's not an optimal situation for communication. So I take people out for a walk. It's just much easier to have a relaxed conversation walking side-by-side around the block and looking at the flowers and the green grass just relaxes people. You can see the tension just falling off, people come in for a conversation and a couple minutes into it, you're talking about the kids and the weather and then you get into work and it's just it's great…When my children were younger I made a point of carving out time when I got home to leave the job behind and just have focused kid time and that to me was so regenerating being able to spend whether it was an hour or two just focused on the kids and really knowing that they were the center of my attention just was a huge stress reliever for me in a way that you know as a start-up entrepreneur you're working all the time. I could get back to work later and really feel refreshed and invigorated even if it was nine ten o'clock at night having spent a couple hours with the kids.
Question: When do you expect some of your other products to be available?
We expect to have some new products on the market next year but we'll continue to support the male fertility product about which we're very excited. The market is still quite nascent. Levels of awareness and education around male fertility or still are still in their infancy most people are just unaware but we expect to be rolling out some exciting partnerships which will help us get broader access to the market and bring more couples the opportunity to improve their fertility in a way that they can afford.
Question: So individuals that are interested in learning more about Sandstone Diagnostic and finding your products, how would they go about getting more information?
The male fertility product is called Trak. It is so named because it is set up to be able to support men testing over time. Being able to make some lifestyle changes as guided by our app and our other educational materials and then come back and retest over time and track the sperm health levels. So the product is available on our website www.trakfertility.com. It's also available on Amazon and in the FSA store online. So FSAstorecom. We do qualify for FSA and HSA dollars so people could use pre-tax dollars. We also have an educational website that gets a lot of interest. There's not a lot of well curated scientifically backed information about men's sexual health and reproduction. So our site which is called very memorable dontcookyourballs.com, is a real go-to site for men for information and we've got ways that men can interact with each other can ask questions can get responses from experts but there's also a lot of curated content there that is extremely helpful. As men get into this process they'll have a lot of questions and as they said they often don't see a primary care doctor, so they may not know where to turn for answers, this is a place to go for some answers.