UW changes lives: Campus-born fertility company seeks to improve women’s health care, Wisconsin economy

What started as a side project in a laboratory in the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Biochemistry is now a successful Wisconsin startup that’s closer than ever to giving women a way to easily track their hormone levels and help overcome difficulties conceiving a child.

Propelled by an abundance of resources on campus and in the city of Madison, Katie Brenner — a former UW–Madison postdoctoral researcher in biochemistry — and her co-founders at their company BluDiagnostics are seeing their idea become a reality.

“We believe that when women’s health care wins, our whole economy wins,” Brenner, chief executive officer, says. “We are committed to making women’s health better. We started with the customer in mind because we were the customer, myself in particular having faced these issues.”

Photo of Katie Brenner in the lab.
Katie Brenner in the lab of biochemistry professor Doug Weibel. Photo: Bryce Richter.

BluDiagnostics wants to deliver a product to help women accurately monitor two key hormones, estradiol and progesterone, every day in the comfort of their home. The goal is to equip women with medically relevant data to help triage diagnosis and treatment for fertility-related conditions.

Brenner started her postdoctoral research at UW–Madison in 2012, in the lab of former UW–Madison biochemistry Professor Doug Weibel. Originally from Illinois, she spent her undergraduate years at Stanford University studying electrical engineering and received her Ph.D. from Caltech in biological engineering.

In Madison, she studied nutrition for preterm infants, even leading a clinical study of more than 400 preterm infants to test their urine for early signs of illness.

After acquiring promising data from a side project on fertility, Brenner decided to pursue the idea that would become bluDiagnostics: Can there be a device that allows women to easily, quickly, safely and accurately measure and track their hormones?

Brenner, Weibel and Jodi Schroll were original co-founders. Today, Schroll serves as chief business officer and Tong Xie is the company’s chief operating officer. The methodology bluDiagnostics employs involves testing for hormones in saliva.

“I thought it was a super idea and was surprised that there were no comparable tests available,” says Weibel, now at Amazon but still involved in the company. “It’s incredibly difficult to make this kind of test for detecting extremely low levels of hormones so to do it in a widely varying sample such as saliva is a remarkable achievement … I figured that if a solution was possible, Katie was positioned to find it.”

Weibel adds: “The culture of tech development and commercialization on campus and in Biochemistry was helpful.”

Opportunities on campus and in the state of Wisconsin helped flesh out Brenner’s idea, provide initial funding, and bridge the science with her business idea. The Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp and Business and Entrepreneurship Clinic, as well as other resources from the Wisconsin School of Business and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), aided immensely.

“UW–Madison has been incredible for us,” she says. “It really started with having a great advisor who was open and willing to say ‘you should try it.’ And because those first results were promising, I was able to find so many more resources on campus. These were programs and opportunities already showing up in my inbox. All I had to do was click. These campus resources really helped me figure out what to do next and get where we are today.”

The company received many early accolades, such as winning first prize in the 2015 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, and its innovation and drive hasn’t slowed. Now, after a few more years of work and expansion of the team from two people to nine, bluDiagnostics is armed with a device undergoing preclinical trials. The company hopes to manufacture the device for sale in a couple of years.

The device, Brenner explains, consists of several components: a disposable piece that collects saliva and a small reusable reader small enough to be kept at a bedside. It delivers hormone data to a smartphone app so users can see and share it with their physicians. It could help them determine the best time of the month to conceive, whether a woman needs fertility drugs, or if in vitro fertilization may be necessary.

The device’s hormone measurements are as accurate as blood testing, Brenner says.

“We have grown significantly and really made a huge leap from this pie-in-the-sky idea to an actual piece of hardware undergoing preclinical trials,” Brenner says. “It’s now a product that can be tested by real people. And it works, which is incredible. I really credit being in Madison and having the support of Midwestern investors who understood our mission.”

The company draws inspiration from large biotech and health firms headquartered in Madison and has relied on research connections available thanks to UW–Madison’s elite medical school, Brenner says. UW–Madison also provides a pipeline to hire great talent who then stay and work in the state, she adds, and sale of the device can put money back into the state’s economy

“Startup companies are the engines of economies — they grow up into big companies, create local jobs, and inject money into the economy,” Weibel says. “Success for bluDiagnostics means joining the ranks of exciting health-related successes, including Propeller Health and Exact Sciences, that will stimulate the local economy.”

But Brenner also believes the company’s larger impact is on the state’s women, their spouses and families. Fertility issues can affect a woman’s productivity in the workplace or cause her to leave the workforce altogether.

“The obvious savings related to improving women’s health are really incalculable,” she says. “The monitoring required during fertility diagnosis takes a lot of time and they miss too much work or they believe the cause is stress so they leave their job. Examples like this are pervasive and common.”

Hormones underlie many conditions, from infertility and obesity, to depression and migraines. BluDiagnostic sees potential in including others, such as testosterone. The team imagines a future in health care where these hormones and others are frequently monitored so women and their doctors can be proactive about health and interventions at all life stages.

“If we can help women at every phase of their lives do better at uncovering health issues early and taking positive and proactive steps to be in better health, we are going to improve outcomes and economic conditions for their offspring and their entire family,” Brenner says. “And with all the resources the university provided and continues to provide us, we are excited to see what the future holds.”

This story was originally published as part of the UW Changes Lives campaign on the UW–Madison News site.