Fertility tech isn’t being adopted fast enough

A lag in the adoption of technology is inhibiting access to fertility and infertility solutions.

Greater technology uptake, better data analytics, and more tech investment stands to drastically improve Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) across the wider fertility journey.

Despite significant advances in many areas of reproductive medicine and embryology, we’re now seeing the success rates stabilise¹ for some of the most common procedures, such as In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), with wide variation across countries and clinics.

The growing demand for more effective and affordable solutions, alongside expectations of a high quality patient experience, have increased the need for innovative technological solutions, some of which are being developed by startups. While it’s ultimately biology that sets the rules, and constrains the ability of technology to solve problems, emergent tools, techniques and data analytics present new opportunities for success.

IVF birth rates have significantly improved but appear to be stabilising – how do we keep improving success rates?

UK Birth rates per embryo transferred using patient eggs by age band, 1991-2019. Source: HFEA

Explore the key issues below

Slow adoption of technology

The fertility sector has not yet fully embraced deep tech advances in robotics, automation, data science and omics technology.

Within IVF, for example, embryology labs have benefited from the increasing understanding of reproductive biology but less so on the engineering, automation and data science fronts. During IVF treatment, embryologists, technicians and nurses rely largely on manual workflows and their own personal assessments, which alone cannot sustain the repeatable, systematic, and reliable workflows needed to meet ART demand.

Although decision-support tools, such as AI-led analyses of embryos or sperm could reduce the time and cost of treatments, further evidence (and funding) of prospective trials is needed to drive technology uptake at scale². Much of the analyses of these cells are morphological, which unveils just a fraction of the biological processes in reproduction. Although pre-implantation genetic testing has been on the rise, the use of wider omics is still in its infancy. Investment should focus on the most pressing research needs to fuel innovation in the sector, in turn improving success rates and access to care³.

“The fertility market has been defined by a relative inattention to engineering and process development compared to the advances in the science itself.”

Dr David Sable, manager of the Special Situations Life Sciences Fund and former IVF specialist

Innovative startups are already engaging with many of these challenges

Technological advancements, leveraging data at scale, and making care readily accessible at home are all helping to bolster treatment success rates. Explore some of the potential solutions below.

Technological advancements boost efficiency and accuracy

Advances in omics technology, robotics, microfluidics, and machine learning are increasing the efficiency and accuracy of ART procedures.

Each step of the IVF process, from embryo and sperm analysis to fertilisation, is seeing major innovations. Overture Life, for example, is developing metabolomics technology to replace the need for invasive biopsies to assess an embryo’s completeness and implantation potential.

What’s next for technology innovation?

In-vitro gametogenesis: making egg cells from stem cells

Some people don’t produce eggs or sperm because of cancer treatment, genetics or other unexplained causes. For them, current fertility treatments are only possible with donor eggs and/or sperm cells. Research focusing on how human stem cells evolve into germ cells, the precursors to sperm and eggs cells, could allow infertile individuals and same-sex couples to have genetically related children.

Exogenic wombs or artificial gestation

The ability to grow a baby outside of the womb could provide women who have either lost, or were born without a uterus, with the chance of having a child. Single men and gay male couples could also become parents without a surrogate. The societal repercussions – as with most advances in fertility tech – are significant and the ethical discussion, for investors as well as innovators, therefore runs alongside the technological advances.

Genetic engineering for disease prevention in embryology

Genetic engineering could prevent certain genetic diseases. Dr Kathy Niakan’s team at the Francis Crick Institute was the first to receive permission from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique on human embryos, allowing them to understand the characteristics of successful embryos. The ethical and regulatory concerns are many, but these tools represent a leap forward in genetic illness treatment. This could start with preventing monogenic disease from the first cell onwards.

Companies to watch

Get in touch with our Health team to find out more

Octopus Ventures is the most active health investor in the UK, investing across all stages but with a bias towards the earliest stages (Seed and Series A). We are committed to backing pioneers who are transforming the health industry from digital therapeutics through to biotechnology.

Navigate the rest of the report

Introduction – Future of Fertility
Click here
Chapter 2 – Improving access to fertility treatments
Click here
Chapter 3 – Tackling fertility taboos
Click here