Sarthak spoke to Cristian Owen on the Venari Podcast
‘The funny thing about destiny is that a person will often meet it on a road they in fact avoided.’ Thus begins Sama Fertility CEO Sarthak Sawarkar’s account of how he came to co-found the company – an opening line fit for a fascinating story. Cristian Owen, our Digital Health Consultant, caught up with Sarthak for the Venari Podcast’s HealthTech CEO series, where they discussed Sarthak’s journey towards working in the fertility space, Sama’s revolutionary approach to the industry, and their attempts to make treatments more accessible and affordable.
From engineering to fertility treatments
Sarthak’s late father, Sanjay, was an ophthalmologist who discouraged his son from pursuing a career in healthcare. ‘I think he had this premonition of where healthcare was and where it was going, and how the quality of healthcare was deteriorating over time,’ Sarthak explains. Following his father’s advice, he became an engineer – only to find himself fascinated by DNA sequencing, which eventually led Sarthak to working in fertility after postgraduate studies in reproduction. When Sarthak was a scientist working in the industry, it began to dawn on him that attendees at fertility conferences would frequently complain about the expense and inaccessibility of treatment – ‘people who pointed out problems, but nobody was doing anything about it.’ Statistics he quotes hammer home why this is such an important issue:
Most people will end up spending around 160 hours over a period of three months in treatment.
In the U.S., many women must travel at least 60 miles – one way – for care.
There are some 400 fertility clinics for a population of some 300 million; the number of specialised fertility doctors is around 900, compared with 37,000 obstetrician-gynaecologists.
One in 10 will give up on their care while in treatment.
Compelled to act
Sarthak felt so strongly about the lack of affordable, practical options for fertility treatment that he was compelled to act. He gave up a full-time role leading a FemTech company to spend seven months working at an IVF clinic, which was ‘an extraordinarily instructive journey for me [...] nothing had changed in the way that these clinics came about several years ago. And now, at this point in time, there was a hard necessity for us to stop in.’ Sarthak’s engineering background informed his wish to rebuild everything from the ground up. When he met and developed ideas with his co-founders, Dr. Meir Olcha, ‘a double board-certified reproductive endocrinologist and an ob-gyn’, and Joshua Sams, ‘who’s worked previously in building technology for fertility companies.’ Thus, Sama was born: a clinic with a mission of improving access to fertility care, reducing stress and expense for their users.
In a crowded market, Sama’s chief differentiator is that they are the only tech-driven clinic in the U.S. The convenience this affords their users in a nation that is comparatively thinly served sets them apart from competitors – as does their cost, which is also informed by their lower overheads. Fertility treatment is, as Sarthak admits, ‘extraordinarily expensive [...] On average, the cost of making a baby is anywhere between $70-80k in other IVF clinics today. We have reduced that price by almost half, right off the bat’. Sama manages to keep costs down by making their treatment almost entirely virtual, with high-end technology such as home-based ultrasounds reducing the need for them to build expensive ‘spa-like facilities in cities across the country.’ Now, by focusing on outcomes, they can reach patients in small towns and offset cost savings onto their users, with minimal disruption to their lives, careers, and hobbies.
Male-led – or just male-founded?
Sarthak recognises that a male-founded fertility treatment company aimed at treatment for women may seem curious, though for him it was a natural progression. After more than 12 years in the field, he knew most fertility doctors in the U.S. and felt able to ‘examine the problem very, very deeply.’ While Sama is male-founded, Sarthak is careful to note a nuance: it is not male-led. The leadership team is comprised additionally of three women, ‘amazing, amazing individuals’, while the company’s workforce is diverse. ‘We’ve always enjoyed bringing folks in from different walks of life that are able to have an amazing contribution towards changing the outcomes for the better for our patients.’
Plans for growth
Looking to the future, Sarthak wants Sama to continue to shift existing paradigms of how fertility care is experienced. This was their mission from the beginning: ‘We came around and we said, “You know what? We’re going to change that. None of this is going to be helpful if you’re not truly able to expand our reach.”’ Now, Sama is available in some four IVF clinics and four labs across the U.S., a number that is likely to increase at least threefold by the end of next year. Expanding beyond the U.S. is also on the cards. While Sarthak can’t reveal too much about that for now, he does claim that Sama ‘will be the largest serving fertility platform in the world in the next five years, and we will be somebody who is truly able to change what patients can access in terms of fertility care and how easily they’re able to do this right.’