According to the World Health Organization more than one million people are infected with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) every single day. Despite this, many of us are still failing to get ourselves regularly tested for these diseases. The reasons for this vary from lack of education, lack of time or being embarrassed about going to the clinic, and most of these can be solved by increasing access to these tests.
Just like OraSure for HIV screening or the well known pregnancy test, increasing our options for self diagnosis helps more people know their status and know their status sooner. This is a benefit for the person’s personal outcomes and for general public health. It’s about time we had the convenience of the pregnancy test for the most common STIs, chlamydia and gonorrhea.
“We think everyone should have access to tools to monitor their personal health, especially something as personal as sexual health,” says founder and CEO of Sex Positive (Sex +), Mary Ward.
HACKING FOR SEXUAL HEALTH
University trained in Texas, Mary was inspired by the hacker ethos when she helped co-found Counter Culture Labs, which is a space for people of all backgrounds to come and practice biotech as a hobby.
From all educational backgrounds, community labs like these allow people to do cutting edge research that might not be pursued in traditional labs because its lack of profitability. Hackers take technology and repurpose it for everyday use, and that is exactly what Sex (+) is doing with current diagnostic technology.
Hacking current clinical methods to innovate cheaper and more democratized tools is what is known as true “biohacking”. This tight knit community operating in community spaces isn’t necessarily just trying to turn a profit. From vegan cheese to bacterial paints, or microfluidic chips that act as biosensors, many grassroots projects are purely to satisfy curiosity, or looking to engage others with cool science through the arts.
It was from these routes that Mary co-founded Sex (+) with kindred spirit Nico Bouchard, to ‘hack’ the STI diagnostic bottleneck and as they say, “Empower everyday people to monitor their sexual health.”
THE DREAM TEAM
While Ward provided the science know-how, advisor Nico supplied focus and vision to how to apply these technologies for the social good. Bouchard, who came from a physics background, has been working as such as a science educator in the San Francisco Bay area, whilst grinding at night at another hackspace – BioCurious – as a self taught geneticist and bioart enthusiast.
Bouchard met Ward when he was pursuing knowledge of basic biotech techniques at a Bay incubator – Berkeley Biolabs – where Ward taught classes. From their first meeting, Ward and Bouchard knew that they would one day come together to build something game-changing. Today seems to be that day.
“We’re designing at home diagnostics to take testing into a more comfortable place than a clinic, removing the barriers and shame of testing for sexually transmitted diseases,” Nico told us.
He added that sexually active young people between 14 – 25 years old are particularly fearful as they feel greater stigma from their peers and, unfortunately, parents.
Many people would prefer to keep things that start in the bedroom, private, and “the issue of confidentiality still dwells heavily as a deterrent.”
TIME TO CROSS THE ATLANTIC
From here, Sex (+) enrolled its idea into an intense programme across the Atlantic in the “rebel county” Cork, Ireland. Aptly dubbed RebelBio, the four-month startup factory there offers biohackers like Mary and Nico lab space and funding to gear up their idea, along with business and technical help .
The team wants to change the association sexual health screening from disease and sickness to self-care. They have designed a sleek piece of consumer hardware that requires the minimal steps and delivers the results in 30 minutes. A take it with you anywhere design that looks as inconspicuous as a nice writing pen.
At the moment Mary and Nico are fabricating their proof of concept prototype and talking with regulators about the best way to keep their customers safe and informed. Once they have established a scalable prototype for chlamydia and gonorrhea, they believe the tech could be applied to detect other bacterial byproducts for other infections.
Until then, along with the other startups working with them, the duo are storming Cork’s streets with their sexual health positivity and gearing up for RebelBio’s demo day in London on July 26.