DIGITAL & FERTILITY: View from the Board
Interview with Jesper Funding Andersen, Chair of European Sperm Bank
Coulter Partners recently partnered with the European Sperm Bank to bring more digital experience to their board. Fertility, life choices and women’s health are areas where Coulter Partners is now seeing a great deal more interest and investment. The CP team caught up with Jesper Funding Andersen – Chair of European Sperm Bank – to discuss this broad topic:
CP: What are you seeing as the main shifts in the way people think about fertility?
Jesper: Covid has had a transitory impact, but we are now part of a mega trend in making dreams come true by enabling individuals to have children. And even Covid cannot crush this desire and need. Which is why this is such an exciting space to work in.
There are regulatory changes, for example in Denmark, where women can only legally store their eggs for 5 years. This seems limiting and unfair. Fortunately, the issue is now being debated, as it limits potential in many countries.
Beyond that there is one interesting trend which is evolving which is fertility preservation. What do I mean by that? We have to acknowledge that age has an impact on the quality of gametes – and this is something that has been understood by females for a long time but has not really been acted upon. This market of Fertility Preservation for females – ie. Cryobanking their unfertilized egg at a point of their live where they are highly fertile (which de facto typically mean below 32) – has started to develop in the US, but not in Europe yet. It’s in its infancy here. So if you are a female who hasn’t found the right partner but wants children, you can bank your eggs now and when you then find the right partner, or just find the time optimal for motherhood, you have increased your chances of this substantially. That’s a fantastic opportunity.
The concept of fertility preservation is actually also relevant for males as sperm also does degrade with age albeit not as ‘aggressively’ as it does for female eggs. But it does mean that also males could consider cryobanking their sperm if they at a certain time have not gotten the children they want.
Zdenka Vitkova comments: “When we worked with ESB, some of the candidates shared that this life choice, and life preservation is a great step for equality. Giving women the choice when, and how they choose to have children was seen as incredibly empowering. The same is true for a career, it is traditionally the women who have to step out of work to look after children. To know that the chances of having children can be improved later in life means this is a decision that does not need to be made early on in a woman’s career.”
CP: What are ESB doing differently?
Jesper: Everybody would say so, but we absolutely live to the word of uncompromising quality. We understand how important this part of the life project is for our customers. We want that to happen in the right way. That is so much in our genes at ESB, it starts in the way we relate to our customers and among all the organisations I have been part of, this is one of the most caring.
CP: What role does digital engagement play in this market?
Jesper: It’s very important that B-2-B goes with B-2-C. Our clinical partners are a massive part of what we do and we would not be able to deliver what we do without them. But if I move to the customer and donor side of our business, digital is such a relevant and powerful tool. There are so many ways to engage with our customers. There are groups on the web where people meet like minded people and share experiences, and it is sometimes there that they will start their journey to understanding.
CP: If we dig into that journey a little, today it might be perceived the fertility services are not fully mainstream. If you think about the very early part of engaging people on this life choice, what does that look like?
Jesper: It won’t be the general message any more that ‘we are here’ or ‘these are our services’. Using fertility services is now well understood – everyone knows someone who has used these services in some capacity so that it has actually become quite mainstream.
The messages will be much more about choices. There are choices for single females. There are choices for lesbians. And there are choices around fertility preservation. And this is a choice. It can be about planning your life without some of the constraints that the changes in fertility have as you age. That goes hand in hand with what we discussed earlier around equality.
On the donor side are the same messages about choices. Being a donor is a lifelong decision and we want to support that journey in the most ethical and respectful way. We need to make donors fully aware of this.
Digital is always about expanding and optimizing this reach. We want to reach those people who are considering being donors and we want to reach those potential mothers (or couples) thinking about and exploring their choices. We want to be the go-to partner here and we want to link with them with the right counselling and guidance.
CP: What is more important – being the highest beacon of ethics and values or is scale also important? We’ve seen a lot of consolidation in this space. How do you marry the two?
Jesper: For us we want to be a leading player in terms of choice to our customers. For us scale means scale of choice. For example we want customers to have a wide choice of donors. That’s an important point on scale. We are opening a new donor sourcing centre in Amsterdam for example which is an important new market. In certain markets, it’s not enough to have the current donor profiles we do now – take the middle east or Asia. If we went there today, we would be exporting ‘Nordic+’ donors to them. We’d have to open a local donor centre, as people typically want their children to look as similar to them as they can.
But that’s not the same as pure clinical scale with a wider choice of clinics.
CP: We started here, but what has been the impact of Covid on the business?
Jesper: Like many businesses, initially it was really tough. Both on the supply side, what donors would and could do was challenging, and then we had the clinics which in many countries were forced to close. So that impacted us hugely and it was a tough time for the business.
The good news for us is that as the world re-opened, this bounced back and faster than we thought. It has been a positive surprise. There was a big strain on our employees to cope with first the downturn and down-sizing and then suddenly the strong growth as the world re-opened. But this impact is not yet over, as we see our business being impacted whenever local changes happen.
CP: Finally, if we go blue sky, what are the changes you expect in the next 5-10 years?
Jesper: I think ‘retail’ consolidation at the clinics will continue, but that won’t be easy because anyone who has worked with doctors will know that there is huge pride within the clinic. Making it part of a bigger group doesn’t come without its challenges.
Regulation will be key as well. We see changes which are both good and bad for our business. As I mentioned earlier, there are debates around fertility choices happening now and some of those allow more time and freedom, but others do not.
For me, it comes back to the untold story of fertility preservation. Some of the big companies in the US now are providing fertility support as part of employee benefits, both financially and from a policy perspective. That is an ethical way to support women to have real choices about their career and being a mother.
Finally, genetic matching is something we have just seen the beginning of. When you go into a process which is ‘out of the body’, if you choose a donor, screening those donors against the mother can remove the risk of hereditary diseases. There has always been screening of sperm for disease but screening the recipient beyond that is only very new. It’s something I think we will see much more of and will be a good thing.
About European Sperm Bank
European Sperm Bank is a privately owned Danish company established in 2004. They prioritise high-quality sperm, industry-leading donor testing, and dedicated advice above all. They do this to ensure you the best possible experience when making perhaps the most important choice of your life.