Troy Spada is eight months old, weighs about 20 pounds, enjoys giggling and putting things in his mouth, and is, like all babies, a blessing in the eyes of his parents. And he might not exist were it not for a Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Max Levchin.
Three years ago, Troy's mother, Krista Spada, learned that she suffered from diminished ovarian reserve — that is, even though she was just 25, she was already running out of eggs. "It was dumbfounding," says Spada. "Having kids was something we'd thought would happen way in the future. All of a sudden, we had to start now."
Her doctor recommended the fertility drug Clomid, but Spada was reluctant. Clomid treatments were not covered by her insurance and would cost thousands of dollars. Searching for an alternative, she and her husband, Chris, saw Levchin being interviewed on television. A Silicon Valley legend, Levchin played a pivotal role in two of the tech world's biggest hits — PayPal and Yelp — and was talking about his newest venture, Glow, a smartphone app that uses deep-data-analysis techniques to help couples conceive. Intrigued, the Spadas downloaded it. Each day, they dutifully reported Krista's body temperature and the texture and moisture levels of her cervical mucus. The app responded by sending a push notification when the time was right to try to conceive.
The experience was awkward, but it worked: Krista's conception was one of more than 30,000 reported by Glow users since the app's launch in 2013. Troy's birth last June made him a smiling, gurgling pioneer of childbirth in the digital era.
The idea that couples would take sexual cues from their iPhones might seem invasive, even creepy. But for the 39-year-old Levchin, nothing could be more natural. He is one of the world's most enthusiastic advocates of the "quantified life" — the idea that monitoring and mining one's personal data can lead to a happier, more productive life. A serious cyclist, Levchin has tracked his own health data obsessively, using an ever-growing collection of electronic wristbands, internet-connected scales, and, his crown jewel, a Pinarello Dogma 2 road bike equipped with nine different sensors. Ask him how his morning ride across the Golden Gate Bridge went and he'll respond with something along these lines: "I could have powered five 60-watt lightbulbs concurrently for two and a half hours." (Which is to say that Levchin's legs produced an average of 300 watts of power over the course of the ride. Which is to say that, yeah, it went pretty well.)
He applies the same level of analysis to nearly everything he sets out to do. Earlier this year, Levchin spent months devising a computer algorithm to determine the tastiest possible recipe for his new favorite food, kimchi. The program suggested minuscule variations for preparing the side dish. He tried them one by one, keeping the best recipes in the gene pool and setting the others aside. Four months and 20 iterations later, he achieved something that seemed close to perfection. More recently, Levchin took it upon himself to figure out how to scramble an egg — without cracking it first. He succeeded after rigging up the egg in a homemade centrifuge. "It's pure intellectual masturbation," he admits.
Such comments, as well as the fact that Levchin, while personable, tends to speak in a robotic monotone, can make him seem like the most charming cyborg you've ever met. In fact, he's happily married with two young children (fertility wasn't a problem for Levchin and his wife, Nellie). A math prodigy in his native Ukraine, Levchin saw his family uprooted during the breakup of the Soviet Union, and at age 16 — with only rudimentary English skills — he was plopped into a Chicago public high school. He taught himself the language by watching a black-and-white television set he had found in a dumpster (and fixed himself). In college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he fell in love with structured data. At age 19, that passion peaked when he encountered a programming language called SQL. "I realized then what my life was meant for," he says.
This romance with data proved crucial to Levchin's first successful start-up, PayPal, the online payments company that he co-founded — along with, among others, investor Peter Thiel — in 1998 at age 23. Five years later, it was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion, a success that was due largely to the antifraud algorithms Levchin built to sniff out Russian mobsters and money launderers. "From my point of view, he was the hero at PayPal," says Jeff Jordan, a former eBay executive and now a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm. "He's one of the brightest people I've ever worked with."
Data played a role in Levchin's other big hit, Yelp, the online reviews site, which used an algorithm to separate genuinely informative restaurant critiques from those left by shills. The company was spun out of a start-up incubator Levchin founded and is now valued at about $5 billion. He remains the company's chairman and largest shareholder.
Glow may be Levchin's most ambitious venture yet. He got the idea while considering all the sensors on his bike. They're cool, yes, but he wondered what the quantified-self movement was actually accomplishing. Guys who cycle with power meters, after all, are for the most part already quite fit and data-driven; kimchi chefs already pickle pretty good cabbage. "These are people who are trying to tune up that last bit of performance," Levchin says. "But the people who aren't as healthy, who should be paying attention to the data — they're not." The answer, he decided, was to target not fitness but health.
Working with a longtime collaborator, Mike Huang, who runs Glow day to day as CEO, Levchin came up with dozens of areas where collecting and analyzing large volumes of data might solve health problems, and ranked them. At the top of the list was fertility. It's a $3.5-billion-a-year industry despite the fact that the science is highly imperfect. About 70 percent of attempts at in vitro fertilization fail, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And yet couples routinely shell out more than $10,000 to undergo the treatments, as in vitro fertilization is often not covered by insurance.
What was needed, Levchin came to believe, was more information. He and Huang built Glow to gather it. Glow collects as many as 16 data points a day from users, with the goal of reducing the need for invasive procedures by unearthing ways to boost the chance of natural conception. That information includes the usual items such as temperature and menstrual cycles, as well as factors that haven't been studied in depth, like sexual position and whether the woman has an orgasm. Is the folk wisdom that the missionary position is best for conception backed up by data? Levchin hopes to find out. "It's the largest crowd-sourced experiment in fertility," he says.
It sounds far-fetched, but many in the mainstream medical community are intrigued. "Most of the studies on infertility are for advanced treatments, but when you get back to basic fertility care, we don't have huge amounts of data," says Dr. Eric Surrey, medical director for the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, one of the country's top infertility clinics. Some of Surrey's patients use Glow, but he cautions that any data "needs to be evaluated really carefully" and could easily be misinterpreted.
Levchin won't say how many couples using his app failed to get pregnant, but he says the success rate so far has been "impressive." Of course, for Levchin, impressive must always be improved upon. So late last year, he deposited $1 million — on top of the $23 million Glow has raised from investors to date — into a nonprofit trust called Glow First, which he hopes will be the basis for a new kind of insurance company. Glow users can elect to pay $50 a month while using the app; if they aren't pregnant after 10 months, then the insurance pool will help pay for their infertility treatments.
That service proved unnecessary for the Spadas: Troy arrived last spring, part of the first wave of babies born thanks, in part, to the app. In fact, his parents liked Glow so much that they're still tracking their data, only this time using it to avoid getting pregnant. Says Krista, "One is enough for now."
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