Could This Period-Tracking App Usher In Digital Contraception?
By Elizabeth Rushe
Ida Tin, the Berlin-based co-founder and CEO of period- and fertility-tracking app Clue, once led motorcycle tours around the world and operated her office out of the American desert. Since launching Clue in the summer of 2o13, she’s embarked on a new adventure — this time in the world of health technology.
By June of this year, her app announced a user base of 1 million users; fewer than six months later, it boasted more than 2 million monthly users. Most users are based in the U.S., UK, and Germany, but Tin is determined to spread the app’s influence worldwide.
Clue’s mission is both simple and powerful: help women track their monthly cycle by entering data about their period, pain, mood, sexual activity, and menstrual symptoms, like low energy levels and insomnia. One service in particular, though, is generating much of the attention: helping women track the days when they’re more or less likely to get pregnant.
In addition to helping its users, the data collected by the app is being used to advance science. Recently, Clue was integrated with Apple’s data-analyzing HealthKit, and universities have used it to assess data (on an opt-in basis) for women’s health studies. The Clue team is working with Stanford, for instance, to reveal how menstrual cycles have evolved since the last major research studies in the 1960s; Columbia to research menstrual patterns and the onset of diseases; and the University of Washington to study copper IUD use and bleeding patterns.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed; in October, Clue raised funding to the tune of $7 million, from investors who were once early financiers in Etsy, Twitter, and Kickstarter.
The company also boasts an evenly gender-split team and is being praised for using design and language that is non-gender-specific — unlike other period-tracking competitors such as iPeriod and Period Diary — and not steeped in stereotyping. The app’s tagline? “Scientific. Confident. Not pink.”
The Establishment caught up with Tin to chat about her unconventional career path and what the future of contraception could look like.
Elizabeth: What inspired you to start Clue?
Ida: I thought about why no one had solved this challenge of what days you can get pregnant. The smartphone had just come out; I didn’t have one myself at the time but I just thought, that would be so empowering if you could pull out your phone and it would tell you. You wouldn’t have to worry about using a condom every time you had sex, or about whether you’d gotten pregnant. All these years of experience we have — why does it still have to be so hard? What if you could have all this data in your phone? That was really the inspiration point in the beginning.
Then I had an idea for some hardware. I started talking to the first investors really early — I can only laugh at what I must have said back then, but they kept a straight face, and I kept going. I talked to a research institute in Germany, and I met Hans, who became my co-founder, and Moritz, a friend from university who said he could build the hardware. Very quickly, we realized the phone would be the center of the user experience, so it made sense to build a digital product first. The more we develop the digital side, the more we realize that the smartphone really is the core.
Elizabeth: Congratulations on your Series A funding — what does that mean for Clue?
Ida: It means we’ve proven that we got the basics right. We have an amazing combination of a lot of data, the computing power, and sensors out in the world giving us data. And now we have to bring it together and be really good at analyzing it and making sense of it, and feeding that back as personalized, contextual insights for individual users in real time.
We’ve just begun that journey of what kind of meaningful insights we can give users through the app. The next step is more feedback through the app so that it will tell you, for example, ‘Your cycles used to be this length, now they’re this length, maybe you need to check with the doctor.’
Elizabeth: Have you been surprised at ways in which people use the app?
Ida: There’s a big group of users who use Clue to remind them when to take their birth control pill. We thought that people would just be counting how many pills they have left. But they also want to track if they have side effects. We have a lot of users who are men, helping to track their partners. We also have users who are very young, using it even before their first period to learn and understand. We had an opera singer who needed to know how her cycle affected her voice.
Elizabeth: Some of the remarks found online compare Clue to “the online pill” — do you agree with that?
I think that’s great. I think it’s just a matter of time before we can make the predictions so accurate and personalized that we can call it a contraceptive; we’re just not there yet. We don’t recommend it to be used as a contraceptive, though I can understand the temptation. I think it’s a really clear indication that the world is ready for a data-driven contraceptive. Women have taken hormones for 70 years, and that’s been important, but it’s also outdated. For some, it’s still a good solution and it should always be an option. But we need a next-generation technology for the many who don’t want to, or can’t, take pills or use rings.
Elizabeth: What were you doing before Clue?
Ida: I had a motorcycle touring agency with my dad — we toured all around the world. I did that for five years. Two of those five years I spent traveling in America in the desert. I got this idea to use the desert as my office, so I bought a satellite device and a tent and my motorcycle, and was running the tour company from the desert. [Ida’s memoir highlighting this experience is now a bestselling book in Denmark, Direktøs.]
I grew up with motorcycles, and my parents traveled the world with my brother and I. But I’ve always been interested in reproductive health — my dad reminded me recently that my first work experience was in a sex-education center. I was 20 years old at the time, and approached them with an idea for a book I wanted to write about young women and sexuality. I’m 36 now, so it’s been an ongoing field of interest.
Elizabeth: What did you learn from running the motorcycle business that you apply at Clue?
Ida: Being courageous is really key when you do a start-up. That was very good training; running the business and traveling alone. Courage is like a muscle that you train. I’ve always been self-employed and never really had a regular job. So I feel like everything I’ve done so far has been good training for now, which is basically jumping in at the deep end and learning really fast.
Elizabeth: Can Clue work on a global scale?
Ida: I feel like we’re not done with Clue until women in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan have it. The world is so big that we need to build some strength first before we can get there. But we’re in it for the long run.