The ‘future of menstrual products’ is raising concerns for backers.
UPDATE: As of the week of May 22, 2017, the Looncup Kickstarter is active again, promising a Q2 product shipment for their patient backers, and refunds for the angry ones. (The 3,631 backers who pledged $160,608 to help bring this project to life.)
About a year ago, I read an article about what sounded like a remarkable product.
It was called the “Looncup,” and it was being peddled as the high-tech future of menstrual tracking. Developed by a team of bioengineers and marketers, and promoted as “the world’s first SMART menstrual cup,” it promised to provide menstrual cycle analysis, help users track their menstrual fluid volume and color, and provide an alert — via an antenna in the stem of the base — when the cup needed to be emptied. There was even a promised Apple Watch app, for the ultimate in cutting-edge period tracking. The product was glowingly profiled in a range of high-profile publications, including Fortune, The Telegraph, Jezebel (where I first read about it), Slate, the Huffington Post UK, The Independent, and, yes, The Establishment.
As a user of menstrual cups, a fan of sci-fi, and a person endlessly fascinated by the things that come out of my own body, I was immediately interested. How could I get my hands on one of these things?
At the time, Looncups didn’t yet exist, but according to the product’s Kickstarter page, they would go into development and be shipped to users by January 2016, pending full funding from backers. A somewhat bizarre promotional video also claimed that the product was “inches away from the finish line.”
Having read the positive press, and after conducting an online search that yielded no concerning stories, I decided to chip in. On October 10, 2015, I sent $40 to the product’s Kickstarter campaign — the amount that would get the cup shipped to you as soon as they went into production.
On November 2, 2015, just under a month later, the project was successfully funded, boasting over 3,600 backers contributing more than $160,000.
In the middle of planning a trip to Australia, among other commitments, I promptly forgot about the Looncup — the Kickstarter updates I received were exactly the kind of impersonal, not especially important messages I tend to ignore. It wasn’t until March of 2016, after my trip, that I actually remembered donating to the Looncup campaign, and decided to check on the product’s status.
After all, the damn things were supposed to have shipped in January, weren’t they?
Reading back through the emailed updates, I discovered that, after the November 2015 update announcing full project funding, all communications had ceased until January 11, 2016. The message sent on that date, from “Team LOONCUP,” began with an apology for the lack of communication, then stated that the release date was being pushed back — the Looncup would ship, the update promised, by the end of July 2016.
The next update had come in February — including, again, an apology for the lack of communication. This time, “Team LOONCUP” blamed a change in the company’s communications director for the delay, and provided an e-mail address through which they could be contacted.
At this point, I felt a vague sense of unease and decided to write to them to see if I could get my money refunded. Clicking on the e-mail address, though, did not bring up an address you could actually write to. Rather, it directed you to the Tumblr page of a man named Taylor Trimble who “works at Nest and loves to build stuff” and doesn’t seem to actually be connected to Looncup . . . a red flag that would prove to be the first of many. I copy/pasted the e-mail address and sent a message requesting a refund of my $40 on March 22, 2016. As expected, what I got back was an error message.
I went to the Kickstarter page, where I could see that the backers were increasingly divided. Some were convinced that it had been a scam; others were certain their patience would pay off, insisting that the naysayers simply didn’t understand the process involved in creating such a device.
At this point, I felt a vague sense of unease.
By now, I was feeling more than a little stupid. I’m generally a relatively skeptical consumer, but my desire to be a cyborg and know more about my menstrual cycle made me jump before I conducted sufficient research.
Still, to be fair, when I first searched for the company and the project, most of the articles I came across were positive, touting the Looncup as the “future of menstrual products.” I could hardly have predicted that, months later, the third Google autofill for “Looncup” would be “Looncup Hoax.”
How did so many people get duped by what increasingly appears to be a scam?
My own story with the Looncup ended relatively productively. In March of 2016, I posted my comment on the thread for backers on the Kickstarter page, stating that I had no faith in the company, and that I would like my pledge refunded. To my surprise, I received a message from Kickstarter on March 30, 2016, informing me that my pledge had been refunded.
Not everyone has been so lucky.
As of August 2016, the Kickstarter page was rife with messages from people who donated far larger sums than I did asking for refunds—most of whom were ignored. Five backers were told that they had been placed on a “refund list,” but none of them ever actually received a refund.
Since then, faith in the company has continued to decrease steadily; August 2016 was, in fact, the last month when anyone indicated hope that the product would actually be delivered.
Currently, there are more than 571 comments on the Kickstarter thread, over 200 of them complaints, and the majority of those have apparently never received any substantive response from “Team LOONCUP.” As one user put it on September 8, 2016:
“No refunds. You have ignored my communication from [July]. I back $500 to your project . . . I cannot accept ‘no refund’ when my pledge [wasn’t] exactly a smaller amount. Please contact me, I have tried to email you twice.”
As I write this on December 28, 2016, the most recent 79 comments are from angry, disillusioned backers. Backers have apparently lost anywhere from $30 to $500, though many more don’t mention how much they pledged.
Backers have expressed frustration not only about their inability to get a refund, but about suspicious, sudden changes to the promised product and shifty communication from various “Looncup” entities via Kickstarter, emails, and Facebook.
In April, Looncup posted its final public update to the Kickstarter page. It thanks backers for their support and patience, and provides a long list of changes to the final product, including a relocated antenna and “haptic alert” to tell you when the cup is full.
Changes were not made initially, they say, because they were concerned about the extra time that implementing them would take. They claim they have now decided to go forward with them in order to best satisfy their backers, and also mention that they are currently “on schedule,” but they give no specific timeline. Though they claim in the April update to be responding to e-mails within 24 hours, backers commenting as recently as early November note that they have still received no response from the company.
After that update, progress reports only became available to backers, and since my money was refunded in March, I no longer have access to those updates. However, I contacted one frustrated backer, who was kind enough to send me screen caps of the latest information given to Looncup’s backers.
Two “backers only” updates were sent on June 14 and August 9, respectively. The June update declared enthusiastically that “We’re almost there!” and included a picture of a “fresh sample of their final design.” The photograph includes a cluttered assortment of scientific equipment, and four menstrual cups. The cups look more or less like a standard menstrual cup — they’re transparent, and there’s no real way to see if they actually include the features the creators are claiming they do.
The final update, in August, was titled “Dear Backers.” This update informs backers that delivery of the LoonCup has been delayed again, this time until the end of 2016.
This update also informs backers that the makers of Looncup will not be offering any further refunds, as to do so would compromise their ability to produce the cup.
Still, “Team LOONCUP” promises frustrated backers that they are going to “change the paradigm for menstruation.”
Even putting aside the strikingly poor syntax — a clear change from their early communication style — this is a remarkably vague way to describe your hoped-for paradigm shift. It’s also not much information on the progress of a product that was supposed to be made available more than nine months previously.
And these updates aren’t the only forms of communication to raise red flags.
When the project began, a mysterious entity dubbed “Loon Lab, Inc.” commented quite frequently on the Kickstarter thread, first responding to backers’ concerns on September 30, 2015. For the next few weeks, they commented almost daily, and sometimes multiple times a day. In November 2015, the comments became less frequent, but still appeared quite regularly; Loon Lab, Inc. posted 10 comments that month, mostly assuaging backers’ concerns about the project, and providing additional information about the Looncup project.
Comments continued through December but then, oddly, ceased. The next comment from Loon Lab, Inc. wasn’t posted until February 3, apologizing for the delayed communication and promising that an update “…will be posted as soon as we summarize all comments and confirm technical procedures regarding a refund. We will be following your comments more actively.”
On February 27 2016, Loon Lab, Inc., made the following comment:
We are aware that there has been an error with the e-mail address. The correct one is email@example.com . We are also checking our messages on Kickstarter so feel free to contact us through either the e-mail or messaging.
Just to let you know that we have gathered all the e-mail and messages regarding the refund and very close to proceeding them. Thanks for you [sic] patience!
There are four more comments from Loon Lab, Inc. in February, two of which are apologies to individual backers for “misspelling” their contact e-mail in the update sent to backers on February 11, and promising to “process the refund once we have received an email from you.” Six comments in March promise that a detailed update is forthcoming, and again respond to individual dissatisfied backers.
One backer complains that she has still not received a response, despite writing to the updated e-mail address Loon Lab, Inc. has provided in the comments thread. They respond that “[w]e have already added you on our list and will give you a reply now,” and add as a note to all backers that “…it would be much easier for you to contact us through an e-mail or a message, rather than a comment! Thanks”
After March, Loon Lab, Inc.’s commenting dropped off precipitously, with one comment in April promising an update. Their last comment on the thread came on May 13, 2016, thanking backers for their valuable comments, and asking them to use Kickstarter’s messaging system if they found the e-mail Loon Lab, Inc. had provided for them wasn’t working.
The (Very) Puritanical Online Censorship Of Periods
Facebook, Instagram, and Etsy treat menstruation as something to be ashamed of.
The company’s Facebook page isn’t faring too well either at this point. Their last update to the page, posted on April 1, 2016 — a Fortune article called “5 Startups Changing the Way Women Think About Their Periods” — was inundated by angry comments from backers asking for updates and refunds, and demanding to know whether the entire project was a scam. The few commenters that the company responded to publicly were given similar responses to those posted on the Kickstarter thread, promising updates and communication, and telling one user to check her Kickstarter inbox.
At this point, most backers seem to have given up hope of ever seeing either their money or the Looncup. I myself am genuinely surprised to have received a refund, and not at all sure what made my comment more effective than the approximately 200 similar ones on the company’s Kickstarter page.
At this point, most backers seem to have given up hope of ever seeing either their money or the Looncup.
Kickstarter, for its part, seems to have no real plan for responding to projects that fail to fulfill their promises, or for dealing with creators who refuse to refund their backers when projects fail. Once a project is funded, and the pledges are passed on to the creator, Kickstarter essentially disavows any responsibility for what happens after.
Backers who sent complaints to Kickstarter were told that:
“[h]ere at Kickstarter, we expect creators to fulfill rewards, offer refunds if they’re unable to complete their project, and communicate with backers at every step along the way. While Kickstarter is the platform for this agreement, we are not a part of it. We do not investigate a project creator’s ability to complete their project, nor do we facilitate refunds or the fulfillment of rewards. While in most cases you’ll find that rewards are delivered as promised, it’s also important to realize that some projects might not fulfill as planned.”
Consumers are also directed to Kickstarter’s Terms and Services, which “can serve as a basis for legal recourse if a creator doesn’t fulfill their obligations under the agreement,” though Kickstarter “…hope[s] that backers will consider using this provision only in cases where they feel that a creator has not made a good faith effort to complete the project and fulfill.”
Essentially, Kickstarter’s response boils down to a modern version of “buyer beware.”
In the face of what appears to be a hopeless situation for Looncup backers, a question looms: Who, exactly, is behind the product?
Troublingly, Looncup has recently popped up on a site called Scamadviser, which notes that the Kickstarter project involves a “high risk country.” A number of articles mentioned that the development lab was based in South Korea, with sales and marketing located in San Francisco. Yet there seems to be no evidence that Looncup ever had a San Francisco connection.
While Scamadviser doesn’t state outright that the Looncup is a scam, it advises caution, and gives the name of the entity that is most likely really behind the Kickstarter page—a man named Ryong Hwang. A person named Ryong Hwang is mentioned in several of the early articles on Looncup (including the piece published by Slate on October 9, 2015) as the company’s CEO.
Many of the early articles also included comments from a woman named Kate Lee. She was given a number of different titles in those interviews — some described her as the company’s Project Manager and Marketing Executive, others simply as part of the team of eight behind Looncup. She was also described as the project’s co-founder and, in Nylon’s “9 Women Changing the Vaginal Health Industry” — a piece published, remarkably, in November of last year, months after people first began claiming the product was a scam — she was briefly mentioned and described as the company’s founder.
Other than those articles, though, I have been unable to find any evidence of Kate Lee’s existence anywhere on the internet. It seems that after giving a few interviews while Looncup’s Kickstarter was still active, Kate Lee simply disappeared.
On LinkedIn, two people are listed as having connections to Looncup. A man named Abel Acuña states that he was the Kickstarter Campaign Manager, and boasts that the campaign raised $160,000 in 30 days.
There’s also a woman who lists a connection to Looncup, Hyeyoung Helen Lee. Though her profile initially stated that she managed the Kickstarter for Looncup, that information has since disappeared, as has her profile picture. However, a link to Looncup’s Kickstarter can still be found listed under the “Experience” section of her profile — she says, “The website below is the project I participated- the Smart menstrual cup, LOONCUP. It was an unprecedented concept in the IoT healthcare product for women.”
My attempts to get in touch with Lee were unsuccessful. I attempted to contact Acuña through his Twitter and Facebook accounts, but have yet to receive a response. My attempts to get in touch with the team behind Looncup through the Looncup Facebook page and the e-mail address provided to backers have also failed.
It looks more and more likely that whoever is responsible for the creation of the Looncup Kickstarter never actually intended the project to come to fruition.
This isn’t totally surprising, however, as even a little bit of research shows that not only were the promises of “Team LOONCUP” impractical and implausible, they weren’t even particularly desirable.
Amid a sea of positive press on the Looncup, one negative article stands out: a blog post by Dr. Jen Gunter that comes up when you search for “Looncup Hoax.” This article came out on October 10, 2015, in the midst of the overwhelmingly positive coverage of the Looncup.
Beyond the question of whether or not the Looncup was a hoax, Dr. Gunter makes it clear that no reputable physician would see any benefit to this sort of device. Presented with a device that was supposed to “revolutionize” the way we think about periods and vaginal health, it seems a bit strange that nobody called a doctor to ask their opinion. Dr. Gunter is an OB/Gyn who reviews what she calls “vaginocentric Kickstarter campaigns.”
Her first reaction to hearing about the Looncup, she says, was to wonder whether it was from a Saturday Night Live commercial.
Dr. Gunter’s first reaction to hearing about the Looncup was to wonder whether it was from a ‘Saturday Night Live’ commercial.
In her short piece, Dr. Gunter points out that you don’t need a menstrual cup to tell you what the color or texture of your menstrual blood is — looking at it will do that for you. Likewise, there’s no need to know exactly how much you bleed to the millilitre. You’ll know whether your period is heavier or lighter than usual, and if you’re concerned, you can talk to your doctor.
She also raises concerns about the placement of the antenna (sticking out of your vagina?), and the fact that the batteries are only designed to last for six months — replacing your Bluetooth menstrual cup twice annually seems to compromise the money-saving benefits of using a menstrual cup (though it might still be cheaper than buying a pack of tampons every month), and it’s not exactly helpful if you’re looking to reduce your environmental impact.
Assuming that the Looncup ended up costing $40, the minimum pledge required to receive a Looncup, users would end up spending $80/year replacing them, more than double what they would spend using a regular Diva Cup (and that’s assuming they replaced their Diva Cup once a year — neither I, nor anyone I know who uses one, does so).
These are all excellent points, many of which I probably would have thought of myself had I not been overwhelmed by the exciting thought of having a cyborg pussy. I spoke to Dr. Gunter to get her perspective on the Looncup, and why the press coverage had been so universally positive. When I asked her for her initial reaction to the Looncup, she laughed.
“This is stupid,” she said.
Dr. Gunter mentioned a number of obvious problems with the Looncup — along with the issues she had addressed in her original article, she questioned whether or not there would be a risk of corrosion, given that the cup would obviously contain metal parts, as well as some sort of battery. That sort of problem, she noted, could present a serious health risk for anyone using the Looncup.
It also means that the people creating the Looncup—if, indeed, such people exist—would face an uphill battle to get approval from the FDA. The Looncup doesn’t involve a minor change to the design of a standard menstrual cup; creating the product would involve a radical alteration of the sort of materials involved, and would need to be subjected to rigorous testing, making the promised timeline for the product’s release completely implausible. Furthermore, she re-emphasized the fact that the sort of detailed information the Looncup purports to offer is not information that is medically useful.
“You don’t need to know if you bled 32ccs this month and 31ccs last month,” she said. “Sometimes minutiae can just get in the way.”
Why, then, all the interest in this obviously ridiculous new product, not only from consumers, but from the media? “Vaginas sell copy,” said Dr. Gunter. “And you can quote me on that. If you put the word ‘vagina’ in a headline, people will click it.”
“Everybody’s trying to hack the vagina,” she continued. “Why? Nobody’s trying to hack the anus! Why is the vagina the only orifice we’re interested in hacking?”
Vaginas sell copy. If you put the word ‘vagina’ in a headline, people will click it.
So, presented with an exciting new technology and a chance to use the word “vagina” in a headline, editors are inclined to publish first and ask questions later.
The issue goes beyond poor initial vetting, though; in the 11 months since the launch of the product, the publications that fawningly covered it initially have gone silent. I was unable to find a single follow-up article after all the positive coverage that marked the launch of the Kickstarter campaign, even as the company failed to meet its goals and deliver the product.
In a business that often seems to be looking for the next hot thing, there’s little time to consider whether a product might actually be too good — or at least too much like science-fiction — to be true.