It’s been a while since John Carreyou’s book “Bad Blood” made the news and the Theranos scandal was the talk of the town. When the book launched a little more than a year ago. People couldn’t get enough of the drama. Everybody had an opinion, was shocked, impressed, evetated or “knew it was too good to be true from the very start”. Readers were intrigued by the young woman, who seemingly managed to scam all of Silicon Valley with her charme.
Fast-forward. It is October 2019. John Carreyou’s book has become yesterday’s news and the media cycle has moved on. The “Theranos Effect” however remains and is especially difficult to overcome for female founders innovating in the health space today. Innovation is met with scepticism and disbelief. “Better be safe than sorry” seems to be the mantra of many early stage investors these days. If it sounds too good to be true, maybe it is. Don’t get me wrong: The fact that Theranos has caused investors to do better due diligence on the claims healthtech startups, is probably a good thing, but it is not just the technology, that is questioned more rigorously. Female founders are often confronted with unfair comparisons to Elizabeth Holmes, as a recent discussion on elpha, a network for women in tech, shows.
“Investors backed off because I reminded them of Elizabeth Holmes tech scam.”
Sabine Zureikat started the discussion. She is the founder and CEO of Truelli, an organic compound, designed to react to menstrual blood. Truelli is injected into women’s daily use pantyliners to create the world’s first menstrual cycle detection and alert liner. When in contact with the first drop of blood, the compound drops the surrounding temperature enough for the user to feel a chill and realize “I just started my period.”
Sabine is currently raising a seed round and while she expected fundraising to be a challenge, she wasn’t quite prepared for the “Theranos Effect”. We spoke to her to learn more about her venture and experience fundraising as a female healthtech founder, who’s technology happens to deal with blood.
Hi Sabine! Thank you for taking the time to speak to me! Can you tell me more about Truelli and yourself? How did you come up with the idea? Why did you decide to work on this particular problem? Are you targeting end-customers or are you planning to “white label” Truelli? What stage is Truelli currently in?
Hello Kathrin, thank you for taking an interest in our project “Truelli” and in addressing my experience in fundraising for this project.
“Truelli” is a pantyliner that has the ability to turn fresh-cold once exposed to one drop of menstrual cycle blood, thus alerting you of your period arrival and/or if your tampon is leaking. This was made possible, by injecting the pantyliner with a synthesized organic compound (our patented technology).
I’m an Electrical Engineer with a master’s degree in Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). I’ve been designing and building products for as long as I can remember and have acquired multiple awarded patents for some of my designs, along the way.
How did you come up with the idea?
I’ve worked as a car and an aircraft mechanic at some point and as much as I would like to say “Nothing held me back and I was always present!” that would totally be a lie!
As women, we can all relate to the Hellish events associated with our periods! Unlike what most men would think, our struggle is not confined in the period week itself, but it also includes the days leading up to it!
Not only do women have to deal with PMS symptoms, but they also have to deal with the stress of not knowing when exactly will their period commence. Always wondering whether or not the feeling their getting at the moment is really their period starting or is it just a simple vaginal excretion, aka another “False Alarm”!
As a female, I can’t count the number of times
- I choose to ignore “That Feeling” and later had to pay for that,
- The number of embarrassing situations,
- The number of times I had to excuse myself from important meetings to address, what I would later find out to be a “False Alarm”.
- The number of Tampons I have wasted on false signs of my period starting.
Two years ago, I woke up at 3am rushing to the bathroom thinking my period must have started! I went to check and it was just another False Alarm. I was so enraged that I went online at 4am to buy ANYTHING that would alert me of my period arrival. I searched everywhere and I was surprised to find Nothing!
So I started thinking of a product that would end my misery! I thought “what if my daily use pantyliner could alert me of my period arrival?” and since it will be operating in a sensitive area, it has to be organic!
I stayed up all night reading about organic compounds and different chemical reactions. Before I knew it, it was 8 am and I had the concept of Truelli written down.
Its been two years since that night and now my Truelli organic compound is in my hands and better yet…the damn thing works!!!
Are you targeting end-customers or are you planning to “white label” Truelli?
Our current business model is B-to-C, so we plan to directly sell the product to the end- customer. If the right opportunity presents itself, I do not mind licensing or white labelling “Truelli” to leading vendors, as long as my main condition is met, which is “selling this product at a decent price!”.
As a female founder and a customer of my own product, I would never accept “Pink taxing” my product. I say this, because I have faced an investor that suggested I drastically change my pricing model, because I possess a one of a kind solution and need to take advantage of it! …Needless to say, I flat out rejected his request.
What stage is Truelli currently in?
Our beta prototype has been tested on a group of women and we passed the trials with flying colors!
The compound injected into our pantyliners is currently in pill-form, so we are seeking to raise capital to change our compound to a gel form (its final form) and to prepare the mass production lines.
What was the development process like? When did you start working on Truelli and how long did it take you to develop the organic compound?
We have been working on “Truelli” for two years now. The process was excruciating to say the least. For 9 months we achieved nothing but Failures! The compound was activating upon being exposed to urine, sweat and/ or vaginal excretions, when it was supposed to only react with blood. The compound had to be 100% organic and super cheap, so that our liner would be in the same price range as other pantyliners when it enters the market, so we were really cornered in our options.
It was only around Month 10 that we finally cracked the code! We immediately started making batches of our liner for women to test out. Waiting for those women feedback was the most nerve wracking experience of my life.
I will never forget the first video recorded experience I got from one of the women! Apparently she was walking her dog at -4 degrees Celsius when she felt coldness down there! She cut her trip short and went back home to find her period has started!” I don’t think I was ever so happy that someone has gotten their period!
Awesome feedback kept pouring in and that’s when I knew we were ready for the market!
Truelli isn’t your first patent. Can you tell us more about your previous projects? How did you acquire the skillset needed to develop such a diverse set of products?
Before Truelli, I have acquired a patent for my nano drone design, called “Felli” and its World’s smallest commercial drone, that came in second place in the Global Navigation Competition on the Region of Baden Wurttemberg in Germany.
I have a patent for a Stainless Steel cookware that has already gotten the attention of Middle Eastern distributors and we are preparing the mass production lines for this as we speak.
In the previous 5 years, I have designed and built multiple hardware and software products that range from airport navigation application, to sales point software and finally a fintech solution that will go live by December 2019.
I live and breath building products. Nothing brings me more joy than assembling teams and leading them to building ground breaking technology.
When it comes to the skill set needed to do that, I actually just gain it along the way.
The way it usually goes, I get an idea inspired out of my own needs or other people’s struggles and then I start researching how to build it and just learn the skills as I go. When I find myself in a corner, I outsource specialists and together we work as a team to achieve the desired output.
You mention on your website, that Truelli has been tested? How has it been tested? How is working on Truelli different from working on your previous projects?
A group of women were asked to test our beta prototype. The group consisted of women with various sensitivity levels and medical backgrounds.
90% of the women fell in love with the product and said it alerted them in a timely manner, while 10% loved the product but asked for a colder alerting liner (which is something we can easily do). The feedback we got, allowed us to conclude 2 things;
1- “Truelli” just passed human trials with flying colors.
2- At some point we will have to produce liners with different alerting (cooling) levels, to accommodate women with congenital insensitivity to coldness.
Unlike working on Software and hardware products, working on Truelli definitely has been way more challenging. The two main challenges I found are:
1- Most investors are men, and getting them to understand the need and the potential for such a femtech technology has been really challenging.
2- In biotech there are NO MISTAKES ALLOWED. If a client complains for any reason, we can’t just fix the issue by a simple line of code, or re-send them a new product to replace the faulty one. We work around women’s most sensitive area and any irritation might indicate an issue with our organic formulation itself, which can mean the death of the whole project. So although Truelli is 100% Organic, we made sure we covered as many tests as possible to insure safety and quality.
You are currently raising a seed round for Truelli and are looking for investment. What are the next steps for Truelli?
Currently, the organic compound injected into our pantyliners is in pill-form, so we are seeking to raise capital to change our formulation to a gel, which will ease the integration process overall, and to prepare the mass manufacturing lines.
To validate our initial market share, we have prepared an awareness campaign to be launched by the 31st of October, 2019, where women interested in our pantyliner can subscribe for pre-orders and/or for a limited time, directly purchase a package for 50% off.
Post launch, we will be focusing on covering the demand in the Americas, US to be specific, as it is the dominating region in terms of pantyliner market share, and then we shall work our way to Europe, Asia and finally GCC.
You and your company have been compared to Elizabeth Holmes and Therano respectively by angel investors. Why do you think that is and how do you address the scepticism?
In biotech the due diligence can be a bit tricky, since your whole technology is in the formulation of your compound, so while you can talk about the main elements you used to address the issue, you can’t really reveal much to make sure you protect your trade secrets. Nevertheless, I made sure investors got to test our product on the spot and sense the alert.
I think the Holmes issue started coming up, when investors asked me what where my future plans to expand Truelli’s targeted market share, since and I quote “The $3.8 Billion Global Market Share for pantyliners (announced in 2018) is too small.”
After working on this project for 2 years, we were of course ready to discuss the future plans we have for this tech. So I explained to them, that through our failed trials (when Truelli was falsely triggering to fluids other than blood) we have, by mistake, created a compound that can react to specific elements. In other words, we explored Truelli diagnostic capabilities without even realizing it. We explained to them that, if our pantyliner takes off, we will allocate a lot of our revenue into our R&D labs, to expand Truelli in the diagnostic realm, mainly to target fertility and hormone imbalance issues. If we are successful in doing so, our targeted market share will easily go up to $30 Billion dollars.
Investors showed nothing but excitement about the potential we can achieve with my tech, but I later found out that they backed out because I reminded them of Elizabeth Holmes!
Apparently my confidence and the conviction they found in my words, gave them the impression that this is too good to be true and then they had an Elizabeth Holmes flashback.
I didn’t know who Holmes was, until my friend explained who she is to me. I honestly was so disappointed at the amount of ignorance that comparison held.
As much as I’d like to say, this is a onetime unfortunate situation and blame it all on Holmes, the truth is I have experienced far worse situations and I’m sure more is yet to come.
How do I address them?…. I don’t!
My goal is to build a company that will shake the tech infrastructure Worldwide. Every minute in my life counts, and I honestly don’t plan to waste a second explaining to someone, who is supposed to be a more experienced and educated individual, that his/her comparison is groundless.
Allow me to end my statement here the same way I did on my Post in Elpha:
On days like that, I like to remind myself of one thing; “Winning wouldn’t taste good if it was that easy!” So please watch out for “Truelli” team, cause we will launch and we will launch big!!
Thank you for the interview!
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