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May 23, 2017

Hundreds of non-profits and government agencies have struggled to permanently turn around rates of sexually transmitted diseases — with little lasting success. But a new startup headed by two female Millennials may be the answer.

MyLabBox is an at-home diagnosis testing that promises accurate testing for sexually transmitted infections for the anonymous privacy of your own home — and for the same or lower cost than going to a physician's office or laboratory. Co-founders Lora Ivanova and  Ursula Hessenflow have raised more than half a million dollars in seed funding to bring to market what it says is the most comprehensive home STD testing service in the United States — a service that could move the needle on a massive public health issue, as well as tap into a profitable market. 

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's STD surveillance report announced that the rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — the three most commonly reported STDs in the nation — jumped between 2014 and 2015, reaching an all-time high. During that period, syphilis rose by 19 percent, gonorrhea by 12.8 percent, and chlamydia cases rose by 5.9 percent — all diseases treated by antibiotics.

Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 59 are infected with genital human papillomavirus, or HPV, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which notes that high-risk strains of this sexually transmitted disease are carried by 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women, and cause about 31,000 cases of cancer each year. Genital herpes affects one in six U.S. adults under age 50, and while HIV diagnoses overall are down, they jumped dramatically between 2005 and 2015 for black and Latino gay men — and youth in particular. Overall, it is estimated that half of the U.S. adult population will be infected by at least one STD.

Failure to stem these infections includes lack of sex education, the cost, shame and inconvenience of regular testing, that sexually transmitted disease still carries great taboo. Plus, the sudden prevalence of online dating means that people are sleeping with people far outside their natural social circles, and disease follows. MyLabBox addresses all of these issues.

"Most people are not talking about STDs, and if we're not talking about it, we're not getting tested," said Ivanova, who points out that about 80 percent of people infected with STDs do not display symptoms. "Today, in 2017, this part of our lives is so far behind. It is time we catch up with the advances of technology and e-commerce."

MyLabBox tests for individual diseases start at $79, and go up to $399 for a full schedule of STD tests — rates Ivanova says are about half of what you would pay for in a doctor's office, without insurance. "Not only is going to a doctor's office more expensive, but it also takes more time, and people can feel embarrassed," she says. "Plus, if you're tested in an office, it is less private since your diagnosis is shared with the Insurance Information Bureau, which can affect your rates in the future — all of which prevents people from getting tested."

MyLabBox tests require users to collect samples by either urine, a swab, or a small finger prick of blood wiped on a paper. Mail in the kit, and receive an email with a link to a secure portal within eight days. The fee includes shipping, a specialized physician consultation and referral, if needed, as well as a prescription when appropriate — none of which come with the co-pay that are typica in a traditional physician-office experience.

Despite the seemingly obvious business opportunity and positive initial sales results, MyLabBox has faced its unique challenges, Ivanova says. Potential investors (male), have made inappropriate comments to the female co-founders, such as, "So, which of you is infected?" ("We learned to laugh about it," Ivanova says.), as well as being temporarily blocked from Google Adwords for being a sex toy vendor when an early promotion included sex lube. Twitter banned the company because, Ivanova says, it flagged the startup as a being a sex company, since MyLabBox did not fit into its categories or nonprofit organization, nor medical laboratory. "Public platforms have the power of sensorship, and can decide what messages can reach the public, and in some cases, the public suffers," Ivanova says. 

Is MyLabBox, based in Los Angeles, that can turn the tide, and change the conversation around sexually transmitted infection, and, ultimately culture around routine STI testing?

"Routine testing is not part of our culture because it is not easily accessible," says Ivanova, who says that most people should test every six months, including those in monogamous relationships, since infidelity is so common. "It is like teeth brushing — it only became part of our culture when it became easy and affordable to do it at home. If you had to go to the dentist every time you wanted to brush, it would never happen. By making things more comprehensive and accessible is how culture changes."