DIXON, Ill. — When you step into the Hintzsche-Westphal household, family is at the center of everything.
Christmas tree branches droop under the weight of a myriad of ornaments. Most, proudly displayed in a variety of colors and styles, are marked by four names: Jenn, Ryan, Lois and Zach. As the quartet's matriarch will tell you, "When you work this hard to have kids, you get everything with their name on it."
Now, after years of heartbreak, setbacks and trial and error, their house also serves as headquarters for PherDal: a sterile, at-home reproductive assistant that's hoping to change the world of infertility treatments as we know it.
Dr. Jennifer Hintzsche met her now husband, Ryan Westphal, eleven years ago. It was a matching seemingly made in STEM-heaven, with her PhD in bioinformatics and his degree in engineering. While they now call Dixon, Illinois home, Hintzsche has a Quad City connection as well, from her days attending Augustana College in undergrad.
After years pursuing degrees and careers, the two decided to get married and begin a family. But more and more months rolled by with no sign of a pregnancy in sight. Finally, after a year of trying, the couple was able to see a reproductive endocrinologist.
"We were diagnosed with unexplained infertility," Hintzsche said. "I now know that one third of all people that actually go see a reproductive endocrinologist get the same diagnosis. But at the time, I never actually considered that they wouldn't be able to figure out what was wrong."
However, an unsatisfactory diagnosis wasn't the end of their troubles. With the label 'infertile,' Hintzsche realized that her insurance would no longer help pay for her pregnancy journey.
As is the case with most insurance companies, Hintzsche and Westphal were only covered up to their diagnosis. Everything after that, including the expensive fertility treatments, were going to fall squarely on their shoulders and their pocketbook.
One of the most common avenues for treatment is in vitro fertilisation. Just a single IVF cycle can range from $15,000 to $30,000.
"We went into this appointment with all of this hope," Hintzsche said. "And we came out with a loan application for $10,000 and a treatment plan when they didn't know what was wrong."
The two say it was an excruciating start to their marriage.
"I turned our marriage into a science experiment. And he essentially became my sperm donor, not my husband," Hintzsche recalled. "We would have done anything."
But despite the odds and uncertainties, Hintzsche decided to take matters into her own hands. She ended up going back to her scientific roots: digging into the research.
Most of what she discovered was intrauterine insemination, or IUI. In this procedure, sperm is washed, concentrated and then placed into the uterus. However, Hintzsche found it to be expensive, invasive and unsatisfying.
Then, she discovered a new process, called intracervical insemination, or ICI. It's most commonly known in LGBTQ+ communities, but isn't as widely researched or funded in heterosexual circles. ICI doesn't need washed sperm. Instead, it places the sperm sample about an inch lower than IUI treatments, putting it at the opening of the cervix.
"That was the turning point," Hintzsche said, smiling over at Westphal. "And then when we didn't find anything on the market that was safe, sterile and meant for sperm, that's when I said, 'Hey, do you want to make one?'"
How PherDal Works
In 2017, still reeling from their infertility diagnosis, Hintzsche and Westphal sat down at their kitchen table and began sketching out designs for their device. After more than 30 different iterations, they created their now-patented technique.
The two-step process begins when a sperm sample is placed into PherDal's small, sterile jar. That's when a syringe, also sterile, comes into play.
"You're really just pulling up the sample into the syringe. And then it's like putting in a tampon; it really is that simple," Hintzsche explained. "But it's effective. It bypasses all of the potential bacteria or anatomical conditions and it gets sperm closer to the egg in a safe way."
Throughout PherDal's design, small touches reflect hours of work correcting and tweaking, according to feedback. The jar is rounded in such a way that one can pull every drop of the sample up into the syringe. Small ridges protrude from the syringe's fingerholds, allowing for an easier, steadier grip.
But the device's most apparent appeal can be found in its price and accessibility.
So far, PherDal has sold proof-of-concept kits for just under $100. If it's spread to a larger, more public market, Hintzsche and Westphal will sell the kit for just $149 - thousands less than standard fertility treatments.
Each kit comes with three jars and syringes, allowing for three applications. All of which can be done at-home.
"You're not having to do this through a clinic," Hintzsche said. "I think it just takes so much stress off because there aren't other people involved."
While PherDal hasn't had any clinic trials yet, after shipping out 200 proof-of-concept kits, Hintzsche and Westphal know of 25 babies that have been born after a parent began using their device.
That includes their own daughter, Lois.
Two days after Christmas 2017 - just a few weeks after creating PherDal - Hintzsche called her husband sobbing.
"I think I blacked out! I mean, I was crying. I kept telling him it worked! It worked! That it worked," she remembered.
"Since then it's been a blur," Westphal smiled.
By September 2018, Lois was in the world as the first PherDal baby. Today, she's a carbon copy of her father. Curious, yet shy, she loves order and consistency. But make no mistake, Lois can quickly transform into a rambunctious and rowdy toddler; quick to laughter and exuding an infectious spunk.
"I didn't know what it was like to be a mother," Hintzsche cried. "And then when I held my daughter, I just wanted to be able to give that to other people."
People such as Cedar Rapids mom Tessa Mills.
When News 8 caught up with Mills, she was busy preparing for Thanksgiving festivities. It's an already daunting task, made even more interesting with an inquisitive six-month old to keep an eye on.
"She's a Gemini," Mills laughed, holding up her daughter Harper: the world's second PherDal baby. "She's perfectly healthy, she's just growing too fast!"
Mills met Hintzsche through a Facebook group for women entrepreneurs with ADHD. At the time, Mills and her husband had spent more than a year trying to conceive. Unsatisfied with her own infertility diagnosis, she became a certified fertility awareness educator.
"I'm certified in the FEM method, which is kind of a medical model," Mills said. "It's not just tracking your cycle, it's also looking at your biomarkers and being able to kind of determine what could be going on. Finding the root cause."
When Hintzsche posted about PherDal in the group, looking for marketing support, Mills was immediately interested. She was drawn to PherDal's sterility and liked that it could be used at home. Mills was also attracted to how affordable the new device was.
The two women hopped on a zoom call and began to dive into the research and science behind the small tool.
"I think I jumped off the zoom and immediately ordered a kit because I just knew that it was going to help us," Mills said.
And after just one cycle of PherDal, after nearly two years of trying, Mills finally had her positive pregnancy test.
"It was just surreal," she said, tearing up. "I took the test when I was at home by myself and when I saw the two lines I just couldn't believe it."
Mills called Hintzsche before her husband even knew she was pregnant and the two women laughed and cried on the phone together.
"From that point forward we were like, we're gonna be in each other's lives forever," Mills smiled. "I get the opportunity to be a mom. I get emotional sometimes when I talk about it because I have six-month old and I still can't believe I got a positive test."
She says PherDal's price-tag and at-home application made it a much more viable option.
"They're really working to create a company that gives people an opportunity," Mills said. "Infertility treatments are very expensive and they're inaccessible to a lot of people. They're really going to help a lot of people."
What's Next For PherDal
Currently, the device is about halfway through the FDA clearance process. Its creators hope to have PherDal greenlit for public use as early as spring 2023.
So what would that look like? The company is hoping to sell its device over the counter at Walgreens, CVS, Walmart and Target pharmacies across the country. Each kit would be $149 and come with three sets of jars and syringes.
But getting there comes with a big price tag. It takes nearly one million dollars to pass FDA clearance tests and trials.
"That was a really hard number to hear. And I still don't quite know how we're gonna get there, but we're going to," Hintzsche said.
It's why the company is turning to investors for help. PherDal is currently seeking minimum investments of $249 to push the device through the FDA. So far, more than 200 investors have pooled together just over $420,000. There's also more than 1,200 people on PherDal's waiting in line for the device to come back in stock.
Now, the company is running an investment campaign through December 19, to help meet their spring 2023 goal.
"It's not gonna work for everyone. But it's worked for some," she said. "Fertility treatment isn't accessible. We want this to be affordable and accessible to anyone who wants to try to build their family. I don't know what the future holds, but we need to bring this to everyone. And that's a feeling that I just want to keep chasing."
With each dollar that comes in, Hintzsche sends it right back out, paying for new tests and procedures. To her, failure simply isn't an option for PherDal.
"It's really hard to have hope when you're going through the infertility journey. So even being able to give people something to feel like they can empower themselves and take control of their fertility journey a little bit -- even from a mental health standpoint -- is incredible," Hintzsche said.
What began as a heartbreaking journey of loss has transformed into a groundbreaking device, working to transform the world of fertility treatments; delivering hope directly to people's doorsteps.
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