Afton Vechery - CEO & Co-Founder @ Modern Fertility
"Being a good leader boils down to hiring smart people and listening to them, thinking big, and accountability."
Afton Vechery has always had an interest in healthcare and entrepreneurship. After working in tech, finance, and at startups, Afton focused her sights on democratizing fertility, with her company Modern Fertility. We chatted with Afton to learn about making the leap to entrepreneurship, how important it is to pick the right investment partners, and why understanding fertility is critical for women.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in rural Maryland and have always been interested in the intersection of healthcare, science, and business. My interest started back when I did a science fair project. Out of the blue, we had to start drinking bottled water at my public school. It turned out that the water quality was poor, which surprised me and I decided to dedicate my project to understanding more. I learned that public facilities have to be routinely tested whereas private facilities such as homes do not. My science fair project was to test well water in the area. I found that there were a lot of contaminants and through this process realized that scientific discoveries alone would not make the kind of impact I wanted to make. I had to take matters into my own hands and start a business.
I set up a website, won grants from local businesses to purchase testing equipment, and began testing water after school. I ran the business in high school for four years and we found contaminated wells every single week. Ultimately, new legislation was put into place around routine testing in the community and I transitioned the company to a new CEO. That was my introduction to entrepreneurship and business. The experience solidified in my mind that I could simplify a problem with science - and then share the solution with the masses. When you know something should exist, you just have to go and make it happen.
I started a few more companies in college, and went into healthcare private equity. I then moved to SF to join a digital health company as employee number one; then left to work at 23andMe before starting Modern Fertility.
Can you share with us the early days of starting Modern Fertility? What inspired you to focus on women's health?
One of the reasons I made the decision to leave the company I started in college and move into private equity, was that I wanted to understand the ins and outs of the healthcare system - the business and the science side - so that I could find ways to make it more efficient.
One area I was interested in was women's health. I noticed that women were waiting until later in life to have kids - and as a result, couples were having trouble getting pregnant (1 out of every 6 couples to be exact!). The ratios of women and couples having infertility treatments and issues with infertility were going up every year. That led me to do a bunch of diligence on investing in a network of IVF (in vitro fertilization) clinics, and their associated laboratories.
I not only saw the business side, the science side, but also the emotional aspect of fertility. Part of our diligence process was talking to women to learn what this process meant to them. For me, early on in my career, I was able to understand how heart-wrenching infertility can be. Women were telling me that they wished they had more information earlier in life. I knew they deserved better.
After digging into the science of those tests over the next few years, I realized that they were helpful in assessing the response to treatment, but also were helpful in giving women a better understanding of their fertility. What I found is that it was really hard and expensive to get these tests done. Knowledge and education on fertility also felt like a black box.
Modern Fertility came out of wanting to democratize access to this type of testing and make it available to women everywhere.
There was also an opportunity to educate women through testing.
Can you tell us what it was like fundraising for a women’s health product?
Fundraising for women’s health product takes a lot of educating investors and making sure they can see the market need and our interpretation of that need. A lot of the investors that we're talking to may not be target users - men, yes, but also women who are not in our customer age range. What was really clear early on is that we just needed more data. We needed to show that women wanted this test. We had to come up with creative ways to do that. Early on we ran a survey and found that 86% of women had anxiety about their ability to get pregnant in the future.
It showed us that we didn’t have a massive market education problem - what we needed to do was take the existing interest and desire for more knowledge and come up with ways to meet it.
Fundraising was definitely a process. I met with Phin at First Round, and from the start, First Round understood the need and realized that women’s health needs more investment. Ultimately, we ended up taking capital from First Round, BoxGroup, and then a handful of angel investors.
So now you have capital, how do you think about deploying capital to meet your goals?
The biggest thing that we're focused on is growing the team. We are in a great position to find women and men that are aligned with what we are doing and want to be a part of it.
We have two areas of our business that we're focused on. One, the actual testing itself, and making that as easy as possible. The second thing is growing the consumer brand. On the consumer brand side, it's educating women about what we're doing, why we're doing it, and what we offer. Our time is really split between the two.
On the testing side, today you can get tested at a Quest Diagnostics facility around the majority of the country. We are committed to making it as easy as possible so a huge percentage of our efforts have been taking the most validated technology in the space and making that available in a home test. A huge part of our research and development has been spent on that home test, which will be coming out later this year.
If you could go back and give yourself sage advice when you were starting out Modern Fertility, what advice would you give?
We joined Y Combinator pretty early on in the lifecycle of the company. Y Combinator was this amazing forcing function to work harder than you've ever worked in your life. We had to do lists that we would rank, prioritize, and complete every single day. The biggest lessons from that were to set your goals and get it done. Do things that scale, validate the things that you need to validate, and do it quickly. It was a great three month period of working really hard, and culminated in a demo day where we pitched on stage in front of thousands of the top investors.
Can you talk a little bit about how you balance the relationship with your co-founder (Carly Leahy), especially what you did in the early days?
In the early days, we had this thing called “Mind Meld” (#MM). We wanted to be interchangeable. If a fire came up, I needed Carly to take over everything else that I was doing. It was a really helpful tactic. We were also in a room together, in my apartment, for seven days a week for that entire period.
I had experience on the product, business model, science, finance, ops and healthcare side. I really knew that especially in a category where we are going direct to consumer, and women had to pay money out of pocket for our test, we had to invest in making this product something that women wanted, and wanted to engage with. When I met Carly, I realized she had spent her whole career building brands with a huge focus on the content side, so it clicked.
Balancing our skill sets and having an easy division of labor has been helpful.
As you think about taking new rounds of capital, what have you learned about the investor / founder relationship? How has it helped shape the work you are doing at Modern Fertility?
It was really helpful that we brought on investors that understood what we were building, why we were building it, and the impact that we wanted to make.
For both Carly and myself, when we started this, we were really focused on a business model that was totally aligned with women. We spent a lot of time with investors that we were considering, understanding their thought process, and how they were thinking about our business. Making sure that we were aligned. Understanding how they worked with other entrepreneurs. We did a ton of reference checks, on every investor and talked to other founders that they had invested in to learn more about the relationship - both good and bad. There were a lot of things that went into our decisions, but I am thrilled with how things turned out.
What is your vision for Modern Fertility? Where do you hope to see the team go in the future?
We see a world where every woman has the information she needs to make decisions about her fertility. For us today, that starts with routine testing. It is step one, but it is a big hill to climb. We are committed to democratizing access to this kind of testing, and giving women the option to have this type of information.
How have you developed your own view of leadership? What does it mean to you to be a good leader?
I've developed my own view of leadership being out in Silicon Valley and having friends who have started companies, as well as through having really candid conversations with them. I do a lot of reading- there is so much amazing content out there. I also leverage my networks, from Y Combinator to First Round. Being able to share different ideas and perspectives, has helped me.
For me, being a good leader boils down to hiring smart people and listening to them, thinking big, and accountability.
That translates into leading by example. I view my job as setting a bold, inspiring vision, and using that to motivate our team to head in the same direction. The last bullet point that is important is focus. There is so much to do, especially at a mission-driven company, but I think it is incredibly important to know what you are going to work on and be able to prioritize the work you are doing, so you can do it very well. Keeping that focus and keeping everyone aligned, especially at our stage, is one of our core responsibilities.
What advice do you give other women who are considering leaving jobs and starting an entrepreneurial journey of their own?
Find great mentors. There are so many women (and men) that are willing to help. Never be afraid to ask for help. Carly and I reached out to a lot of people, asking for favors, or cold emailing asking for advice. And we still do. You go through life just finding those mentors. It is really important to have a support system in your personal life but also in your professional life. I think it really makes a difference.
What is an industry trend you are most excited about?
At home testing, and personalized medicine.
What is one of the favorite / most interesting articles you have read recently?
I spend a lot of my time reading fertility journals.
Who is one female entrepreneur or investor that you would most like to meet and chat with?
Sheryl Sandberg. I think what she has done for women in business, and how she operates is really inspirational. I think I can learn a lot from her.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
The worst advice that I’ve gotten is to take your career slowly, and that progress will happen if you wait for it. Trust that it will work out. That has probably been the worst advice, because I really think that making an impact and moving forward is really all up to you.
Want to learn more about Afton and Modern Fertility? Check out their site here!