Elina Berglund Scherwitzl, co-founder of Natural Cycles, invented the first app in the world that has just been approved as a contraceptive. And it all started as a hobby project for the nuclear physicist!
Scherwitzl worked with the team that discovered the Higgs boson which, according to Wikipedia, is 'The Higgs boson is an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics. It is the quantum excitation of the Higgs field, a fundamental field of crucial importance to particle physics theory, first suspected to exist in the 1960s'. So she's super smart!
Tired of using hormonal contraception (which most of us are), Scherwitzl wasn't ready to have a baby and needed an alternative. So she went about using her data skills to find a different option.
"Like many women, I had tried many different contraception options since my teenage years and hadn't really found a solution that fit me," she said.
"It was in my quest for an effective natural alternative that I discovered you can see when you're fertile by your temperature, and for me, that was really a revelation."
Using data analysis and complex mathematics, Scherwitzl began to develop an algorithm designed to be so precise that it could pinpoint exactly when she was ovulating in her cycle. This allowed her to plan out the days she would need to use protection to a much higher degree of certainty than similar "rhythm" or natural methods.
Scherwitzl was so pleased with the results of her project that she joined up with her Austrian husband, physicist Raoul Scherwitzl, and set about founding her own business called Natural Cycles.
The business would offer an app that could help women around the world with their fertility, as well a contraception needs, by allowing them to collect their own temperature data sets and monitor their cycle patterns closely.
Launched in 2014, the app now has about 300,000 users who pay a monthly or annual fee for the service. In the UK, a yearly deal costs 50 pounds, which includes a thermometer.
Natural Cycles has attracted $8m in investment and has made sales of more than $6million so far.
However, if not for the timing of another large scientific discovery, the project may not have started so quickly.
Mrs Scherwitzl, who was raised in Malmo in southern Sweden, had been working at Cern, the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research. In 2012, after decades of research, the team she was on finally found the Higgs boson particle – a discovery that is crucial to our understanding of how the universe works.
"A lot is about coincidence and also timing. We had just got married. The experiment was shutting down for a couple of years and I was thinking, 'If I would ever try something outside of physics, now would be the time'."
"My husband had always wanted to become an entrepreneur, so he suggested, 'Okay let's leave physics and make the algorithm into an app'."
After several medical trials, their app became the first technology-based device in the world to be formally certified for use as contraception in February 2017. It gained approval for use across the EU after getting the go-ahead from the German inspection and certification organisation Tuv Sud.
The journey from launch to European certification was a "rollercoaster", according to Scherwitzl. An initial approval from the Swedish Medicinal Products Agency was revoked in 2015, amid headlines about the app encouraging risky behaviour among young women in her home country, where the couple had returned to develop their business.
The company was banned from marketing the app for 18 months, which results in "a big bump in the road" for the growth of the firm.
"Since I came from the scientific angle I thought that if I just create a product that's really good, it will sell itself and everyone would trust it. I realise that that's not all the case," she admits.
"But it was maybe good that I was so naive, because if I would have known all the challenges ahead, maybe I wouldn't have dared to do it."
Now, the start-up markets itself as being "as effective as the pill", following one of the largest clinical studies in contraception involving more than 4,000 women. The study was published in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care.
Including the co-founding couple, the researchers found that 7% of women who used the app in a "typical" way (allowing some human error) got pregnant, compared to the 9% taking the pill and less that 1% using IUD coils.
With that in mind, Scherwitzl accepts that her product relies on women closley following the app's instructions and therefore mau not be for everyone – especially becayse it also fails to protect users from sexually transmitted diseases.
"Just like the pill, we need some effort from the user on a daily basis. But we really hope to be the default alternative if you don't want to use hormonal contraception or IUDs," she argues.
While the product is only certified in the EU, where users are concentrated in the UK or Nordics, it is available worldwide and, despite its earlier contraversies, has attracted users in over 160 countries!
Scherwitzl says that global sales have already shot up since its EU certification was confirmed in February this year, and the firm has already double last year's turnover of $2m.
As well as expanding its subscription base of women seeking to avoid getting pregnant, the company is also trying to attract customers who would like to use the app from a family planning perspective – allowing them to work out when is the best time to conceive.
Continuing to build the company, as well as caring for a young child, has not been easy for the couple, according to Scherwitzl. On the bright side, however, it has guaranteed that the couple spends lots of time together.
"It's our passion and our hobby. At night we come home and have a glass of wine, we talk about our goals and become a bit more visionary that we have time to do during the work day."
The couple's vision involves raising awareness of how technology can be used to tackle issues linked to the health of women, something which she says has been "largely ignored because researchers are often men."
The couple also hopes to increase the number of app's users in developing countries and nations where religion is a barrier to contraception.
"We've come even further than I first hoped, and that's an amazing feeling. But I feel like we should not stop here," she says.
"Now is really the time to grow and reach all these women in the world... Every pregnancy should bring happiness."