From the get-go with this crazy idea, back in 2014, after she’d given birth to an 11-pound baby, Allison Conti argued with herself and God. “I told myself, ‘This is crazy. Really, I think I’m an inventor? I’m going to have to tell everybody I’m the urine leakage lady?”
She was facing what seemed an almost insurmountable task, raising millions of dollars as a single mom living in Oklahoma City, pitching a silicone vaginal insert to help women with incontinence to rooms full of male investors. But seven years later, she expects to launch YoniFit in 2021, having recruited investors from a cadre of good ole boys in Texas to an NYU doctor, won patents in 14 countries, conducted clinical trials and negotiated with the FDA.
When she started, Conti didn’t have a health degree or background. All she had was her own experience with a problem that makes one in three women in a market expected to grow to $26 billion more or less miserable.
“I have the solution,” she says. “It was working for me. I thought back to when I couldn’t go to book club because my friend’s couch was white. It’s that personal piece of it that has kept me driven.”
Conti’s story is remarkable, both because it is so unlikely and because she shared it with such candor. Inventors face huge fundraising challenges. Money flows on the path of least resistance, to software-based startups that are cheaper and don’t face regulatory hurdles. Investors in New York and Silicon Valley like to invest in companies they can uber or bike to. And, women are 60% less likely than men to be funded for exactly the same business idea, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Conti would have to talk to male investors about urinary incontinence. Sometimes, they were openly hostile.
“Several times, I would get comments: ‘Why don’t you put a vibrator on it,’ or ‘Why don’t you go into the sex toy industry?’ One investor asked her for 5% of the company – in exchange for nothing, except introductions. “He was real snakey,” she says, with a Texas drawl.
Working From Oklahoma City
After she experienced incontinence herself, as a 34-year-old mother, she tried pelvic floor exercises, which didn’t work. She considered surgery. Then she realized: when she had a tampon in, the problem got better.
“I was asked to relocate to Silicon Valley for an incubator program and have received several invites in both Boston and NYC as well,” she says by email. “But I have little kids and they have roots here, including their Dad and close friends. I just can’t move them like that at this time and the cost of living in all of those places just does not compare to Oklahoma.”
How has she been able to make it as far as she has?
“She wants to win. That’s simple,” says Erika Lucas, the founder of Oklahoma City accelerator Stitch Crew. “I can tell you all the right things to say, passion, wanting to help others with their continence problems — and while all true, I think as women our ambition and desire to win is underrated, or worse, it carries a negative connotation. I say screw that.”
The Granddaughter Of Gibson’s Founder
Conti was reared near Amarillo, Texas, the daughter and granddaughter of entrepreneurs. Her grandfather owned 28 Gibson’s Discount Center stores (Betty White was once the spokeswoman). Wal-Mart put them out of business, but Conti’s grandfather owned the real estate and had other companies. Her father owns a trucking company and has ventured into oil and gas development. Both of her brothers are business owners, too.
“My grandpa didn’t have a degree,” she says. “But we kind of saw just the hard work. He knew that he was responsible for his future. That’s the core of where the rest of us developed this sense of taking control of our own lives.”
Conti owned an HVAC company and a small ad agency. But then, in 2014, she had her second baby. Stuck at home, having a hard time working out, she slipped into depression. She tried pelvic floor rehabilitation and looked into surgery. “Or I could just wear giant pads,” she thought to herself.
Winning Over The Good Ol Boys
That wasn’t what she, or any other woman wanted, she thought. After she spent her savings to build the prototype, her mother invested. Then her brother started to help, too, networking among his community in Texas to raise enough to do a feasibility study. “My brother broached this subject with the good old boys,” Conti says. “They really believed in me.”
John Marmaduke, the former CEO of a retail chain called Hastings Entertainment, invested. His wife had had a stroke, and tried the product. “Amarillo Texas is a pretty small town,” says Conti. “We just started reaching out to the people we knew how had money. But (over the years) there were literally thousands of ‘no’s. Not hundreds, thousands.
“My brother didn’t even tell me some of them. Because it crushes you, every time.”
The Low Point
Eventually, Conti had enough to conduct feasibility study at the University of Oklahoma. That’s when she got the bad news: The FDA would require clinical trials. “I knew I was going to have to raise a couple million,” she says. “I knew how hard it had been to raise $250,000. I had to go raise 10 times that.”
She thinks she made every mistake in the book. “I think I even said, ‘I’m nervous. This is my first time doing this.’” She quit wearing dangly earrings, in case they made her too feminine. She got offers, but the investors wanted too much control. “It was like they were patting me on the head and saying, that’s cute. Who’s going to run your company?”
But they did give her a clue: If she had doctors as investors, financiers would look at her more seriously. So she went back to Oklahoma City and persuaded doctors to invest. Eventually, she raised a total of $3.5 million, including $500,000 from one institutional investor, Oklahoma-based Victorum Capital. She issued restricted stock along the way, to pay her four employees and recruit Dr. Benjamin Brucker, the NYU gynecologist, as an investor.
She expects the YoniFit to hit the market in the first quarter of 2021, to be distributed online through LeakyLady.com. The pandemic slowed the clinical trials, which need to show results in 100 women; Conti will also need to conduct a labeling comprehension study. Conti launched some other products to keep the company going in the meantime, including a yeast infection treatment that she is in discussions to white label to a national distributor.
YoniFit will probably be sold on a subscription basis for less than $30 a month, she says, after people fit themselves with a separate kit bought online for $60. Made of medical-grade silicon, the product sits inside the vagina and puts pressure on the neck of the bladder, reducing leakage, she says. YoniFit is in the final phase of clinical trials at NYU’s medical school.
She’s trademarked a logo: Public Cervix Announcement, to help women realize they’re not alone. Some women can wear the device all the time; others, for exercise or when they’re going out.
“Studies say that women wait seven years before even going to a doctor,” Conti says. “That’s why I want women to be able to buy it discreetly online. Most of us have kids, husbands, jobs.”
“And we think, we’ll, ‘We’re not dying.’”
Subscribe to Times of E’s weekly news briefs for coverage of founders and innovation beyond Silicon Valley: www.timesofe.com/introduction.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.