One summer, when she was 15, Dr. Sophia Yen volunteered at a Planned Parenthood in Silicon Valley, helping to administer pregnancy tests. She vividly remembers a girl two years younger whose test came back positive.
“I realized how different our lives were going to be,” Yen recalled, thinking of the 13-year-old who decided to keep the baby. “If we had caught her before and given her comprehensive sex ed or birth control,” the outcome likely would have changed, she added.
That experience set Yen, 50, down a path to become a doctor specializing in adolescent medicine and a fierce advocate for reproductive rights. Today, she is the CEO and co-founder of Pandia Health, the only women- and doctor-led online birth control delivery startup that has raised a whopping $4.3 million to date.
Pandia’s team of 12 physicians prescribe and deliver up to a year’s supply of birth control. If customers don’t have insurance, a month’s pack of the pill will run them about $15, and there is a $20 annual fee for unlimited doctor’s appointments — including calls and texting.
“We’re one of the first companies to focus purely on birth control, and specifically on young women,” Yen said. “The No. 1 reason women don’t take their birth control is because they don’t have time to run out to the pharmacy every single month, and we can easily solve this by mailing it to them, automating it [and] making it mobile.”
With each package, Yen’s team also includes Hi-Chews, chocolate, condoms and freebies from other women-founded companies. She is allowed to prescribe in 14 states, encouraging what she calls “birth control tourism.”
“If you happen to be in New York or going to Las Vegas for a bachelorette party, as long as you’re physically in a state that we legally are allowed to service, you fill out a questionnaire, pay us $20, and then our physician can write the prescription and we can deliver it to all 50 states,” Yen said. “One of our mantras is, ‘No one runs out of birth control on our watch.’”
Yen also applies her MIT and Stanford background in studying contraception, and she takes into account her patients’ demographics when prescribing the Pill so women can experience fewer side effects, and skip their periods if they want to.
“I am anti-period, but I believe in choice,” said Yen, a mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 15. “The benefits (of fewer periods) are less ovarian, endometrial and colorectal cancer; less landfill; and better school, work and sport performance.”
While it was difficult to raise funding when she started her company 8 years ago — “I wondered if I had sent my husband out there, Asian-American dude, MIT and Apple background, it would have been easier,” Yen said, laughing — investors have taken notice of Yen’s message. She has participated in accelerators and secured funding from Precursor Ventures as well as wunder-investor Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital.
Covid brought a significant uptick in customers, and while Yen declined to share how many patients Pandia Health currently serves, she said she is hoping for 100,000 in the next 2 years.
While the demand is there, and influential investors are on board with a birth control startup, an increasingly polarized, vocal swath of the country is working aggressively to dismantle reproductive rights.
“I am horrified that we let the Supreme Court get so imbalanced,” Yen said. “It’s pretty much a sure thing that Roe v. Wade will be overturned.”
She worries that further restrictions will prevent her from being able to operate in certain states or impact her funding. A streak of hyper-conservative politicians in states like Texas, where she is currently able to prescribe the Pill, is working to define birth control as another form of abortion — in which case Yen would be breaking the law.
And losing her license to prescribe medication in one state could lead to roadblocks even in more liberal states, she added.
“If I lost my license in Texas because I was providing birth control, which some judge in Texas defined as abortion, then I’ll lose my license in California and New York, and my whole company would just die,” she said.
In the meantime, she is charging ahead with big plans, which include treating acne and menopause. She also wants to expand her own brand of pharmacy so she doesn’t have to share a cut of the profits with existing pharmacies.
“I’m going to turn my professor brain onto menopause and find the best possible treatment and we will offer that to our patients,” she said.
In spite of the nefarious efforts to curtail women’s access to reliable care, Yen is confident that she and her team are filling a gap and providing a crucial service. ‘We are building the online health brand women trust,” she said.