YourChoice Therapeutics is developing unisex, non-hormonal birth control

The options available to women who want to avoid getting pregnant today are bad. Most, like the widely used birth control pill, feed man-made estrogen and progestin hormones to women, which are capable of causing a number of awful side effects.

YourChoice Therapeutics — a startup launched by a team of Berkeley researchers, including two experts in sperm physiology and sperm-egg interactions — dreams of producing a unisex, non-hormonal alternative to existing contraceptives. The company has raised $400,000 in funding to date, plus a $150,000 check from Y Combinator. YourChoice will make its big pitch at Y Combinator Demo Days next week.

It’s seeking $2 million in venture capital funding to continue research on its sperm cell-targeting novel method of contraception, as well as to build out its team of chemists. Founders Akash Bakshi and Nadja Mannowetz tell TechCrunch they plan to have a contraceptive ready to market by 2025. Together, with co-founder and advisor Dr. Polina V. Lishko of Berkeley’s department of cell and molecular biology, they hope to reach women and men all over the world, in the process tapping a market expected to be worth $37 billion by 2023.

“There are perhaps ways that we could cut that time in half or just get something to market,” said Bakshi, YourChoice’s chief executive officer, whose background is in technology commercialization, research and development within the life sciences industry. “But we need to do this right so that we can benefit as many women as possible.”

Their first product will be a vaginal contraceptive to be applied before intercourse, then, the startup plans to release oral contraceptives for both genders. The team has discovered that the natural compound lupeol is capable of blocking a protein on sperm that is required for fertilization. YourChoice‘s non-hormonal approach doesn’t impact a cells’ ability to function or gene expression, so women and men are not at an increased risk of blood clots, cancer or other side effects associated with mainstream birth control methods’ use of added hormones.

“The bottom line is men don’t have good options and women apparently have so many choices, yet they are all really bad,” Mannowetz, a Ph.D. in sperm physiology, told TechCrunch. “They’re all based on that over 60-year-old idea of hormone-based drugs.”

YourChoice’s planned debut product will be applied directly in the vagina during the period of the month in which the woman is fertile. Whether that be a tablet, a gel or some other form factor is still up in the air. YourChoice’s second product will be an oral contraceptive because they believe that is the most convenient, universally accepted method.

“For women who have an implant … I understand that this might be a step backward, but women who have been on the pill for decades, for them, it wouldn’t be a big change,” Mannowetz said. “We totally understand we will not serve every woman out there but we need to get started with a product and then take it from there.”

“If the last 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that delivery is something that can continue to be developed,” she continued. “We need to develop a new mode of action.”

There are a number of startups innovating in the contraception space, as TechCrunch has written, though most of those businesses are focused on the access problem. Birth control can be very difficult for many to access and startups like The Pill Club or Nurx solve that problem by delivering the pill directly to women’s doorsteps. Other early-stage companies in the space lack experts in the field of reproductive biology necessary to improve contraceptive options. YourChoice’s team says seeking change to the actual medication with an advanced team sets them apart from other upstarts.

For YourChoice, it helps that venture capital investment in the reproductive tech space is increasing, making this a great time for YC to support these businesses (YourChoice isn’t the only reproductive tech startup in the latest YC cohort) and for YourChoice to successfully nab private investment.

“I personally think the industry is satisfied; they are making really good money, right? So why should they change anything,” Mannowetz said. “Millennials are the starting point of change happening. I think now, women stand up and say, ‘we are sick of it.’ ”

Firework officially launches a short-form video storytelling app, backed by Lightspeed

Facebook usage has declined for the first time in a decade, while video-centric apps like TikTok are being touted as the future of social media. Entering this redefined playing field comes Firework, a fast-growing social video app whose clever trick is something it calls “reveal videos” — a way for creators to take both horizontal and vertical video in one shot from their mobile device. Video viewers can then twist their phone as the video plays to watch from a new perspective and see more of the scene.

While Snapchat pioneered the idea of vertical video, newer companies are trying to free viewers from format constraints.

For example, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile streaming service Quibi is pitching its ability to offer an ideal viewing experience no matter how you hold your phone. As Quibi CEO Meg Whitman explained last week in an interview at SXSW, the company has “created the ability to do full-screen video seamlessly from landscape to portrait,” she said.

That sounds a lot like Firework, in fact.

Firework has filed a patent on its own flip-the-screen viewing technology, which it believes will give creators new ways to tell stories. Besides letting viewers in on more of the action, “reveal videos” also provide an opportunity for things like unexpected plot twists or surprise endings.

The way this works is that creators hold their smartphone horizontally to film, and Firework places a vertical viewfinder on the screen so they know which part of their shot will appear to viewers when they hold their phone straight up and down.

This recording screen has some similarities to TikTok, as you can stop and start recording, reshoot the various parts and add music.

“Snapchat really pushed being vertical only,” explains Firework Chief Revenue Officer Cory Grenier, who joined the company from Snapchat, where he was the first director of Sales & Marketing.

“What we see is that most professional filmmakers want to show their work on Vimeo first, and second on YouTube. There isn’t this world where you can really frame the context and the characters of a cinematic story on vertical — it just can’t happen,” he says.

Beyond the technology involved with Firework’s new filming technique, the company is also aiming to carve out a space that will differentiate it from other short-form video — whether that’s TikTok or, soon, Quibi.

Firework’s videos are longer than TikTok’s at 30 seconds instead of just 15, but far shorter than Quibi’s eight minutes.

“Thirty seconds is really the sweet spot between the Snaps that are 10 seconds and something that’s longer-form,” notes Grenier. “Ten seconds is too short to really tell a story. You want to have a powerful opening, a clear middle and a really interesting or unexpected ending,” he says.

This format lends itself better to short stories, rather than the remixed, music-backed memes found on TikTok, the company believes. But it also remains user-gen, as opposed to the high production value “TV quality” content shot for Quibi using two cameras. (And a lot more money).

Instead, Firework is focused on what it calls “premium user-gen” — meaning it will feature a mix of professional creators and up-and-comers. To date, Firework has worked with names like Flo Rida, Dexter Darden (“Maze Runner”), model and Miss USA Olivia Jordan, Disney star Jordyn Jones, Frankie Grande and others.

It’s also working with a handful of brands, including Refinery29 and Complex Networks. But the company doesn’t want to inundate the app with content from brands, it says.

In addition to the horizontal-to-vertical trick, Firework is also doing something different in terms of fan engagement: it’s ditching comments. Users can only privately message a video’s creator — they can’t comment on the video itself.

“Haters and trolls, they want an audience — they want to elicit a polarizing reaction. We remove that,” says Grenier.

And instead of “liking” a video, users can only bookmark the video or share it — an engagement that is styled like a retweet, as the video is posted to your profile with all the original credit intact.

Founded less than two years in Mountain View and now relocated to Redwood City with teams in LA, Japan and Brazil, Firework parent Loop Now tested a couple of apps that didn’t find product market fit before launching Firework.

Its team of 51 full-time today combines both tech talent and Hollywood expertise.

This includes: CEO Vincent Yang, a Stanford MBA and previously co-founder and CEO at EverString; co-founder and COO Jerry Luk, employee No. 30 at LinkedIn and previously at Edmodo; biz dev head Bryan Barber, formerly of Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures and Fox; and CRO Corey Grenier, noted above.

Unlike Quibi, Firework’s parent company Loop Now Technologies has raised “millions” — not a billion dollars — to get off the ground. Its early backers include original Snap investor Lightspeed, IDG Capital and an (undisclosed) early investor in Musical.ly. (Firework is poised to announce its Series A in a few weeks, so is holding off on investment details for now.)

The app launched last year and has been in an open beta until now.

According to data from Sensor Tower, it has 1.8 million installs on iOS, 55 percent in the U.S.

Firework claims it has 2 million registered users across iOS and Android.