There are fewer than 500 fertility clinics in the United States. Millions of American women either don’t have access to fertility treatment or can’t afford it.
Giuliana Zaccardelli wants to change that.
“By the time many women make their way to a fertility clinic, it can be months or years after they’ve started trying,” says Zaccardelli, a 2022 graduate of Northwestern University’s MD-MBA program. “Even then, it’s not a straightforward process.”
IN B-SCHOOL, INSPIRED BY THE POTENTIAL TO HELP WOMEN
Northwestern’s MD-MBA is a joint program between the Kellogg School of Management and the Feinberg School of Medicine. Through it, Zaccardelli interned at Northwestern University’s outpatient fertility clinic and gained firsthand insight into women’s fertility challenges.
“Building a family is something that a lot of people dream of, but they don’t usually assume that it’s not going to go well,” Zaccardelli tells Poets&Quants. “When that happens, it puts people in a medical situation, as well as a personal and emotional situation. While I was going through medical school, I saw a lot of the challenges in healthcare and I started becoming interested in helping to solve those.”
When she started the MBA portion of her MD-MBA degree, Zaccardelli was inspired by how business could help make women’s fertility journeys smoother and more supportive. When she met Blair Matthews — a Northwestern law student — in their NUvention Medical Innovation class, the idea for Zuri Fertility was born.
HELPING WOMEN NAVIGATE THE FERTILITY JOURNEY
In this class, students were put into teams composed of business students, medical students, law students, and engineering students to identify different areas in healthcare in which they could solve a problem. “Blair told my team about the challenges that he and his wife faced when they were trying to get pregnant, which resonated with me,” she says.
Soon, the team developed a subscription-based digital health app — Zuri Fertility — that incorporates Telehealth and earlier testing. Through the app, couples are set up with a concierge to help them navigate the fertility process and get access to a host of mental health, financial, and dietary resources as they go through fertility treatment.
“We support couples at every phase of their fertility journey, and in a more comprehensive way than just medical care,” she says. “The goal is to help couples navigate the fertility process in a more streamlined way so that couples can have better outcomes, get the answers they need more quickly, and have a less stressful journey.
TURNING DOWN A MEDICAL RESIDENCY TO BECOME A CEO
At the end of the class, their professors and advisors were excited by what they built. Zaccardeli and Matthews were equally as passionate about their product — so much so that Zaccardeli turned down her medical residency to become the company’s CEO while Matthews became the COO. Now, the team is built of Matthews, Zaccardelli, and Ankur Jain, who is the chief technical advisor.
“Ankur, a couple of software developers, and a UI/UX person have been helping us build the product,” says Zaccardelli.
“We do a lot of great things in this country with healthcare,” she continues. “But I feel that healthcare in general isn’t great at supporting the whole person. And fertility is an area where supporting the whole person can help the outcome and overall experience.”
‘WE REALLY JUST WANT TO HELP PEOPLE HAVE BABIES’
Zaccardelli and Matthews’ goal is for Zuri Fertility to become a nationally known brand that people can turn to and know that they’ll get support from. “Historically, the fertility market has been smaller, but it’s growing every year and it will continue to grow as our society and culture changes and people wait to have kids,” she says.
“We’re entering this industry at a good time, where there’s lots of opportunity to take advantage of all of those factors and build that brand.”
“We’re not just delivering the diagnosis, medication, or treatment. We’re helping couples navigate the whole process,” she adds. “We really just want to help people have babies and make their fertility experiences better.”
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY’S RESOURCES
Zaccardelli says that many of Kellogg’s resources helped to bring Zuri Fertility to fruition.
During the MD portion of her degree, she was a board member of a club called Second Opinions, which was founded by three former consultants. There, she did pro bono consulting for healthcare nonprofits. Then, during the MBA part of her degree, she was part of the Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship Club.
Classes that taught her key entrepreneurship skills included Critical Thinking in Digital and Social Media Marketing, Launching and Leading Startups, and perhaps most importantly, Introduction to Software Development; in the latter, Zaccardelli learned how to build a web app from the ground up. “We got to learn about the process of software development and the type of questions you can ask,” she says. “You learn the entire process of building an app, how to talk to developers, and what resources it requires as an entrepreneur.
She and Matthews also participated in VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition. Last year they didn’t make it to finals, but this year they placed third, winning over $30k in non-dilutive capital. “One of the judges is a vice president at a VC fund,” says Zaccardelli. “She reached out after the competition, and we’ve developed a mentorship relationship with her. The exposure and resources that VentureCat has provided have really helped us in the last couple of months.”
Aside from the $30k raised from VentureCat, the team raised a small friends and family round to build their minimum viable product. “Once we launch our MVP, we’ll raise a bigger round of funding to scale.”
The plan is to officially launch Zuri Fertility in the next couple of months. “Things are always changing, but as far as I’ve heard from our developer, and if everything continues to go smoothly, hopefully we’ll launch in the next month or so,” she says.
‘THERE’S A RICH COMMUNITY OF PEOPLE HERE WHO WANT TO HELP YOU’
As Zaccardelli steps into the ring of entrepreneurship, she says the biggest learning curve has been learning how to prioritize her time and not get bogged down with a million tasks. “Your day is never the same, nor is it ever what you expected it was going to be,” she laughs.
Her advice to Northwestern’s MD-MBA – and MBA students — is to take advantage of all of the university’s resources while in school in order to be set up for success upon graduation. “There’s a rich community of people here who want to help you,” she says.