How egg freez­ing be­came a hot com­mod­ity on Wall Street

In­vestors cir­cle as more women are will­ing to pay to post­pone moth­er­hood

The Guardian Weekly - - Finance - Jes­sica Glenza New York

About two dozen women ate cheese and canapés in a swanky Mid­town Man­hat­tan build­ing in De­cem­ber. It could have been mis­taken for a net­work­ing event if it weren’t for the women’s sin­gu­lar fo­cus – egg freez­ing.

For­mally called “oocyte cry­op­reser­va­tion”, egg freez­ing has boomed over the last decade. Since 2009, there has been an 11-fold in­crease in the num­ber of women who choose to “bank” their eggs. Dur­ing that time, the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Re­pro­duc­tive Medicine of­fi­cially re­moved its “experimental” des­ig­na­tion.

“It’s a con­ver­sa­tion more women need to talk about, just like mis­car­riages and pe­ri­ods,” said Florence Ng, 35, a real es­tate bro­ker in New York City who froze her eggs this year. “Th­ese are re­ally im­por­tant and rel­e­vant today.”

Now, Wall Street is tak­ing no­tice of the fer­til­ity in­dus­try. An­a­lysts see it as one “ripe for a merger and ac­qui­si­tion cy­cle”, ac­cord­ing to one group.

Ex­tend Fer­til­ity, one of the or­gan­is­ers of this event, is one ex­am­ple of the new breed of fer­til­ity clinic. The busi­ness is in part backed by pri­vate eq­uity and Dr Joshua Klein, Ex­tend Fer­til­ity’s youth­ful chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer, owns the med­i­cal prac­tice. What it is sell­ing is a prom­ise: that cap­i­tal­ism and tech­nol­ogy can buy women time.

“I’m con­fi­dent we’re the busiest egg-freez­ing clinic in the US,” said Klein. “I def­i­nitely think this is some­thing that will grow ex­po­nen­tially.” He added he “could eas­ily see 50,000 women per year”, freez­ing eggs. So can Wall Street.

“The US fer­til­ity clinic mar­ket has come of age and is ripe for a merger and ac­qui­si­tion cy­cle,” wrote Cap­stone Part­ners, an in­vest­ment bank­ing firm, in early 2017. “The wave is al­ready be­gin­ning.” It ticked off a raft of pri­vate eq­uity and ven­ture cap­i­tal firms that re­cently pur­chased clin­ics.

“The trend for cou­ples to marry later in life and to de­lay start­ing a fam­ily in pur­suit of pro­fes­sional ca­reers and fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity is also boost­ing de­mand for fer­til­ity ser­vices and ac­cel­er­at­ing in­dus­try growth,” wrote Cap­stone.

The ma­jor­ity of the women at the event re­flected trends Wall Street in- vestors find at­trac­tive: 30-ish, work­ing and un­mar­ried. Many were also clients of the ven­ture cap­i­tal-backed Three Day Rule. The com­pany uses pro­fes­sional match­mak­ers who pitch them­selves as a “per­sonal trainer”, but “for your love life”.

Two dy­nam­ics af­fect a woman’s fer­til­ity, and both are trans­formed with age. They are the quan­tity and qual­ity of her egg sup­ply. Un­like men, who make new sperm through­out life, women are born with all of their eggs. When a woman is in her 20s, the vast ma­jor­ity of those eggs will be nor­mal, with the 23 chro­mo­somes needed to pair with sperm and make a fe­tus.

But as women age into their 30s, those dy­nam­ics shift. Grad­u­ally, she will have fewer eggs as well as a higher pro­por­tion of ab­nor­mal eggs, with 22 or 24 chro­mo­somes. By the time a woman is in her mid-40s, most fer­til­ity doc­tors be­lieve she will have to seek donor eggs to get preg­nant. Egg freez­ing, once re­served for cancer pa­tients, is in­creas­ingly sold as the so­lu­tion to this problem.

More than 99% of the na­tion’s fer­til­ity clin­ics now of­fer the pro­ce­dure. Women are en­cour­aged to freeze their eggs as young as pos­si­ble – in their 20s prefer­ably – to en­sure the largest num­ber are vi­able.

But with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing cost of about $11,000, that creates a para­dox. Most women in their 20s can­not af­ford such an ex­pen­sive elec­tive pro­ce­dure. Women in their mid-30s, more able to bear the cost, are likely to have fewer vi­able eggs. And this group of women, 35 and older, rep­re­sent the vast ma­jor­ity of fer­til­ity clin­ics’ egg-freez­ing cus­tomers. Of the 6,200 who froze eggs in 2016, 4,500 were older than 35, and 2,500 were older than 38.

The Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Re­pro­duc­tive Medicine seemed to an­tic­i­pate this para­dox. “Tech­nolo­gies such as oocyte cry­op­reser­va­tion may al­low women to have chil­dren later in life,” said ASRM in its 2012 guide­lines. “In par­tic­u­lar, there is con­cern re­gard­ing the suc­cess rate of women in late re­pro­duc­tive years, who may be the most in­ter­ested in this ap­pli­ca­tion.”

Even though there is no guar­an­tee of a suc­cess­ful preg­nancy, many pa­tients, such as Ng, see egg freez­ing as an “in­sur­ance pol­icy”. “I was work­ing a lot. My hours are long. It’s very stress­ful and I just didn’t re­ally have time to date at all,” said Ng. “I knew I had wanted the op­tion to have kids one day … Egg freez­ing al­lows you to buy more time and fo­cus on your ca­reer.”

‘The US fer­til­ity clinic mar­ket is ripe for a merger and ac­qui­si­tion cy­cle’

/Washington Post/Getty

Tak­ing it to the ‘bank’ … an egg-freez­ing party in Bev­erly Hills, Cal­i­for­nia Patrick T Fal­lon

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