By Hailey Eisen
The story behind HyIvy Health — a Hamilton-based women’s health start-up — began with a personal medical crisis. After years of pelvic health issues, Rachel Bartholomew faced her ultimate challenge in 2019 when, at 28, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Rachel’s surgery was followed by radiation therapy and a lot of time spent on bed rest.
“I couldn’t do much, but my brain was on fire,” Rachel recalls. “I’m an innovator — problems are my thing and I feel an obligation to solve them.”
The problems Rachel was facing were the after-care following her treatment, the pelvic pain she was experiencing, and the life-altering health implications of surgery and treatment. “Part of my healing journey was connecting with other women going through similar things,” Rachel says. In private Facebook groups, Rachel found more than 50,000 women — many experiencing similar struggles.
“These groups were my lifeline,” Rachel explains, and the frustration, pain, and feelings of not being heard were unanimous. This shared experience was what sparked Rachel’s entrepreneurial drive.
But this wouldn’t be Rachel’s first foray into entrepreneurship. At 28, she was already a bit of a veteran in the start-up world. Since graduating with a Master’s in Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology from the University of Waterloo in 2014, Rachel had successfully launched and sold a software as a service (SaaS) a-commerce platform that used 3D and augmented reality to help car enthusiasts visualize modifications to their vehicles. She had also taught entrepreneurship at the University of Waterloo, and started Launch Pad, a campus-linked incubator out of Laurier University.
Post-cancer surgery, Rachel says she was lying in bed with her computer, her brain working at full capacity. “In a way, having something to focus on through this time was a great distraction for me — it took me away from my suffering and pain.”
Leveraging extensive research and her own personal experiences, Rachel put together a rough plan for a pelvic rehabilitation device (a dilator) to help alleviate pelvic health symptoms. The product she had in mind would work more intuitively than the current product on the market, which had been invented by a man in 1938 and had not been updated since. “I had this beautiful opportunity to be around doctors every day during radiation treatment,” Rachel recalls, “so as they were treating me, I found the chance to pitch my idea to them.”
“My biggest motivator right now is data. Providing therapy and helping women is great, but where I really want to help is in preventing women from having issues in the first place, and that’s where data comes in.”
Word of Rachel’s plans got back to her Oncologist, who requested a meeting with her to discuss it. “I got great validation from a medical perspective on the actual product, and realized that it wasn’t just a patient problem, the medical system recognized that this was a problem that needed to be solved as well.”
Around the same time, Rachel pitched her idea to a friend who had a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. “We got together and ended up sitting for seven-and-a-half hours designing exactly what this product would look like and how it would function,” Rachel recalls. This friend, Kamyar Rouindej, is now HyIvy Health’s CTO and Rachel’s business partner. “While he had no intention in getting into the women’s health field, we make a great team and he’s now just as passionate as I am about this product and the field we’re working in.”
Rachel realized there was an opportunity to take this product a step further, developing something that could collect data and help better understand the patient experience. “Our connected, smart device is able to collect real-time information through biosensors, and is also connected to an app where patients can answer questions about their pain and mental health,” she explains.
Currently in the preliminary user testing phase and in the pipeline to get FDA approval, HyIvy Health is also in the process of raising capital. In August 2020 they were chosen to be part of the second Tech Undivided cohort, a program run by York Region incubator, ventureLAB. With a focus on women-led tech companies with breakthrough products, Tech Undivided provides access to a strategic mentorship network and investors, among other things.
“We were paired up with a great mentor which has been a lifeline for me,” Rachel says. “I came at this from the patient perspective, not with a medical background, and having someone who has experience in the medical field to guide me through big decisions like understanding the market, process, and sales side of things — has been invaluable.”
After Tech Undivided, Rachel applied to ventureLAB’s Hardware Catalyst Initiative (HCI), Canada’s first lab and incubator for founders building hardware and semiconductor focused products. “I’m really excited to be part of this program and I know it will help us get ready for manufacturing and the hardware side of things,” Rachel says. HCI was designed to enable tech companies to accelerate their time to market in a sector that normally incurs lengthy entry and scale times.
HyIvy Health is just at the beginning of what Rachel expects to be an exciting journey. They incorporated at the height of the pandemic last year, and went from a team of two to 34 people working on the product, getting patents, applying for funding, and more. “My biggest motivator right now is data,” Rachel says. “Providing therapy and helping women is great, but where I really want to help is in preventing women from having issues in the first place, and that’s where data comes in.”
While Rachel says there’s obvious stigma around women’s health and vaginal health especially, she’s been delighted by how willing and open doctors have been to work with her. “Some investors have been obviously uncomfortable talking with me about this product,” Rachel says. “But I tell them ‘don’t worry, we don’t know either;’ even people with vaginas don’t know anything about them.”
With any luck, HyIvy Health will have an impact on that. “Getting sick a lot helped me learn to advocate for myself and to not take no for an answer,” Rachel says. These skills also come in handy in the start-up world. “It’s not easy being a woman in business and tech; there’s so much more we have to prove. But while it’s easy to roll over and be passive, we have to hold our ground, grow a thick skin, and learn to play the game.”