Walgreen and CVS Caremark, the biggest U.S. drugstore chains, hope to generate sales by answering a question few men want to ask: Are they firing blanks? Next month, Walgreen’s 7,800 U.S. stores plan to start selling a fertility test that determines if a man is producing enough sperm to get a woman pregnant. Walgreen and CVS have already started selling the at-home test, SpermCheck Fertility, online.
The blue-and-gold box, which features a smiling couple holding a newborn, will join more than two dozen varieties of female fertility tests in Walgreen stores. SpermCheck’s owner and distributor, closely held ContraVac, is banking on women dropping an extra $40 for the test when they buy ovulation and pregnancy kits for themselves. “In our society, the woman carries the burden of trying to determine the issues surrounding infertility,” says Ray Lopez, ContraVac’s chief executive officer. “Men don’t say, ‘Let me go to the urologist and give a semen sample.’ ”
Every year, about 7.3 million women in the U.S. have trouble getting pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many women, assuming they are to blame, visit gynecologists. Few husbands want to consider that they’re possibly at fault, according to Barbara Collura, executive director of Resolve: the National Infertility Association.
A private-equity investor in Greensboro, N.C., Lopez joined ContraVac as a director in 2004 when he and other investors took a stake in the biotech startup. The majority owner is John Herr, the test’s inventor and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Research in Contraceptive & Reproductive Health. SpermCheck received Food and Drug Administration approval in 2010, almost 30 years after Herr and university colleagues started the research. (Male fertility tests, mostly performed at doctor’s offices, are a potential $440 million-a-year market in the U.S., Lopez says.)
The SpermCheck test requires the man to combine his semen with a solution in a bottle, then place drops of the mixture on a test strip. A reddish line indicates the sperm count is normal—20 million or more per milliliter of semen—while a negative result shows no color. Any reading below normal means men “should consult a physician about a complete fertility evaluation,” according to the test’s instructions.
“There is nothing like it on the shelf,” says Maeve Egner, president of Fusion Marketing, hired by Lopez to help promote SpermCheck. “It’s plugging a gap.” SpermCheck, though, may not become a blockbuster, says Gene Detroyer, a consultant to startups and an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at the European School of Economics’ New York campus. “Unlike pregnancy and ovulation tests that women try once a month, men may use it once,” Detroyer says.
That’s if they bother to test themselves at all. “Men have a greater tendency to believe in their invincibility,” Herr says. “When it comes to reproduction, they are more concerned about the delivery vehicle than they are about what’s delivered.”