Four years ago, Lora Ivanova was catching up with her friend Ursula Hessenflow at a Los Angeles cafe. Both women were single at the time, and the conversation quickly turned to dating in L.A. One of the biggest frustrations, the two agreed, was talking about safe sex with someone you’re just getting to know. How do you get past the awkwardness of asking a new partner whether they’ve been tested?
“And if you’re not getting tested, there’s no way to make the conversation easier,” Ivanova, 39, says with a slight Bulgarian accent. She and Hessenflow realized that a huge barrier to getting screened for sexually transmitted diseases is the stigma that comes with it. This is especially true for women, many of whom grow up believing that having multiple sexual partners is shameful. But what if you could test yourself at home? “We figured we were just out of the loop — something like that must already exist,” Ivanova says, her bright yellow earrings bouncing as she talks animatedly about the inception of her company.
Today, myLAB Box, co-founded by Ivanova and Hessenflow, is the only at-home testing service focused on sexual health. Competitors sell kits that screen for myriad other health conditions in addition to STDs, but myLAB Box is the only company that prioritizes sexual wellness. The kit is available through the company’s website or from Target, Walmart and Amazon and arrives in an unmarked package. Kits for the most common STDs, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, HIV or genital herpes, cost $ 79, with combination tests ranging upward in price. You mail in a urine or blood-prick sample or genital swab and receive lab results within one to five days. If you’re positive, an STD counselor will call to discuss your treatment options and can often prescribe medication you can pick up the same day. “We knew right away we wanted a solution that would result in treatment,” says Ivanova, the company’s CEO.
Her next, more difficult, task? Making this all as easy and affordable as a flu shot.
The daughter of two engineer parents, Ivanova spent most of her formative years in Sofia, Bulgaria, playing outside with the neighborhood boys. Her goals took shape early: “I wanted to be two things when I grew up,” she recalls. “An astronaut and … a smoker. I’ll let you guess which one I accomplished,” she laughs — though she quit smoking nearly a year ago.
A full scholarship to National University brought Ivanova to St. Louis, Missouri, for college, where she double majored in theater and business. She found she fit in quite well with Americans. “I really bought into the idea of corporate success,” she says. Upon graduating, she headed to L.A., working at Newegg.com, Mindshare LA and the National Football League. But a few years in, she felt like something was missing. “I always thought I’d be an artist, but I loved the business world too,” Ivanova says. “I was struggling to find how the two could coexist.”
When she fastened on the need for an at-home STD test, she knew she was onto something — not only a successful business idea but the path to a more fulfilling career and creative outlet. “I realized money isn’t the measure of personal worth,” Ivanova says. “What matters is whether I’m doing something to help people.”
The truth of the matter is STIs [sexually transmitted infections] don’t ’pick’ which individuals to infect based on socioeconomic status.
There’s a growing need for her service. From 2013 to 2017, syphilis cases in the U.S. nearly doubled, gonorrhea increased by 67 percent and cases of chlamydia remain at an all-time high, according to the latest report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And still, many Americans avoid getting tested.
MyLAB Box’s initial funding was bootstrapped by Ivanova and Hessenflow, but this year they closed $ 1.5 million in seed funding, allowing them to expand their offerings to include cervical cancer screenings. Of the 79 million Americans currently infected with the HPV virus, some strains will resolve on their own, but others can cause cancer, and early detection is critical.
But treating people faster with at-home testing can be complicated, especially when it comes to HPV. “There are about 30 types of HPV — some cause warts, some lead to the precursor of cervical cancer,” says Dr. Hilary Reno, assistant professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. “If a woman over 30 is positive [for the precursor to cervical cancer], she has to go see a doctor.” What’s more, Reno worries the myLAB Box kits are too pricey for the population with the greatest STD burden. “Groups of lower socioeconomic status certainly can’t afford this test,” she says, though some insurance plans do offer reimbursement for the cost of the kits.
”The truth of the matter is STIs [sexually transmitted infections] don’t ’pick’ which individuals to infect based on socioeconomic status,” says Ivanova. We need to focus on a solution that will be adopted by the masses, she says, starting with “acknowledging STIs are everyone’s problem.”
To that end, MyLAB Box will offer more comprehensive, affordable and easy-to-use testing options in 2019 and Ivanova says she’s excited about companies offering similar services. “It’s a promising indicator the rest of the industry is not only paying attention but beginning to follow suit.” she says.
With Ivanova at the helm, Hessenflow is certain myLAB Box will succeed no matter what. “Lora is one of the most tenacious people I know,” says Ivanova’s co-founder. “If she says she’s going to do something, it will happen.” To stay balanced and focused amid her crazy schedule, Ivanova relies on her local support system, her “chosen family.” She is also inspired by a handful of mentors, including current and former CEOs, as well as spiritual guides who help clarify what she wants out of life.
What she wants right now is to improve access to health care in the U.S. “Ultimately we’re just an intermediary between the consumer and pre-existing health care,” Ivanova says. “We just want everyone to get the same level of care.”
And to make encounters with a new partner a little less awkward.
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