Keren Leshem: CEO at OCON, tells us all about the IUB Ballerine
Can you introduce yourself and tell me about your current role?
My name is Keren Leshem I am the CEO of OCON healthcare. We’re a women’s health company delivering drugs to the uterus with an innovative 3D IUD that fits women’s anatomy and helps increase quality of life.
I grew up in the USA where I and moved back to Israel to join the military. Since then, I have been in the healthcare industry which includes managing, marketing, selling, developing and fund raising within pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and medical device companies, mainly in the start-up and incubator arena here in Israel. In my last position I worked for a pharmaceutical company in Europe, where I learned the DNA of pharma across the European Union.
Can you tell us more about OCON Healthcare?
We have a platform to deliver drugs to the uterus, but in a way that finally matches our specific anatomy. It’s not a 2-dimensional, rigid, plastic device that’s been used for decades. This is a very soft, pliable, round, smaller circle that fits our uterine cavity. So, you take away everything from the initial process which can be painful, and discomfort from the insertion technique. The way we wear it is so much more comfortable and convenient. It does not push, poke or move inside the uterus, so our quality of life is better. There is no company like OCON!
I worked across many industries, in recent years mainly in ophthalmology but this is my first time in women’s health. It’s fun because it’s “us”. Even if I don’t have specific conditions we take care of as a company I can still relate to them personally. Heavy menstrual bleeding, abnormal uterine bleeding or pain, hysterectomies, myomas, endometriosis or contraception; we all deal with it even if it’s not directly experienced by us. We often know a mother, sister, aunt or friend that suffers from one of these conditions.
There really is no company like OCON, because most of the companies that deal in what we call FemTech or Women’s Health are either devices, or digital apps. But to really look at a pharmaceutical company that does research and development and commercialisation of products in women’s health, there’s not many out there like OCON.
Our 1st product is the IUB Ballerine® which is a non-hormonal LARC (long acting reversible contraception). I always say it’s not a better product than the traditional IUDs, it’s not going to give you more contraceptive effect, 99% is 99%, but the safety it introduces and the quality of life are seemingly better and that’s so important to experience from a product that does not intend to treat a disease but used on healthy women wanting to prevent pregnancy.
Our 2nd platform product the IUB SEADTM is so disruptive, with a once and done IUD we treat women in the community quickly and safely without anaesthesia or a hospital visit and it already shows efficacy and safety in women with AUB (Abnormal uterine bleeding), a condition affecting 1 in 4 or 5 women! Moving forward we’re going to look at additional conditions and therapies to put on our smart 3D frame such as endometriosis and hormonal therapies for contraception.
We’re going to look at menopause, uterine fibroids, 7 out of 10 women suffer from uterine fibroids! We’re really going to look at all these conditions, so that we can finally deliver drugs in a safe and pain-free way. We have big plans and evidently very expensive hobbies!
The Ballerine is an amazing product, what was the inspiration for this being created?
Studies show that around 25% of womenremove their IUD because they are uncomfortable, they bleed and they can’t tolerate them. The founder,an OBGYN was and is very well versed in placing IUDs. He noticed that there is a lot of breakage of the T-shape arms, a lot of malposition and a lot of discomfort with his patients.During a conference he saw a video showing how these ‘T shaped’ IUDs perforate the walls of the uterus and all the side effects and the problems that this causes.
He realised that the uterus, being a cavity not a flat organ, would be better addressed with a ball that is small and has no sharp edges. The hardest question was how to get a ball through the very slim cervical canal? He found that nitinol, a memory shape alloy used for stents, could be the answer and that became the Ballerine®. It’s simple, effective and smart. Finally true innovation in women’s health!
One thing I have noticed about the Women’s Health space is that a lot of women don’t talk about their bodies, feelings, monthly periods, their conditions or even their pain. They tend to suffer quietly. There is not a whole lot of discussion around or about it; we don’t really know our bodies that well.
Women’s health companies need to also educate. We can’t just bring products to a market, because women need to understand what works well with their body, what options they have and what’s the best option for their specific needs. At OCON we want to look at how we can educate women as well as develop products that fit our anatomy, allow us to choose the right therapy and create higher quality of life.
Have you seen more FemTech or FemHealth being created over the last 5 years?
Everything is timing. I think if I took on this amazing journey three or four years ago, it wouldn’t have such an effect as it does today. I think today there is a lot more openness to talk about specialised medicine in general. We want to look at a person as a whole and not just another patient.
I think the whole personalised medicine movement in which this includes Women’s Health has really gone up a notch in the last few years. There is a lot more innovation in the field and a lot more investments which is great to experience. I see now in OCON’s current investment round, that there is a lot more interest around us and our space. Even male driven VCs take interest in investing in what of course we are very focused on impact and which to have all of our innovations reach any and every women regardless of where she lives or how much money she has. To date we have 100,000 women using the Ballerine all across Europe! I chose to wear it to and I love it.
It’s becoming easier to talk about women’s health, but there are still smaller companies and entrepreneurs who are really struggling to get funding. I would want to see OCON in the future become a ‘hub’ for women’s health. To bring under our umbrella a lot more innovation than just our own pipeline, because we can. We have labs, manufacturing we have all our clinical, medical and regulatory teams here.
For us to put in another smaller technology or product is easier than a small company struggling on its own. So if we can find a way of putting all these great ideas, technology and innovations together that would be better serving the women’s health industry and allow more investors to come in with bigger cheques to support it.
What would you like to see for the future of OCON? What developments would you like to see?
We’re building a unicorn in women’s health! OCON will have pillars of technologies. A pillar for contraception (both hormonal and a non-hormonal versions of the Ballerine). We will have a pillar for therapies (including AUB, endometriosis, fibroids, menopause & cancers). We have a pillar that deals with vaginal health and last but not least we also want to tap into the internal wearable market with a pillar of data management and AI. We have these devices that are already in our bodies, why not monitor progression’s of diseases like cancers, monitor diabetes, looking at hormones or vitamins that we may be lacking? There is so much information you can gather and learn from within our bodies. This could be the biggest artificial intelligence ‘bank’ ever.
OCON is headed to be in the forefront and the foremind, of what we do. When you are a women-led company dealing with women’s conditions, we can easily look at a therapy or device and say ‘no, I’m not going to do that/use that/undergo that at a doctor’s office!’
Giving back to the community
I feel very privileged to be where I am. I feel privileged to have a team of women (and a few men, ha!) who are insanely smart, driven and that bring together terrific ideas and furious execution. What’s important to me is that we can create an impact. We can have our product reach every woman, it doesn’t matter where she is or what lifestyle she has.
Looking at impact, we also make sure to give back to the community. For every dime that a woman spends on our products, we take and give back to the community. For example, here in Israel we give to a college that gives lessons for women that have managed to get out of the prostitution cycle. These women, who have had horrific lives from a very young age, are finally given the opportunity to go and get a course in computers, childcare, cooking, TV production or whatever they choose to learn. And OCON gives them jobs . We have various needs in our packaging, manufacturing, marketing, logistics, administration so women can join us for short and part-time jobs..
We also donate money twice a year during the holidays, and this helps these women for example get painkillers and access to treatments that they can’t get regularly. I feel very privileged that we can give back to the community. All our employees here take time to mentor, teach and volunteer, this is very impotant to me and part of our corporate identity. We go to high schools and talk about what’s available and what jobs there are out there. They don’t know about biotechnology, research studies, labs. There are so many interesting things that we can be doing to really empower girls and women from a younger age, while teaching them and educating them about our bodies, therapies, choices and options.
What’s the best advice anyone has given you in your career?
Never be afraid to recruit people brighter than you are, and never be afraid to recruit people who are different than you. Diversity on a team is SO important – that is sometimes hard to do, but incredibly powerful if you want to create a team that is really effective! I see it everyday at OCON.
What advice would you have for others working in this industry?
Depending on their background I would always say networking is everything. Everyone I meet, I now say ‘I’m part of your network! Contact me for anything you need!’ I have a big network so I can help women, or men, and I gladly do so. When I teach in high schools about ‘what makes women successful’, I always say, you don’t have to be pretty or skinny, you don’t even always have to be the smartest, you only need three things. Firstly, if you’re interested in something, you need to learn about it. Learn about it well, because you’re going to sit around a table with a lot of people, usually men, and they are going to question your background and your knowledge.
Second thing I would say is, it’s all about network. I tell these girls to look around their class. Realise that each girl sitting next to them will be somebody someday that could help them in some way.
Last, but not least, it’s all about daring. All you need is guts. I have raised $70 million in my life and the first million dollars I thought was an insane thing; and then I raised 10! It was no different you just need guts. In order to tap into the industry in whichever position you wish to have, you need to approach people. You need to network, you need to put yourself out there.
It’s not bragging about yourself. It’s “self marketing” in a way that shows organizations and companies what you bring to the table and how you can be helpful and useful in their setting. If you’re reading this and I can help you in any way please feel free (have guts) to reach out to me – my door and phone are always open!
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