How This Period Tracking App Is Helping Scientists Fight Disease

December 14, 2015, 2:15 PM UTC
Courtesy of Clue

Period tracking apps can help you pinpoint the days when you’re most fertile, understand the nuances of your cycle, and ensure you’re never surprised—without a tampon in sight—ever again. Now, Clue, one of the fastest-growing of these apps, may also help protect your health in a much bigger way.

The Berlin-based Clue is partnering with academics at Stanford University, Columbia University, the University of Washington and the University of Oxford to provide data for studies related to women’s health. Researchers will use the app’s aggregated, depersonalized data for research on who aging, birth control and lifestyle affect menstruation and how aspects of menstruation are linked to chronic disease and breast cancer.

Using the free app, women can track their periods as well as enter information about 30 related categories, including moodiness, pain, energy, appetite, sex, and birth control. An algorithm calculates a woman’s individual cycle and fertility window, predictions that become more accurate the more a woman uses the app. “You can see at a glance where you are in the cycle,” says co-founder and CEO Ida Tin. “People can start understanding their body better.” About 2.5 million women in 180 countries use Clue, which was launched in 2013 and is available for both iOS and Android. That has created a trove of data that could be a boon to researchers.

After hearing about the app from an intern in her office, Jasmine McDonald, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, contacted Clue to use the app’s data for longitudinal studies on puberty and disease. An earlier onset of menstruation has been associated with breast cancer, for example. “We decided it was a good way to get more information and more reliable information,” says McDonald. “Most studies rely on self-reporting, not a mass data base like this, and we are expecting the data to be more reliable, and because it is real-time, it can eliminate recall bias.” Using the app’s data may also mean not having to use funding for clinic visits during which they collect information.

Alexandra Alvergne, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oxford, is collaborating with Clue on studies that will take an evolutionary view of the menstrual cycle and its manifestations. Part of her aim is to examine ideas around treating menstruation and menopause with medication.

“I think that health apps should be working with academics rather than pharmaceuticals,” says Alvergne. Working with apps helps researchers in at least three ways, she says, as the data is fined grained and longitudinal, it is possible to reach a large number of users, and it is possible to engage with users directly.

Unlike app makers or biotech businesses that are partnering with pharma companies, Clue is not being paid for its data. “This is research with no agenda but to make women healthier. In time, the results will flow back into the product and improve it,” says Albert Wenger, a partner at Union Square Ventures, which has invested in Twitter, Etsy, and Kickstarter, and which co-led, with London-based Mosaic Ventures, a $7 million funding round that closed in October. (Clue previously raised $3 million from angel investors.) However, neither Wenger nor Tin will rule out the possibility of working with a drug company in the future.

The Copenhagen-born Tin was inspired to create Clue after realizing that consumer products for family planning hadn’t really evolved since the pill. After graduating from KaosPilots, an alternative business school in Denmark, she ran a motorcycle tour company with her father for five years and wrote a book about her own solo journey through the desert. But Tin says she was “always fascinated by science,” and wanted to build a company that could scale. She and three co-founders, including her partner, Hans Raffauf, designed the app to be easy to use, discreet, and “not pink.” “I wanted something modern and confident, and it never occurred to me, but once it was on the market users thanked me for not making it pink,” she says.

The app does not currently bring in any revenue, though Tin says she expects to find a way to monetize Clue eventually. “We are taking our time to find a way to do things that add to our product, and that our users will feel are worth paying for,’ she says. “I don’t feel pressure.”

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