Maintaining required conditions in any laboratory is essential, but nowhere more critical than when the contents are intensely personal and sometimes irreplaceable.
That’s the case with labs at fertility clinics, where sperm, eggs and embryos are cryogenically frozen in liquid nitrogen. A tank malfunction potentially can cause devastating loss.
A Wilmington startup has developed what it believes is an alert system that is more reliable than the temperature-based monitoring method used now. Boreas Monitoring has developed and patented a weight-based monitoring system for liquid nitrogen-filled metal tanks of up to 150 pounds containing cryogenically frozen eggs and sperm. Monitoring the weight of the tanks gives labs an alert about tank failure that can be timelier than if tanks are being monitored based on temperature, according to company co-founder Will Baird.
“Current monitoring methods use temperature monitors,” he said, explaining that an alert that the liquid nitrogen is warming might not provide enough time for lab personnel to rescue the contents and keep them at the required very low temperature.
“In 2018 there were two very high-profile tank failures where thousands of patients’ embryos and sperm cells were lost,” Baird said. “Customers sued.”
One of those failures occurred in the Cleveland, Ohio, area in 2018. The New York Times reported March 28, 2018, that an alarm did not go off when the temperature rose in one tank. As a result, more than 4,000 frozen embryos and eggs were lost, affecting about 950 patients.
Meanwhile, three owners of a Wilmington fertility clinic were in the process of exploring an alternative tank monitoring system. At the time, Baird, his father, William Baird III, and Chad Johnson formerly owned and operated Wilmington Reproductive Laboratories, partnering with a reproductive endocrinologist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
In their research, they drew on their complementary knowledge and experience. Johnson is a board-certified IVF laboratory director and has been involved in clinical in-vitro fertilization for 30 years. William Baird III is the founder and laboratory director of Cryobiology, an FDA- registered sperm bank, and Reproductive Diagnostics, an IVF laboratory and fertility preservation and storage center. Will Baird has extensive experience managing IVF centers and sperm banks.
In 2016 they began thinking about the need for a better system; in 2019 they received their patent and have built their business in the years since. Last April they sold Wilmington Reproductive Laboratories, which is now the Wilmington Fertility Center, to concentrate solely on developing and testing what they call their CryoScout remote-monitoring system.
The system consists of four parts: a scale, a tank module, cellular communications and a cloud-based monitoring service.
The scale measures the weight of liquid nitrogen tanks up to 150 pounds. The tank module resides internally within the scale and communicates with the cell platform to transmit data, according to Boreas’ website, which states, “In coordination with the remote networking site, the transmitted data is analyzed for various alarm conditions. The scale has audible and visual indicators to alert the user quickly and then direct them to the correct LN [liquid nitrogen] tank if an alarm condition is active.”
So, lab personnel receive texts about weight variations, but they can also check on the tanks at any time.
“They can log on and look at the health of all the tanks,” Will Baird said. “We will install a TV screen with a dashboard for each client. The beauty of our system is all of a sudden you put the tanks and their health in front of the end user. Some systems don’t have the potential to log in and check; they only notify you if there is an issue.”
Users are also able to design their response systems to fit their organizations. They can configure tank specifications, phone trees and alarm responses by organization, location or group.
The tanks don’t depend exclusively on electricity but are equipped with rechargeable batteries with a life of six months. The Boreas team’s development efforts and recent beta testing were rewarded earlier this month with a $50,000 grant from the NC IDEA Foundation.
“Our beta testing is done. Next, we’ll run some tests with our partner labs and offer a trial before purchase for some of our data users,” Will Baird said. “That all should happen in the next one-to-three months.”
The grant funds will be used to ramp up sales and marketing efforts. Will Baird said the demand is there: Piper Sandler research predicts that this year the U.S. fertility market will be at $15.4 billion, up from almost $7 billion in 2017. Individuals who choose to freeze sperm, eggs or embryos range from those with adverse health diagnoses or military deployments to women who want to delay childbearing to same-sex couples who want children. Frozen reproductive material also can help couples who cannot conceive on their own.