Cancer survivor builds startup for pelvic health and better sex

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

It takes a particular kind of resilience to pitch an idea for a startup to a radiologist—while you’re in hospital waiting for your cancer treatment.

That’s exactly what Rachel Bartholomew (MBET ’14) did. Today she is the founder of Hyivy Health, a startup that is developing a rehabilitation system – a connected vaginal wand, a patient app and a portal for clinicians – to help women recover from everything from cervical cancer and gender-affirming surgery to childbirth.

“It may sound like resilience but it really came from a place of, ‘How can I take this really bad situation that happened to me and try to make something that is positive to help other women?’” Bartholomew says.

When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2019, Bartholomew learned the surgery and radiation would affect her pelvic health for the rest of her life. While on bedrest, she began researching rehabilitation options and discovered women were still using devices known as dilators, which were invented in 1938.

Rachel Bartholemew

Bartholomew also began listening to women online who told similar stories of recovering from diseases such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Then, when Bartholomew was in New York City, Claire Rosario, a transgender woman in the audience at a pitch competition, approached her. “We connected because she was trying to hack together a device that works for her,” Bartholomew says.

While Bartholomew had cancer surgery and Rosario had gender-affirming surgery, both "were dealing with the exact same symptoms. It was mind-blowing,” Bartholomew recalls.

Rosario, who brings her own experience of rehab after vaginoplasty surgery, said she joined the team to help bring female-identified, queer women and non-conforming people into the conversation. “I really don’t care about anything other than seeing this company succeed,” Rosario says.

While scar tissue and pelvic pain are the physical symptoms, the psychological impact of not being able to enjoy sex or be intimate is devastating for many women. Also, depending on their treatment, some women become infertile. “You lose that sense of who you are. ‘Am I a woman anymore? Am I useful to the planet because I can no longer have kids?’ These are the kinds of thoughts some women have,” Bartholomew says.

Three different therapies in a single device

By all accounts, Bartholomew is fearless, pitching her vision and the device to rooms of all-male investors. She says the Hyivy device is a significant upgrade from “dilators that are shaped, ‘surprise, surprise,’ like a penis.” The Hyivy team did ergonomic testing to create a device that is easier to hold and better fits the actual ergonomics of a woman’s vagina. The team is currently working on integrating three different therapies – heat, lubrication and dilation — into a single device.

For investors who may not understand the challenges that follow pelvic surgeries and medical treatments, Bartholomew explains that the muscles in a woman’s pelvic floor work much like other muscles in the body. Some health issues are improved using strength exercises such as Kegels, but the Hyivy device addresses the opposite issue: scar tissue and muscles that are too tight.

“If I have a massive knot in a muscle in my neck, I’m not going to head to the gym to do weights,” Bartholomew explains. “I’m going to go to someone who can work out the knot with massage and oil and perhaps heat before I do strength training.”

Waterloo's biomedical engineering students

The Hyivy device will allow patients to do their rehab at home and receive progress reports while their doctor gets objective, real-time data related to the five vital signs of pelvic floor health: sensation, healthy tissues, muscle control, lubrication and incontinence.

Bartholomew says co-op students from the University of Waterloo’s Biomedical Engineering program have been a huge part of her company’s success. “The biomedical engineering program at Waterloo is just a gold mine,” Bartholomew says. “These engineers have the tech knowledge along with a human-centred approach and it creates this beautiful group of people who just understand how to make a product that works.”

Julianna Downes (BASc ’21) accepted a full-time job at Hyivy after working a co-op term with the team. “I really love what they are trying to do with their product, and the impact it will make,” Downes says. “I want to be able to help put this product on the market to make a difference in people’s lives."

Originally published spring 2021 in the University of Waterloo Magazine.