The brains behind a device that alleviates menstrual cramps could reasonably expect strong demand for his product. But when Zvi Nachum developed the technology in 1998, he struggled to turn his creation into a profitable business.
Zvi, an Israeli inventor who got the idea from seeing his wife and daughter suffer with period pains, worked with Beilinson Hospital – now known as Rabin Medical Center – in Petah Tikva, Israel, to research and develop the device. Like a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit, it sends vibrations that travel faster to the brain than pain, reducing or blocking the uncomfortable sensations caused by menstrual cramps.
Unfortunately for Zvi, the product was ahead of its time. “The technology wasn’t available to develop a device small enough for women to wear discreetly on their stomachs,” says Chen Nachum, Livia CEO and Zvi’s son. “You couldn’t expect them to carry something the size of a radio cassette player, which it was back then.”
The small number of advertising channels was another reason to put Livia – the name given to the device following its rebranding in 2015 – on hold during the late 90s and early 2000s. “Marketing opportunities today are very different to what they were 20 years ago,” Chen says. “You can now reach so many people worldwide. Back then, you had to advertise through TV, radio and magazines, which was incredibly expensive.”
After nearly two decades, Zvi teamed up with his tech entrepreneur son to have another crack at making Livia a success. “We carried out a market research project to see if this was a viable business,” Chen says.
The duo created a mock advert to promote the device on Facebook. People clicking on the ad were redirected to a website where they could ‘buy’ Livia for US$149 (£114) – even though the product didn’t exist. The image showed a new, smaller prototype that Zvi was still developing. When ‘purchasing’ the device, Facebook users reached a payment window telling them the item was out of stock.
“I ran that experiment for two weeks to see if we could sell 30–40 units,” Chen says. “We sold 54 in just the first week, showing there was demand for it. Our initial budget when we started working together was $5,000 (£3,826), some of which I’d spent on the Facebook ad, so we pitched the idea to friends and family and raised $200,000 (£153,000).”
Most of the capital was spent on 20 prototypes, which Chen sent to magazines, newspapers and websites such as Cosmopolitan, SheKnows, BuzzFeed, MailOnline, The Next Web and Seventeen. “I couldn’t test it,” says Chen, “so I mailed it to women who could to see if the device worked. They would either say ‘it’s great’ and sales of Livia would skyrocket, or call it crap and I’d know not to waste my time with this venture.”
The feedback was generally positive, with some media outlets giving Livia rave reviews. From there, Chen and his father launched a crowdfunder on Indiegogo in 2016, raising $1.7 million (£1.3 million). They then began mass production as part of their plan to distribute the device internationally. Getting approval to sell in the US, Canada and Europe from the FDA (Food and Administration), Health Canada and European Economic Area respectively was a major breakthrough – and Zvi and Chen’s biggest challenge.
“The regulations are very tough and it’s difficult to get approval,” Chen says. “We want to distribute Livia in China; we have the channels and distributors in place but we don’t have CFDA (China Food and Drug Administration) approval. You have to start investing in a market before acquiring the certificate that allows you to sell there. Getting approval is a really lengthy process, which screws up your timeline and your ability to push forward.”
Chen estimates that the business has sold nearly 100,000 devices – “way more than I expected” – since 2016. In that time, he and Zvi have developed and upgraded their website, established a network of distributors in France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland, Canada and China, and opened a warehouse in the US from which customers get the product within three days of ordering.
“We used to distribute from Israel, but that took three to four weeks,” Chen says. “That timespan makes a big difference for a woman who can get the product quickly when close to having her period.”
Livia’s growth was recognised at the 2018 Real Innovation Awards. Zvi won the If At First You Don’t Succeed category, which celebrates an organisation or individual who recovered from a setback with their venture by using that disappointment to achieve a successful outcome. The company also won the Gold for Women’s Wellbeing at the 2018 Edison Awards.
The father-son team are now working on the second iteration of Livia, which will provide women updates on their ovulation calculator and menstrual cycle through their mobile phones or tablets. They are also developing another device that increases the intensity of the vibrations for endometriosis sufferers.
“Livia has more than 20 levels of intensity, with level 8 being high enough for most women,” Chen says. “But users with endometriosis can get to level 24 and still need more, so our new device will help alleviate their discomfort.”
Few people had heard of the company when Zvi first launched Livia in 1998. But it’s now making a name for itself more than 20 years later – proof that persistence really does pay off.
The Real Innovation Awards 2019 is under way, nominate now.
The Real Innovation Awards is an annual ceremony celebrating business innovation around the world, hosted by the London Business School’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE).