Lily Elsner, co-founder of Jack Fertility

Photo of Lily Elsner

Lily Elsner is the co-founder and CEO of Jack Fertility, a postal male fertility test company revolutionising male reproductive healthcare. She and her Oxford-based team are developing a mail-in sperm test kit, offering lab-grade semen analysis results without needing to set foot in a clinic. Upon receipt of a posted sample, the Jack lab will send traffic-light style results and recommendations via a companion app which offers next steps and an anonymous support community. Jack Fertility’s mission is to remove the barriers to men’s reproductive health in the UK, making it as easy as possible to assess male fertility. Jack Fertility aims to empower all people with sperm to start taking control of their fertility journeys, and reduce the fertility burden borne by women.

She has honed her craft through various strategy and operations roles and now finally sits in the driver’s seat as the CEO, building the company’s strategy, team, and fundraising round. Jack Fertility is at the pre-funding stage, where it has won 5,000 pounds through a Young Innovators Grant through Innovate UK and more recently 10,000 pounds through the FemTech Lab. These have enabled them to initially validate the idea from a scientific perspective. The team is made up of three co-founders, six interns and one strategy & operations role at present, supported by incredible mentors and the FemTech Lab and the SBS ecosystem.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
Jack Fertility Logo

I am from the US where I studied STEM subjects in high school. Growing up in the rural south, I realised many gender equality issues around me, but did not have the language to describe what was going on. From there, I went to Wellesley College, an all-women’s college outside Boston. This was very formative for me: hard, but enjoyable. Studying biology and philosophy, I learnt that this is what I enjoyed and decided to major in for my undergraduate. I also partook in study abroad around the world. Coming to undergrad, I realised I did not enjoy the benchwork in the sciences as much anymore, and moved forward to work in the US Department of Health and Human Services which was very eye opening. I was not interested in working in the broken US healthcare system, where it is very difficult to be a physician. I saw that the causes of many major diseases were financial situations and poverty. Moving from there, I got a job in a big law firm in NYC – the show Suits was shot outside my building around that time! Here, I was a legal assistant and a business analyst, where I learnt decision-making in large organisations.

I moved into corporate governance at Capital One Bank, more directly able to understand financial services access in the US. I also discovered that I, in fact, did not want to be an attorney, but to actually serve on the board. I love working in teams and negotiating, but I am more action-oriented and focused on getting things done and making things happen.

That’s when I knew I needed to get into business school. From the Board at Capital One, I moved into the credit card business as a chief of staff, working with data science, fraud etc. where most of the people working there went to business school or had entrepreneurial friends that became amazing founders. Going back to business school: I chose Oxford as I wanted to see how the FCA has an interesting regulatory environment for fintech products and I wanted to work at a similar bank in the UK. Other than that, Oxford is Oxford! I had so many ways to explore things in one year. I lived in Pembroke College, which I was locked down in during the pandemic and had the college almost to myself.

In the MBA, I took a risk to explore entrepreneurship via the Creative Destruction Lab, which is a network of accelerators that began at Oxford the year I joined. It takes MBAs and D. Phils, and pairs them with local companies that compete to get into the accelerator. The mentors are very successful VCs, entrepreneurs, and Said Business School professors. It is something like the Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank, only you don’t pitch but the founder stands to receive feedback followed by voting. We see how decisions have been made. This was different from my board room experience; it was exciting and I loved it.

During the programme, the venture I was assigned, Arctoris, an AI biotech and drug discovery company, reminded me of my undergraduate experience, as they sought to automate rote lab experiments. They used robots to conduct better protocols which I was delighted in as a realistic next step of bringing Industry 4.0 to modern working life. After the MBA, Arctoris hired me as their head of strategy.

However, my co-founder and close friend, Nick Shipley, approached me to work on the idea we developed after his experience of becoming a father in lockdown. We did a full traditional corporate strategy investigation into the idea of addressing the barriers to fertility care for people with sperm, speaking to customers and experts. I knew I had to work on this painful and massive issue. .This spring, I received a startup visa from the University of Oxford, and am now full-time working on Jack Fertility.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I think that entrepreneurship is something you can do anytime, even when you work in a big business. Many people in the corporate landscape do something big outside of work, and inside of work, intrapreneurship is incredibly entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurship is about building something that is innovative and new: an actual business itself be it a non-profit, social enterprise or something else. It is one that generates values, which may be monetary or in the form of impact.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
We spent the first few months rigorously researching the global and UK industries and interviewing dozens of experts, conducting social listening exercises, and really figuring out why no one has done this before. We saw the massive potential, the logistic feasibility, built a formidable team, and have never found a barrier that we can’t overcome with the right partners. We also heard the amount of pain the massive issue of male infertility causes for men and people with sperm, their families, and the level of taboo male infertility holds for many cultures worldwide. The blue ocean opportunity sparkles too bright for us to not try to go after bringing a solution to market.

“Good enough” is interesting phrasing. I’ve had to get comfortable with not worrying about perfection, and being exactly that, good enough. It’s tough to unlearn perfectionism!  My creativity sparks from bringing all of my experiences to the table and making them useful. I spent my academic and professional career developing skills which now serve as a large toolkit that I have to work on things I care deeply about. I like to make a difference by making it tangible and seeing results. The most immediate response and seeing that it’s you that did this, the direct output of your and your team’s work. It is really validating. Being in the driver’s seat and having the luxury of leading a team through collaboration, as well as support from friends and business partners, is truly gratifying.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, communication. It is a lifestyle and a skill I cannot emphasise enough: truly, it is where success lies. Keeping in touch is fundamental, sharing all kinds of news – good and bad – is key. Secondly, classic relationship management, that stems from the former. Finally, being organised! Juggling a lot of things comes with being an entrepreneur, and one has to learn to manage time and understand how to do several tasks regularly in a small team.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The autonomy, and finding my voice, and helping my team build our brand.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
On a micro level, my team that I work with in the Oxford Character Project. They are a small group in the university, achieving amazing things through living their values. We study corporate values and how to bring them to life. My boss, Ed Brooks, epitomises what we are trying to do.

There are three specific women that inspire me. First is Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx. She really solidified for me that I, as a Southern woman, could do this! Then, there is Sallie Krawcheck. She went to UNC Chapel Hill – where my parents also went, and is a big name in the financial sector who seeks to increase financial inclusion in creative ways. Finally, Michelle Obama; I often think, what would Michelle do?

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I was actually once in an elevator with Sallie Krawcheck and got my five minutes with her! She was a client at my firm and I was a precocious young twenty-something back then, which I would love to have again to get her thoughts on starting a business.

If I had five minutes with Michelle Obama, hmmm. She has made hard choices and I would want to ask her what her values framework was, what she had to think through. I would want to have this answered one-to-one, what her values are and how she lives them.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
The most thrilling so far was winning a grant last Thursday at FemTech Lab in London! They had one of those big novelty checks which was very cool. It feels gratifying to be in a public space and be celebrated ike this, receiving appreciation by people for the hard work, sacrifice, and difficult choices we have made. And it also means a bit of financial freedom! It is wonderful and appreciated for people to offer mentorship but what would really help is the financial means to achieve it. This access to capital is very difficult and it is very validating to get a massive check saying go do it! So it is truly a special moment, I am really happy. I do not love being filmed but felt very glad to have my team surrounding me and us having our photos taken. We can relive our moment through them!

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Since we are at the early stages, we haven’t made too many major mistakes…yet. One may be that I waited too long to start this. Especially as women and coming from a corporate background, we have to unlearn asking for permission. We realise now that we don’t have to live that way, and have the autonomy to develop our own styles. We also waited too long to raise and ask questions, although this is not a failure, but needed. There are growing pains of being a first-time founder. My worst fear is analysing to make it too perfect; again, as women, we do that and I am unlearning it.

How have you funded your ideas?
Through the two grants that I mentioned earlier, and my co-founders and I are bootstrapping. There is massive value in being the Oxford and FemTech Lab ecosystems, as the Entrepreneurship Centre and the ecosystem members and mentors constantly give us massively valuable support that we would otherwise pay heaps for.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Yes, participating in FemTech Lab, and [soon to be announced] the Young Innovator award through Innovate UK. The former has opened up the world of fertility care and expertise for us in an empowering and supportive way, and the latter has opened the whole UK ecosystem to us.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I love that the question says Oxfordshire broadly. I thought I knew Oxford well: SBS, Pembroke etc. but was blown away knowing how big it is after graduation. It is great going from student to employee at a local high growth startup, to staff member at the University, to local founder. As staff and as an entrepreneur, I saw the ecosystem from so many angles. It’s like an onion with layers; in fact the ONION is an acronym for one of the local angel networks, which is quite apropos. The system is so rich and deep, with so many things to learn and people to meet. It is great to have real neighbours who are movers and shakers. Leah Thomson (Enterprising Oxford) and Chris de Koning (Founders and Funders lead) are two perfect examples! Through great friends like Sarah Haywood at Advanced Oxford, I’ve become connected to Brookes, The Hill Initiative, MedCity, and the NHS. Outside of Oxford, there are ways to help nurture the system. Brookes challenges Oxford in a healthy way, it funds students and has a robust ecosystem which must be acknowledged and celebrated. It works in a complimentary way. Enterprising Oxford also sees Oxford as greater Oxfordshire which is invaluable once you graduate.

What isn’t the best is that it is a really expensive place to live and to build a business especially one that is science-based. Labs at our scale are especially expensive. There is also immense competition in healthcare. There are many places in the UK developing similar things for cheaper and better, beyond Oxford. So I would caution life sciences and healthcare initiatives in Oxford; they may be resting too much on their laurels whereas money (competitive rates and availability for lab space) will talk in the recession. There are the realities of paying council tax, the unsexy bits of rent etc. so it is not always easy.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
This is a common occurrence and I’ve unintentionally made myself known for doing this. Enterprising Oxford encompasses greater Oxfordshire and makes clear what is available to just Oxford students and for everyone, which I heartily commend. Then there is the Business and IP Centre at the Oxfordshire County Library at the Westgate; they host pitch nights, provide startup support, and the librarians can be very helpful with IP searches and patents. These aspects are critical in entrepreneurship, especially for people from underrepresented backgrounds. They also conduct free headshots days to facilitate professionalism. For early stage founders, there is the Oxford Trust, and Barclays Eagle Labs, and the small co-working space at the Business School which intersects with the Skoll Centre. Another great space is the Wood Centre of Innovation in Oxford that sets good benchmarks for what is available for large companies. Finally, there is The Hill, which is more health related. Please let me know if I missed anything, I’d love to know!

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Yes, people often assume that I don’t have a scientific background. While we have a brilliant [female] CSO for Jack, I also have my undergrad degree in Biology with a pre-med focus and I attended a STEM high school, and most recently was head of strategy for an AI drug discovery biotech.

People also frequently assume before interacting with me that I am unfamiliar with financial terms and VC language, despite having an MBA and having worked across my whole career in M&A, financial services, and startups.
I overcome these by working hard to know the language, drilling myself on VC abbreviations and working twice as hard to know the lingo. I try to simply tell the truth regarding my background, or gently but firmly making clear that no additional explanation is needed.
Almost every single person will ask how you compare to Elizabeth Holmes. In my case I am a blonde woman with a penchant for turtlenecks developing a diagnostic, so I forgive them. I encourage others to respond by asking if they warn male entrepreneurs against being Travis Kalanick, Adam Neumann, most recently Sam Bankman-Fried.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
Women need access to capital. If you have a chance at a grant/non-dilutive funding option, go for it.The biggest resources I would recommend are podcasts including How I Built This, 20 Minute VC, and Diary of a CEO. They do a great job of interviewing a large cross-section of folks. In Oxford: I’d also point out Founders and Funders in Oxford, and the many VC networks out there. Similarly the IDEA programme! Finally, globally, the Forte Foundation – which helps women get into MBA Programmes. I had a great time in the FemTech Lab for any founders looking at that industry .Very active and supportive groups for HealthTech are: MedCity in London, Women of AI, the Good AI, Women of Wearables.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think more institutional support and careful gender monitoring within clubs and societies would be beneficial. For example, the Financial and STEM clubs often have an overwhelmingly male leadership team and membership. I find that the complex siloes of the student community lead to a continuation of unintentional institutional sexism. I mentor for OxWIB and OxWEST which are fantastic and serve an excellent purpose, but the larger societies in business and various STEM fields often have programmed overwhelmingly attended by men. We have so many brilliant students, staff members, and faculty who study precisely this (classroom and social dynamics) with regard to gender, yet the research isn’t translated in the very buildings it was written in. I think non-gender based clubs should take a proactive view of their events and attendance and membership. Ask where the intersectional diversity is in all of its forms and figure out why gaps exist.

Similarly postdocs and staff members are left out of college communities, and as such rely on Enterprising Oxford (if they find out about it) even if their research directly relates to those topics. Development of on-boarding pathways for all contractors and postdocs would be highly beneficial to the cultivation of the broader ecosystem as talent enters and exits the town.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Just do it! Try it! Fellow female founders have said to me that they are so worried about the risk and trying it and it not working out. I rarely if ever hear my male friends say the same, on the contrary, they nearly all have multiple startups on the go [admittedly at various levels of involvement]. I’d say from the other side that the support is really overwhelming. Everyone wants you to succeed and wants to help, frankly almost regardless of how “good” you think your idea is. In the words of my childhood hero, Ms. Frizzle, Take Chances, Make Mistakes, and Get Messy!

Any last words of advice?
This is the cue for my soap box. To anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur, just do it! It’s okay to fail; I fully anticipate it and have done risk management. Be careful about your personal life simultaneously. It is so empowering and amazing; difficult but worth it. Get mentors! I recommend having as much support as you can get. Formal support is important. At the IDEA group, we had mentors for each other, amazing leads who coached us and would be our support system holding us into account. Get an advisory board for your company, they want to help and you being willing to accept that help is really critical.