Wave energy. A portable spirometer for kids with asthma. Tools to lower the carbon footprint. A robot-building kit.
These are just a few examples of what UC Berkeley startups are developing at the Foundry, Cal’s technology incubator. But Liz Klinger and James Wang are working on something else entirely: a smart vibrator.
“It makes women a lot more curious about themselves,” Klinger said. “It can be difficult for them to talk about sex and their own bodies in this way. It translates into discomfort and sometimes shame. That’s what we’re trying to address.”
Wang, who will receive his MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in June, said their vibrator, with its accompanying app, is similar to a wearable fitness device. “You get continual feedback,” he said. “You can also baseline yourself with other people. For a lot of women, because it’s such a taboo topic, they want to know where they fall within the spectrum.”
Baselining yourself might not be the first thing that comes to mind in the realm of sexual pleasure, but Klinger and Wang figure that the urge to quantify, measure and explore one’s body should logically extend to female excitement. The briefing sheet for their company, which is called SmartBod, spells it out:
“Everyone wants to better understand what feels good or not. … Our community of peers and experts ensure that our users aren’t alone and finally have an outlet to ask their burning questions. Paired with our product’s sensors and intuitive data visualizations, we make learning about your arousal and orgasm less like fumbling alone in the dark and more like discussing your Fitbit’s step count with friends.”
Judging by the number of awards SmartBod has already won—including “most innovative” at UC Berkeley’s 2013 Startup Weekend and second place at the South by Southwest 2014 Business Idea Challenge—the prognosis for the fledgling sex toy is auspicious. And at a time when “Fifty Shades of Grey” has been an extremely popular book and film, the timing might be perfect.
Klinger and Wang hope so.
A 2007 Forbes story on “America’s Most Lustful Cities” mentioned a 1998 “Sex and the City’” episode in which Charlotte York, the most inhibited female character in the series, became addicted to a vibrator named “The Rabbit.” As a result, sales skyrocketed.
“This kind of thing helps in the sense that it gets awareness up,” Wang said. “It normalizes things a little bit.”
One problem, he said, is that a lot of vibrator marketing repels women: “The idea of going into an XXX shop—talking to a guy with a pot belly and ponytail who’s staring at you as you walk through the store—makes you think, ‘I must be a really aberrant person.’ ”
“It’s such a weird and unnatural experience,” Klinger said. “And kind of gross, too.”
When she was growing up, sex was never discussed in her family. But two years at Wellesley, a women’s college in Massachusetts, provided a distinct counterpoint to her conservative upbringing. It was a place where conversations were open and nonjudgmental. She later transferred to Dartmouth College, majoring in studio art with an emphasis on design, and also took engineering courses.
“I saw the cool stuff people were able to make,” Klinger said. “Making something perfectly and replicating it was really appealing to me.”
After graduating, she got a job as a strategy analyst at investment bank Credit Suisse, where she liked being part of a team but wasn’t inspired by the work. She decided to combine her interest in art, product design and human sexuality, and eventually came up with the idea of building a better vibrator.
To do some market research and make a little money, she became a consultant for Passion Parties, selling sex toys at Tupperware-style gatherings for women.
“There was a lot of laughing about different products that looked silly to people,” Klinger said. “Some were phallic, some had animals on them. Women would say, ‘I understand what it’s for. Why do they need to make it a dolphin?’ One toy stimulated in three areas and looked like a Swiss-army knife or something out of a cartoon.”
Some of the current products available resemble a veiny, severed penis, Wang said. “It’s a little bit repulsive at that point.”
He and Klinger, both 26, started dating at Foothill High School in Pleasanton and have been involved for eight years. The other members of their team are two Cal graduates—Anna Lee and Leo Chen, with bachelor of science degrees in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, respectively—and three interns.
The startup’s website, www.smartbod.co, says that “enabling self-discovery” is its mission. And that process can start at any stage of life.
Klinger recalled one bachelorette party where the bride-to-be took her aside to reveal that she’d never been able to achieve orgasm during sex. She was stressed out because she didn’t want to disappoint her husband but also didn’t want to lie. Another time, a 70-something woman said she had trouble enjoying sex with her spouse without using a vibrator. She went to a gynecologist and learned she had an extra layer of skin in an erogenous zone that affected her sexual enjoyment.
“The information is out there in the ether but it’s not available to the general public,” Klinger said. She and Wang intend to change that.
Their SmartBod vibrator has undergone several iterations. A crowd-funding campaign will begin later this year; thus far, funds from the Foundry and prize money from competitions have provided about $10,000. The team is still trying to determine the consumer price tag for their product, which will hit the market in 2016.
The smart vibrator is made of pure silicone, the kind used in medical devices. The latest incarnation sat between them on a table in the CITRIS Invention Lab in the basement of Sutardja Dai Hall on the north side of campus. In late February, they also started working at SkyDeck, a Cal accelerator in downtown Berkeley.
Wang said vibrators are a $3 billion industry, representing 20 percent of the overall sex-toy market. Although 53 percent of women in the United States and Europe have owned one, less than 13 percent consistently use the device. He and Klinger said the drop-off is the result of “raunchy, pornographic positioning” and lack of functionality.
In the last few months the entrepreneurs have done beta testing with 10 women, mostly Cal graduate students and Berkeley residents in their 20s and 30s. The waiting list exceeds 100. “We definitely want to expand the group,” Klinger said. “We have a hypothesis that the perception and experience will be different in the Bay Area than the rest of the country,”
They’ve also conducted interviews with almost 100 women nationwide, ranging in age from 18 to 70. The SmartBod vibrator has especially resonated with second-generation immigrants and women from conservative backgrounds, Klinger said, where opportunities for open conversations have been limited. Another enthusiastic group tends to be women who are health conscious and more likely to exercise, practice yoga and use fitness gadgets.
Vibrators, of course, are hardly novel. Contemporaneous with toasters, they preceded steam irons and vacuum cleaners. But Wang and Klinger are certain they’re breaking new ground.
“”How we’re different is that we help women learn more about their own bodies and about themselves,” Klinger said. “We do that by using sensors inside the vibrator that can capture a woman’s unique arousal and orgasm characteristics. So, depending on how you prefer certain stimulation or certain experiences, it can pick up on that over time and can inform you about different things you could try—or give you certain trends if you’re looking to improve the experience.”
The data must be synced to a smartphone or laptop, but then it’s easy to see and track, Wang said. “It’s really strange to us that there’s not that much user testing in this industry,” he said.
Klinger said the testers have been amazed at all the information the device offers, and the difference between their before-and-after questions is striking. For example: What if I try it at different times in my menstrual cycle? What if I try it with higher vibration and lower vibration? “They can actually see a cause and effect,” Klinger said.
Women frequently ask what’s the average time to reach orgasm, Wang said. “One beta tester was able to talk to her partner and say, ‘Look, here’s data. We should have foreplay for this long.’ ”
“And with this sort of intensity, not what we were doing before,” Klinger added.
The SmartBod vibrator will be attuned to individual variations and able to customize patterns. “There’s a whole diversity of sexual expressions and all of it is ‘normal’ essentially,” Klinger said. “But women want to be able to validate that somehow,” Wang added, “and there aren’t really good sources for it.”
Some gynecologists are looking forward to the product’s release, he said, because they want to recommend it to patients instead of just referring them to a sex therapist. “It’s something that comes up often,” Wang said. “You see the pharmaceutical companies pushing really hard and really fast toward female Viagra at this point. But learning about yourself is better than taking a pill.”
They’ve gotten a mix of reactions at startup competitions. “A lot of male investors have asked, ‘Why would anyone care about this?’ ” Wang said. “Others are more open.” Some startup-oriented banks have been wary and don’t want their brand associated with vibrators, he said. Instead, they equate the product with pornography, tobacco and firearms. “When you start talking about the numbers, that’s when some of the investors perk up,” Klinger said.
Meanwhile, the “broader UC Berkeley ecosystem” has been tremendously supportive, they said. And even Klinger’s parents, who initially thought the idea was deranged, are now her biggest cheerleaders.
As Klinger put it: “My dad said, ‘All I know is that you’re working on a vibrator. I don’t need to know more.’ ”