For nearly a decade, 26-year-old entrepreneur Zachariah Reitano had only spoken to one person about his erectile dysfunction: his doctor, who also happened to be his father.
But over the past seven months, Reitano has been telling business partners, his girlfriend of four years, investors, and now the world.
He even founded a company called Roman to help men discreetly seek treatment. The startup puts them in touch with doctors online who can diagnose conditions and write prescriptions, and Roman ships medicines to their doorstep. The startup has raised $3.1 million in venture capital.
The funding news came the same week as another major investment in men’s health: hims, which prescribes and markets hair loss prevention drugs for men, received $7 million.
Erectile dysfunction and hair loss are not topics that men usually like to talk about. But entrepreneurs see them as business opportunities and hope to remove the stigma associated with the terms along the way.
Reitano knows firsthand the challenges of having a health problem related to how much men look at masculinity.
“[The ability to achieve an erection] is associated with being a real man,” Reitano said.
But erectile dysfunction is often a warning sign of serious health problems such as heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes. In Reitano’s case, it had to do with heart disease.
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According to Doron Stember, an assistant professor of urology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, patients often don’t seek treatment for years because of the stigma.
Erectile dysfunction affects as many as 30 million American men, according to Johns Hopkins University’s James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute. But experts and researchers report that only a small percentage (about 25%) seek treatment.
“Many patients don’t seek care because they’re embarrassed or don’t know where to go,” Stember said. “Some patients have been told it’s a problem in their head, so they suffer, but don’t follow up on it for years.”
Counterfeit drugs are also a big problem, with some online vendors selling cheap, fake pills that may be filled with toxic chemicals.
The condition is traditionally associated with older men, but Reitano first experienced it at age 17. About 26% of those entering treatment for the first time are under 40 years of age.
To get a doctor’s opinion on Roman, users answer questions about their medical history and sexual health, upload a photo of themselves to verify their identity, scan a photo of an ID such as a driver’s license, and state their medication preferences. A licensed physician reviews the information and can chat with a patient through the site. A doctor may eventually prescribe medication such as Viagra or Cialis. The process costs $15, plus the cost of the drug.
It is available in New York, California, Florida and Pennsylvania. Roman ships the medication directly to customers in discreet packaging. Prescriptions can also be filled at a pharmacy.
Telehealth services are growing in popularity, providing digital connections to licensed professionals that consumers can take advantage of at home. But some warn that not all telehealth companies offer the same level of care.
“Telehealth can increase access to excellent sexual health care for men who have emotional or geographic barriers that keep them out of the office,” Stember said. “But medications have real risks, and some patients have specific conditions that should be considered as part of treatment decisions. … Patients should only use telehealth platforms that can provide the standard of individualized care they would expect to see in specialist practices.”
The investors include Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, VC firm General Catalyst, and publisher Forbes. (Along with sportswear startup Outdoor Voices, Roman is one of Forbes’ first two startup investments).
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Similarly, Andrew Dudum, founder of hims, the hair loss prevention startup, wants to share more about men’s health.
“We hope to facilitate conversation that is currently on the shelf,” the company’s site said. “Men are not supposed to take care of themselves. We call bull—-.”
Hims launched last week with investments from Forerunner Ventures, Thrive Capital and shaving products startup Harry’s.
Users of his fill in a free online questionnaire. Doctors then suggest a treatment plan and possibly a prescription. The Hims medical team is available for questions before and after prescribing products.
While hair loss isn’t something men can control, products can slow the process: Hims sells hair loss pills, shampoos, supplements, and other products.
For Dudum, like Reitano, his mission is personal. “I’ve been terrified of losing my hair since I was 10,” said Dudum.
His mother’s father went bald at the age of 30.
He’s not alone in his fear: “I’ve looked [friends] I’m really having a hard time with it.”
The platform plans to expand into skin care and sexual wellness, including the treatment of erectile dysfunction.
Roman and him join the growing list of startups tackling stigmatized topics. For example, myLABBox sells STI tests for at home, while the Addicaid app helps addicts track and monitor their recovery process.
CNN Money (New York) First published Nov 8, 2017: 6:49 AM ET