Not many can claim they’ve found their meaning in life, much less through a startup accelerator program, but that’s exactly what Anna Vanessa Haotanto did. After leaving the companies she spent nine years building, Anna found a way to combine her passion for healthcare with her expertise in investing, finance and startups, which led to the inception of Zora Health, a fertility care platform serving global patients. In our candid conversation with Anna, her reflections on this chapter of her career is a lesson in how self-alignment and wisdom can give us insight into untapped opportunities and brilliant ideas for sustainable business.
Aspire: It's been six months since you stepped down from directly managing the three successful ventures you founded: women's financial platform The New Savvy, F&B investment firm Gourmet Food Holdings, and its advisor, ABZD Capital. What pushed you to start from the ground up?
I've been working for 22 years and I was ready for a break and a fresh start. I stepped down last year because we reached a big milestone and I was keen to explore more tech opportunities. In that period, I looked at a lot of ideas, but asked myself: “Do I really want to do this?” After nine years of being a founder, maybe I just want to cruise through life!
At the start of my career, it was always about money and financial security, because my family struggled. We didn't have a house. I always wanted to have stable finances and a home. With The New Savvy, I got out of banking—and I was doing quite well, as a banker—because I wanted something to show for it. It was more of an ego journey, to prove that I could do it. I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony.
For Zora Health, I'm doing it out of love. Not romantically! Although, technically, my whole business is about fertility. At this stage of life, I feel very lucky. It's not about proving myself, but solving something I care deeply about.
Aspire: Zora Health, received pre-seed funding from Antler. Did you join the program with the idea of helping women in their fertility journey?
I went to Antler wanting to start a Web3 business. In The New Savvy, I was very involved in the startup and tech communities, so I started the Singapore FinTech Association. I realized that I really loved the tech world. It’s something you can use to help people at scale, and you're not constrained by geography or location. We’re in Singapore, and this is a very hard market to survive in.
I'm an avid investor, so I see a lot of different business models. I considered doing many different Web3 ideas, but I wasn’t married to any one of them.
One of my main reasons for going to Antler is to meet people and find a tech co-founder. Many of my friends are in senior positions in corporations, and none of them are going to quit their jobs to take the startup route. I also wanted to get inspiration and clarity of what I wanted to do.
Aspire: So, how did you land on an idea you loved?
We did an exercise called the DFP framework: domain, function, and passion. I realized I'm not really passionate about Web3. Is it my strength? I don't think so. Do I have domain expertise? Not really. It was probably the effect of Web3 being very popular, and that I had just done a documentary related to Web3 for CNA.
But, I've always been interested in healthcare. Throughout my journey, I’ve had a lot of health issues. Last year alone, I had five surgeries. I thought I was suffering from perimenopause — a condition when you have early menopause — and started learning more about the symptoms with Dr. Google.
It was an interesting area that I didn’t know much about. I started deep diving, because if I have that problem, I might as well try to solve it or find somebody to help. I realized there were very few solutions here. But as a coach told me, those currently in menopause aren’t likely to use a tech solution, and you’re not exactly targeting people on the street. The market isn’t big.
So, I went into fertility. Egg freezing is a topic I'm familiar with as I’ve done it myself. It's also a very overlooked $54 billion global market, and 44% of treatments are in Asia. Technology has changed a lot of the way we do things, the way we travel, the way we stay in hotels, and the way we commute. There are a lot of developments, but not in fertility care. In Southeast Asia, I believe there are only three or four fertility tech companies, mostly either hardware or ecommerce. I thought it's a very interesting market: high quantum, underserved. But we don't talk about it because there are barriers to entry, such as shame and guilt.
Aspire: You’ve mentioned in the past that you have to convince people fertility tech is "not a niche sector". What are some of the misconceptions and unique barriers that femtech founders face? How do you overcome them?
I don't like the question of male and female, but the problem exists. We know 2% of total funding goes to women. There are a lot of female analysts and associates, but they’re not the ones writing the cheques. When I fundraised, I experienced it myself.
For femtech, one of the biggest challenges is that female healthcare is not well understood. Most of the research money historically goes to male afflictions. There's also a lot of medical gaslighting. When my friends see doctors, they share about their discomfort but are not understood. I don't think it's because doctors don't want to solve the problem, but rather that they don't understand it. There should be more research money spent on all this.
Two, if the people writing cheques are males, they may also not understand, not because they don't want to, but because they are unaware. Many years ago, when I was speaking to a startup founder in his office, I saw one of my friends who needed to pump breast milk. She complained that she had to pump in the copier room. When I asked the founder why he didn’t have a private room, he was completely clueless! He was only 33 years old.
But it’s not necessarily a gender problem either. At 33, I didn’t have kids. I didn’t know that you needed a room for privacy and pumping breast milk. We’ve spoken to about 400 women now, and a lot of women don't know about the egg freezing process. I did it five years ago, and I still didn't know the process until I wrote an article on it.
The other problem is cultural and emotional sensitivity. People who go for IVF treat it like a last resort. I used to joke: It's not like I can just get three brilliant tech guys to start this company, right? Because you need a very deep understanding of the problem. I'm not doing a food delivery or ecommerce app. It's a very layered problem, and at each stage, you need to know the issues.
Aspire: There are a lot of considerations. What were the other pitfalls you considered before committing to building Zora?
With startups, you make a lot of assumptions. You can do a lot of research, but we are entrepreneurs. We are optimists. I always asked: Are my assumptions even correct? Do people even want this service? I'm not doing something that has been around and improving it. To my knowledge, there's nobody doing it. It's really a new market.
So, my first worry was whether there is even a market for it? And I think so. Egg freezing for non-medical reasons was only legalised in Singapore on the first of July, and we have since made double-digit patient referrals, and that's in about two months. We even make cross-border referrals. I have patients from the US that want to seek treatment in Malaysia, and I have patients from Singapore that want to go to Thailand. I think there is a market, now it's about scaling and finding the right product-market fit.
As we grew and spoke to more patients, we wanted to understand how we bring value. That's constantly on my mind. I don't want to build a product just for the sake of building. What products do I build that women will value and use, that they will love and also will pay for?
Aspire: Developments in the conversation around egg freezing is definitely helping to unlock demand. But, out of all the reproductive health solutions to build for, it’s probably one of the more controversial. What’s it like operating at not only technological, but social and legal frontiers for women?
The more problems there are, the more opportunities we see for Zora Health. That's why I'm smiling. The more you talk about it, the more I’m thinking that it works. When I first started, I thought it’s a great opportunity, there’s a large quantum, I don't need to spend large sums of money to acquire users, and there is a path to profitability, which is important. Of course, people might think you can't be a tech company, because you're not growing at all costs. That's a different way.
But, the more I’m in this and speak to people, I begin to see how important the work is. Over the past few months, I realized that fertility is a problem that people address when it’s a bit too late. A younger friend of mine was told that she could only retrieve one viable egg. The ship has sailed. She’s only 37, so I think it's a real problem. It's just a problem that has never been talked about.
Aspire: And that’s the ideal situation as a founder, finding a real problem that you’re able to really solve for. What are your priorities for Zora Health right now and in the year ahead?
The first is focusing on our patients, going through the whole journey with them, and finding as many patients as possible. Second, we want to acquire as many clinics as possible on our network. Right now, we have about 15. This is very tricky, because every clinic and country is different. Finally, building the team. My team always laughs at me, because I'm a process-driven person, who focuses a lot on SOPs. One of my teammates joked that she'll get ‘SOP’ tattooed. I said: you're going to thank me one year later. It's easy now, when there's three of us, but things change when the team grows.
In the long term, our vision is to unlock possibilities for women's healthcare in Asia. To provide women with choices, so they can live their lives without limitations.
To do this, we need a few things. One: resources and knowledge. It’s about creating a knowledge platform for women. And then you need providers, a large network of clinics. And last, which is something that people don't talk about, is financing. When I was young, my mom had a few surgeries because of breast cancer. I was very scared, because by the time I could buy her insurance, she was not eligible for insurance. Until today, I live with that fear. What happens if she has a life-threatening disease in the future? Can I afford it? Financing is very important and that's often something people miss.
Aspire: Thanks for sharing that. A lot of your work comes from a very personal place. And on that note, what's next for Anna Vanessa Haotanto, outside of being a serial entrepreneur, TV personality, and angel investor?
I believe that maybe one day I'll have to use my own service. Because I'm 39 this year. Struggling with PCOS for the past 6 years, it will be harder for me to get pregnant. If I ever want to have kids, I believe there is a high chance I need to have IVF… and if I do, I will definitely be a Zora Health patient myself!
I'm very surprised to have found something that I truly love and care deeply about. We have an opportunity to change lives and make an impact. Even when I pitch to investors, I tell them I'm not here for five years—I'm here for ten, fifteen years. I hope this will be my last work, because there's nothing else I want in life.
Learn more about Zora Health’s fertility care solutions at https://zorahealth.co