While Shanghai sits firmly at the forefront of China’s development when it comes to the economy, it isn’t traditionally known for its innovation. However, a young company of entrepreneurs—led by a member of “Silicon Valley royalty”—is making waves in mobile app technology right here in our city. HVF (Hard, Valuable, Fun) was set up by serial entrepreneur Max Levchin—co-founder and former CTO of PayPal—earlier this year, and aims to promote and develop apps that gather and analyze user data from smartphones. HVF is registered and headquartered in California, but Max decided to base the R&D facility in Shanghai to leverage the technological talent pool coming out of the city’s top universities.

The team on the ground is headed up by Michael Huang (co-founder and CEO), Kevin Ho (co-founder and Head of Product) and Ryan Ye (co-founder and Head of Technology), and includes three permanent staff members who work on coding. When we visited the HVF office in late July, co-founder and Head of Business Chris Martinez was visiting from San Francisco. Huang, Ho and Ye are old colleagues from their time working with Levchin at Slide—a personal media-sharing service for social networking sites that was bought out by Google in 2010. Martinez joined the team after graduating from Stanford Business School.

“When Max left Google, he decided that he wanted to make more of an impact than simply developing social networks,” Huang tells us. “He wanted to work on projects that were, literally, hard, valuable and fun—hence the name. He asked us to join his incubator, and here we are!”

 Max Levchin demos Glow at the D11 Conference

During his keynote speech at the DLD13 conference in Munich in January, Levchin explained the ethos behind HVF: “At PayPal, where I was the CTO, we succeeded because we gained a deep understanding of the immense quantities of behavioral data that we captured in processing millions of transactions per day. We learned so much about our customers that we could predict their intentions, and prevent the vast majority of intentional fraud. At HVF, the project I began in 2011, we seek to create businesses that improve the analog, real world through deep understanding of data.”

After a guided tour of the HVF office overlooking People’s Square—it’s a geek’s paradise of big screens, computer consoles for down-time, a well-stocked cupboard of instant noodles and soda, and a quietly dynamic atmosphere punctuated by coders tapping their keyboards and ideas being exchanged—we sat down with Huang, Ho, Ye and Martinez to find out what they were working on.

“The main concept behind what we’re doing is based on Max’s ideas about collecting data, primarily on smartphones, and turning it into something valuable that can really benefit people,” Huang says. “One industry we are particularly interested in is insurance.” He made the point that car insurance for under-25s is automatically 30 percent higher than average. By leveraging data from people who take out insurance policies, premiums can be tweaked to tally with an individual’s driving habits. “If you only drive once a year, you get lower rates. Through information gained with consent from smartphones, such as GPS data, insurance companies get a better picture of how and when people are driving.” Traditional insurance companies do not have access to the sort of data that would allow them to better assess risk profiles.

During a brainstorming session earlier in the year, the team came upon an idea that has become their current project. Martinez explains, “We all have an interest in health. The U.S. health system has problems, especially surrounding insurance coverage. We want to help more people to get insurance, and by accessing and processing their data, we believe we can do this.”

The area of health that they decided to focus on is infertility. The infertility market in the U.S. is worth US $5 billion, and most insurance policies do not cover investigative procedures or IVF. “We created Glow, a fertility app for smartphones that has a financial element,” says He. “At its core, it is designed to help couples conceive. If they find that they can’t, it then provides a way to help them finance fertility treatment.” (see Levchin demo the app here)


The Glow App launches this August on iTunes

When a user signs up for Glow, the app requests information about their menstrual cycle, lifestyle, whether they already have children, and how long they have been trying to conceive. Once their profile is set up, the program provides fertility scores for every day of the month, as well as suggesting daily tasks to boost fertility.

“Glow is different from most generic fertility apps,” Huang tells us. “Usually, they just tell you to have sex within a few days of ovulation. Our app includes both members of the couple who are trying to conceive.”

In return for inputting daily data, the app allows couples to enter into a communal fund. Four couples pay US$50 per month into the fund, and if one couple fails to conceive after ten months, the money is given to them for a course of fertility treatment. If all four couples are successful, they get their portion of the fund reimbursed.

Glow offers a communal fund for fertility testing in exchange for user-data

“IVF in the U.S. can cost up to US$15,000 per try, with a 60 percent success rate,” Martinez says. “This is not covered by health insurance. Only 15 states require employers to cover fertility testing, but only nine of those cover IVF. With Glow, more couples will have the chance to pursue treatment.”

Currently, Glow’s financial element will only be rolled out in the U.S., but there are plans to extend coverage to Asian markets like Japan and Singapore, where the population is aging and the birth rate is falling. The app will officially launch in America in August, and trials have already borne success stories.

Lara Anne Peterson, 29,  from the U.S., for instance, had been trying to get pregnant for four months prior to using Glow. “I like entering my data into the app because it gives me fun things to do like eat chocolate, which I do without feeling guilty about it,” she says. “On top of that, I got pregnant within two months of using the Glow fertility timing methods!”

Glow is endorsed by experts from the medical sector, such as Philip E. Chenette, M.D., one of America’s top fertility doctors and a director at the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco.

“The interface is well done—silky smooth and intuitive. I have never seen something like this before ... The next step would be to make this bi-directional,” he suggests. “The patient can submit their data to [the doctor]; [the doctor] can reply with instructions for next month—a medication calendar, or timing of intercourse, etc.”


 The HVF team in their People's Square office

As for the future of HVF in Shanghai, the focus is firmly on attracting talent. Head of Technology Ye studied at Fudan University, and is keen to encourage more young graduates to join start-ups. “Most talents in Shanghai graduate from top schools and go to work for big companies. They find success, but their contribution to the company isn’t so significant, as the big firms like IBM and Microsoft already have a lot of talent,” he explains. “However, if they work in a start-up environment, then they can really make a difference.”

“People in China are more risk averse,” Mike adds. “When they graduate from prestigious universities like Fudan, they tend to look for jobs at a renowned company that will offer stability and prestige. That’s understandable, but the start-up world is much more exciting.”

With its links to Silicon Valley and well-known entrepreneurs like Max Levchin, HVF aims to help entrepreneurs transform the technological landscape of Shanghai, while providing apps that will benefit on a very human level.