Lioness has been pioneering sex tech since 2017, but this was the first year the company was allowed to exhibit its AI-enabled sex toy at one of the world’s biggest tech shows.
The Consumer Technology Association backtracked on its earlier policies and allowed sex-positive tech companies to display their wares at CES, which took place earlier this month in Las Vegas.
I found Liz Klinger, CEO of Lioness, in the health and wellness marketplace of CES. In a small booth, she was showing a vibrator with a patented biofeedback technology that she says can help you improve your sex life.
The San Francisco company is launching Lioness Generation 2 in mid-2020 with AI-assisted guidance, based on years of working with Lioness customers. To design its products, the company has analyzed data on more than 30,000 orgasms and numerous user studies.
The goal is to personalize vibrators to produce better orgasms and help people learn what works best for them. The gadget was a top 10 finalist for The Last Gadget Standing contest at CES.
Klinger started the company with Anna Lee and James Wang, and the team put a lot of research and development into their project. I had an opportunity to speak with Klinger at CES.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: Can you tell me about the background behind Lioness?
Liz Klinger: Our first product, the Lioness vibrator, uses biofeedback and precision sensors so you can literally see your own arousal and orgasm. You use Lioness like a normal vibrator, and then when you have a session where you want to see what happened, you can go to the app and look at data about yourself.
This is showing force over time — pelvic floor muscle contractions, vaginal contractions. You’re able to add different tags and notes about the experience. Some folks track whether they’ve been stressed, whether they’ve used this with a partner, whether they’ve used alcohol or cannabis or CBD, all sorts of different things — whatever they’re interested in tracking to get a better sense of what works for them specifically.
VentureBeat: Where are the sensors located? Are they all over the device?
Klinger: The two main sensors are — you see these little knobs here. These are force sensors, detecting how much you squeeze or not. There are other sensors in there to balance out — for example, there’s a gyro inside. You’re going to be doing different movements, so you want to balance out whether this is at an angle and other things. There’s also a temperature sensor, mainly as a way to automatically start recording a session, picking up changes in body temperature. We’re trying to find a way to avoid having too many buttons, to make it automated and seamless. When you’re using the vibrator, it’s just a vibrator experience.
VentureBeat: Is this the first product so far for the company, or have you done other stuff?
Klinger: This is our first product, our baby. At CES this year we’re rolling out the AI guidance. We launched back in 2017, and over time we’ve been able to analyze more than 30,000 anonymized sessions. We put together an algorithm that’s able to show these hot spots, where people have higher arousal and more likelihood of orgasm. It’s this very regular motion from the pelvic floor, about 1-2 hertz, very rapid succession. We’re also able to show — “Okay, you’re kind of close here, or in other areas.”
That’s particularly useful for people who — a lot of women have questions about, “Was that an orgasm?” Some people have questions like, “I’ve never had an orgasm before. Am I getting closer or not?” And some people just want to better understand their own experience. “What makes for a better experience for me?”
VentureBeat: Did you have to run something like a clinical study for this?
Klinger: That’s actually one of our next things that we’re working on. One of the challenges that we had launching the product was that the more we were setting things up and trying to figure out — “Okay, what sort of information can we offer to people at this point? What’s already available in the research?” There’s barely any physiological research on the function of arousal and orgasm, particularly for women and people with vaginas. It’s unfortunate. A lot of the cutting-edge research was from the 1980s, longer ago than I’ve been alive.
It’s still useful. There are basic building blocks. It’s how we were able to show — “This is what an orgasm generally is, the general definition of it.” One interesting example, with erectile dysfunction for men, you have things like Viagra and Cialis. One of the big things with the blue pill, when that launched out into the market, not only were more men going to the doctor to ask for it, but the doctors knew that when they came in to ask for it, there might not just be a problem with the genitals. There might be overall blood flow issues, heart attack risk, other things to screen for.
For women, there’s no analog to that, even though heart attacks are the leading cause of death for women — in part because there’s just been a lack of research and focus in that area. There’s been this jump over that phase of research and understanding for women, even though it’s kind of a big deal.
VentureBeat: And now you can collect an amount of data that no one ever had access to before.
Klinger: Exactly. And even though a lot of the research on female sexual function today — a lot of it is collected via survey data. There’s FSFI, the Female Sexual Function Index, a survey that you fill out. A lot of different drug companies use it. It’s one piece of the puzzle, but it’s not necessarily — it’s a lot less robust if you just have that compared to having both that and the physiological data.
VentureBeat: So product improvement is one reason, but there are also research purposes for collecting these analytics.
Klinger: Right. We’re starting to do some of that. Some of the stuff I did over the last two years — one was a case study that I presented to a rehabilitation nursing conference last year, on the case of a person who’d had a concussion. She happened to have a Lioness, and she saw an overnight change in her orgasm. It basically flatlined. She also had a lot of head pressure and headaches, so it was very much a struggle.
The realization that it wasn’t — she thought the vibrator was broken, which is how we learned about it. But the realization that there was something wrong with her got her to take her injuries more seriously. She’s a derby player. She wanted to get back into the sport and push people around and all that. But this led her to realize that she really needed to take care of herself.
We’ve also done more fun projects. There’s a data project we did with Eaze, the cannabis company, where we got a couple of Lioness users, volunteers, people who already had Lioness, and we worked with Eaze to have them try different products, cannabis and CBD products, and compare the effects of those products on their overall experience. It’s been interesting. There’s a huge landscape of all these different questions and possibilities out there about how pleasure plays a role in all these different parts of our lives. I’m excited to explore it all.
VentureBeat: There’s a bunch of sex tech companies at CES this year, finally. Do you feel like you’re doing something different, taking a different route from the others?
Klinger: For us, it’s always been more about the biofeedback and the data and insights we’re able to offer people with our technology. That’s the thing that our customers are really looking for. It’s difficult to do. A lot of these sensors in here are — it’s just recently, in the last couple of years, that the costs have started to go down.
Another aspect of it is we have Anna, my cofounder on the team. She used to work at Amazon Lab126 as a mechanical engineer. She knows her way around sensors and everything. She’s a specialized person in the space. James, my other cofounder — he’s a data scientist. He used to work at Google and Bridgewater Associates. He knows his way around data, privacy, all those aspects of the product. You need a lot of different specialties to do this. There are also different barriers to entry for things like fundraising, advertising, all the things that sex tech companies have to deal with.
VentureBeat: What is the history there? Did you have to go through a long process getting funding?
Klinger: We bootstrapped for the first couple of years, developing the product. We raised about $1.5 million from Creative Ventures and a couple of different individual angel investors to get the product off the ground. That was around 2016. At this point we’re profitable, so we’re not chasing people for cash, thankfully. But at the same time we’re figuring out what’s the best route to follow next, and being careful about who we partner with. You don’t want to partner with just any investor.
VentureBeat: CTA had their whole episode with Lora DiCarlo, which was very educational for everyone. That seemed to come at a time when — it seems like this was a neglected market that started getting attention and funding. What do you think changed?
Klinger: At least in terms of CES, it’s been an interesting history. As far as femme tech and sex tech, and in terms of our experience in the past — I’ve been to CES maybe four times now. In that snapshot, I’ve seen a lot of changes over those four times I’ve been here in five or six years.
A couple of years ago, there was that “mother and baby” section. I don’t know if you remember. It was a separate room. One of my friends who has a maternal company called it the “baby ghetto.” That was where all the mom and baby stuff was, but then also they had things like 3D printing nail polish machines. How is that related to maternal things? It was confusing. A lot of the women’s stuff was just shoved over there, at least that year, when I was first here.
Slowly, but surely, it’s been merged into the rest of health and wellness. It’s interesting to see the slow but consistent acceptance. Stuff for women, stuff for vaginas, stuff that isn’t traditionally thought of as technology or “normal” devices, it’s here now. For us, with Lioness, we’ve been denied by CES for years. This is our first year officially here. We did the Artgasm thing that you covered last year. That was interesting, because Artgasm was partly a way to show pleasure as art. It’s not a vibrator. We’re talking about art. But that didn’t fly with the CTA.
In 2018, there were a couple of connections. Since we’re connected with UC Berkeley and Stanford, someone had a booth space that they weren’t really using. They weren’t a startup. They said, “I don’t know why we got this in the first place, so you use it for a few days.” I came in with a banner, set it up, and did my thing. There was no controversy. People just walked by, or they’d come up and talk. That was it.
But the experience was frustrating. I remember the same year that Lioness was denied by the CTA, the VR porn stuff showed up. Where are you drawing the line? You’re not allowing us in because we deal with adult content and pleasure, but they’re — this just doesn’t make sense. I think the linchpin, at least for CES, was Lora DiCarlo with the receipts. They had these back and forth messages from Gary Shapiro, signed by him and the other executive, saying, “Your product is indecent. You shouldn’t have gotten this award. It’s not robotics.” People saw that and said, “That’s what’s going on? This is what’s been going on for years?”
VentureBeat: I remember looking at their technology, the micro-robotics, and thinking it was pretty cool. Regardless of where you’re applying it, the actual technology was really interesting to people.
Klinger: Right. And as soon as the CTA found out what they were specifically doing with the technology — “Okay, let’s put an ix-nay on the agina-vay.”
VentureBeat: It seems like we have a positive outcome now. I don’t know how painful it was behind the scenes, but —
Klinger: Now, yeah. It’s nice now, for sure. It’s interesting. I’ve also seen companies that have come up and died because — to be frank, CES and these other large organizations, they’re the gatekeepers that determine what’s hot or not in technology, setting the trends and the tone for the coming year. By not having all these different sex tech companies, with a few exceptions here, we’re being overlooked as a category, even though it’s a category that, like everything else, people buy and use in their daily lives.
VentureBeat: The decision to connect it to health and wellness seems like the right direction. They don’t just have a red-light district here. You’re spread throughout the whole section.
Klinger: It’s definitely a positive step for the category and for the mainstreaming of it. Thinking about it — some of the conversations I’ve been having in terms of CTA and the rules they have for sex tech specifically, how do they interpret the rules they’ve set? We had to submit all of our signage and everything beforehand for them to approve before we could print it. For the folks over at Crave, they had a similar thing, where they had very subtle cleavage showing with their necklace vibrator, and the CTA had a problem with that. It’s like, the necklace sits here. What are we supposed to do? Get a flat-chested model? What do you want? It’s a tough case.
VentureBeat: You get into these distinctions where they’re trying to decide what’s sex-positive and what’s exploitative or just porn. I’m sure the more they try to dice this, the harder it becomes.
Klinger: Way back when, when I was in college, I presented a paper on “pornartgraphy,” the distinction between fine art and pornography. Talking about how the distinction is so difficult to pinpoint. “This is art, but this is porn.” And it changes over time. It changes based on culture.
The tricky thing with CES is you do have people from all over the world coming through. Even for us, if you have someone from, say, Saudi Arabia coming through — sex toys are illegal there. You try to gauge the comfort level in terms of the subject. I can see where they’re coming from with certain aspects of it, especially the more explicit body aspects. But with that said, it gets so messy. Even around the corner, with the cleavage — you can barely see anything. It’s the subtlest shading. Just picking at random things. It’s beyond my pay grade.
VentureBeat: The CTA needs to find some more experts there.
Klinger: We’ll see. It’s a step in the right direction, though. You do have some sexual wellness stuff around, which is nice.
VentureBeat: Do you know how many sex tech companies are here now in total?
Klinger: I think there’s about a dozen. I’m not sure if they’re counting the sperm-tracking one. But we’re doing some cool stuff.
VentureBeat: What else is coming up for you? Do you have more products in development?
Klinger: The main thing is, in terms of the AI guidance, we’re going to be rolling that out in mid-2020 to all Lioness customers. Even the folks who supported us in the Indiegogo campaign, as early as that, they’ll be able to get this as a free firmware update. That’s particularly important, because it’s a more — this is a $229 product. It’s a premium product.
VentureBeat: You need to differentiate it.
Klinger: Right. For some folks, they’re getting a new experience over time from the same product that they bought. It’s cool to have that, to not just have this one thing and that’s it.
VentureBeat: Do you have expectations for a broader family of products, or do you want to focus on this?
Klinger: At least in the near future, we’re sticking with this one. Looking down the line, we’re looking at different possibilities as far as a suite of products. We’re trying to figure out the best way to do that. It’s on the road map, but I don’t have anything where I can say, “Yes, we’re doing this.” We’re thinking about it, for sure.
VentureBeat: How many people work at Lioness now?
Klinger: There are five of us. I should also mention, we’re a finalist for both Last Gadget Standing and also for Engadget’s best of CES for digital health and fitness. That’s cool. “Wow, we’re legitimate now!” It’s amazing.