Oregon Women Are Inventing Better Orgasms

Entrepreneurs here are proving that some niche markets might not be so niche after all. They just serve populations that have never been taken seriously.

(Wesley Lapointe)

Lora Haddock's business plan began with a climax.

"I think was about 28, and I had this crazy blended orgasm," she says, "which is where you stimulate both the clitoris and the G-spot at the same time. I fell off the bed and onto the floor. I kind of just lay there like a drooling idiot for a while, and then I was like, 'Oh my God. How do I do that again?'"

It was 2014. Haddock was a premed student at Portland State University, studying to become an orthopedic surgeon. She dropped out and started designing her own sex toy.

She surveyed around 200 people about their bodies and their orgasms. She started in living rooms, with her friends.

"I was asking, 'Where's your clitoris? How big is it? Where is your G-spot? Can you reach it?'" she says.

Soon, Haddock—a commanding presence with jet black hair, boldly red-painted lips and a piercing gaze that seems designed to accompany an uncomfortable question—had an idea for a prototype: a toy that uses robotics technology to mimic human sensations—"mouth, tongue and fingers"—while stimulating both the clitoris and G-spot simultaneously.

Five years later, Haddock, 33, has a company in Bend called Lora DiCarlo, with more than $3.2 million in funding from private investors, the state of Oregon, and even federal tax breaks. She's created a sleek orgasm robot named Osé—which means "risqué" in Italian.

Lora DiCarlo owns nine patents for the technology Osé employs, and the toy will be released this fall. You can have one for $290.

Lora Haddock invented a sleek new orgasm robot, Osé, which mimics human touch.

Haddock isn't the only Oregonian on a quest to build better sex tech. This state has become a hub for entrepreneurs whose focus is on the sexual health of people with vaginas. (Haddock and others use the phrase "people with vaginas," not "women," because some nonbinary people and trans men also have vaginas.)

In the sex toy world, products made for and by straight men are ever-present.

Oregon is proving a disruptor.

In the past decade, nearly a dozen sex toy startups have emerged in Oregon—offering everything from lube and vibrators to handmade dildos and bespoke leather dildo harnesses. All are women- and queer-owned and -focused. Several founders tell WW that Oregon is a hub for female "pleasure tech" because of the area's unusually sex-positive culture.

"Nobody says, 'Oh, I don't know if that's a feasible thing to do,'" says Andrea McBeth, co-founder of Quasar, another local pleasure tech startup. "Everybody's response is generally, 'That's amazing. When can I get one? How can we help you?'"

These companies are in a friendly race for a better vaginal orgasm—and Haddock is in the lead.

Nitin Rai, founder and managing director of the Portland venture fund Elevate Capital, sees potential—and money.

He says investors are increasingly looking to fund sex tech entrepreneurs like Haddock, who have tapped into a growing market. Some estimate the female sex toy industry is worth more than $20 billion. (Data from international sex toy retailer Love Honey shows that as of 2016, Oregon ranks fifth in the U.S. for most sex toys sold per capita.)

"The market size is not insignificant," says Rai, who hasn't yet invested in Lora DiCarlo but is watching the company closely. "Look what happened when cannabis was legalized. Suddenly a level of professionalism has entered the cannabis market and serious business people are looking at it as a market of opportunity."

Haddock is leading that wave for sex tech, he says. "She identified a problem and found a unique solution, which she could articulate without any fear," he says. "The stigma went away in her pitch."

Haddock's successful fundraising doesn't just represent a departure from hidebound thinking. She's showing that markets for people whose desires have long been ignored can be wildly lucrative.

"Ten or 20 years ago, people would shame you for being an activist company," Haddock says. "Now, investors are coming to us."

Quasar co-founders Stephanie Raven (left) and Andrea McBeth (right).

Like a lot of Portlanders, Andrea McBeth spent an unseasonably gray morning last week working in a coffee shop. Unlike them, she was designing a vibrator.

McBeth, 33, is one of six founders of Quasar, a Portland startup designing an anatomically customizable vibrator.

Working remotely from Crema Cafe in Southeast Portland, McBeth—a gentle-natured naturopathic doctor—was putting together a pitch deck, which will be used to try to get investors to fund the idea.

Customization, McBeth says, is key to Quasar's business plan.

"Some people have deep vaginas," McBeth says, "and want something with girth. And some people have short vaginas and don't want deep penetration."

Quasar was conceived two years ago, when McBeth and five of her friends—Stephanie Raven, Molly Ellis, Kate Murray, Mallory Aye-Englert and Ashly Benson—met for their annual "kinky Christmas party."

"We're all naturopathic doctors and we all went to school together," Raven says. "We have an annual tradition of having a white elephant exchange, but with sex toys."

That year, the conversation turned to gripes about expensive sex toy purchases that didn't fit their bodies.

"That's just money wasted, and you obviously can't return sex toys," Raven says. "We all had at least one of those experiences. So one of the members of our group, Kate Murray, was like, 'Why isn't there a sex toy made based on people's anatomy?'"

Now there was an idea.

The group instantly pulled out their laptops and iPhones and started Googling "customized sex toy based on anatomy." When their searches for products for people with vaginas came up empty, they unanimously decided to make their own.

Their plan? Get data from individuals with vaginas in order to manufacture customized vibrators based on the user's unique anatomy. (Because they are still in the process of applying for a patent, the specifics of how the toys will be customized and manufactured is still proprietary—and they guard the information intensely.)

"Anatomical variation and preference is so vast that of course you can't find a one-size-fits-all toy," McBeth says. "We're trying to address the fact that people with vaginas' orgasms matter."

Quasar’s founders at a design meeting.

McBeth says the startup needs to raise $50,000 to get its vibrator to market. The group hopes to launch a Kickstarter in October. Other people are getting behind the idea.

Word-of-mouth networking connected Quasar with Supply, a Portland design and brand development firm that agreed to build Quasar's website for free.

"We're a company that was founded by four white dudes," says Matthew Baranauskas, the Supply strategist working with Quasar, "and we're always looking for opportunities to work outside of our comfort zone and gain experience with a lot of different kinds of companies, not just the Nikes of the world."

Quasar's sole donation so far came from a woman in her 60s who overheard the team talking about its product and decided to write a $10,000 check on the spot, requesting that she remain anonymous.

Now, the group is getting material ready for pitch competitions, such as Lesbians Who Tech, and searching for grants to apply for.

The path was blazed by Haddock—in some unlikely parts of Oregon.

Oregon State University campus (OSU)

Haddock started asking people about their vaginas in 2014. And they answered.

At first, they would "get nervous and fluttery and blush," she recalls.

But then they started talking—telling her exactly what they liked and what they wanted in a toy. Which, Haddock says boiled down to three things: something that mimicked the feel of a human partner, was hands-free, and could be customized.

She eventually collected written and verbal surveys from 200 respondents, in Portland and Bend.

Haddock's mom, Linda, says her daughter's zeal came as no surprise.

"It's totally Lora," she says. "She's a sexual person and she has a lot of curiosity. I've known from the time she was little that if she put her head to something, I should just back up and let her do it, because she was going to get it done."

In January 2018, Haddock landed a partnership with Oregon State University's robotics department, which is ranked No. 4 in the nation.

Haddock’s smart vibrator was designed by OSU students as part of a six-month research project.

For six months, in a research project conducted by OSU and financed by Lora DiCarlo, a team of 10 student mechanical engineers worked to create a prototype of Osé, Haddock's smart vibrator.

Dr. John Parmigiani, who heads the Prototype Development Lab at OSU, says getting the culturally conservative university to agree to partner with a sex toy startup for a research project wasn't easy.

"When I went into the discussion with [Haddock] and she told me that her particular idea was for a sex tech product, I did think, 'Boy, is this something that we want to do at Oregon State?'" Parmigiani says. "You can imagine it doesn't take a lot of creativity to come up with a hundred ways this could go bad."

He says persuading the rest of the faculty was a struggle. But Haddock's data won them over.

"She'd gone out and taken measurements for a population of women," he says, "and I quickly realized that this was a well-posed mechanical engineering problem."

Parmigiani says the partnership was such a success that he's now "seeking other Lora Haddocks with wonderful, market-worthy ideas that need someone to lead engineering to build the first prototype."

One of Haddock's biggest investors is the state of Oregon itself—the state government funded Lora DiCarlo nearly $100,000. The company has also seized on Trump tax breaks designed to revive economic wastelands.

Haddock has scored nearly $3.1 million from private investors, many of them motivated by the promise of a federal tax break.

One of those funders was Richard Kado, president of the Canadian foundation Kado Family Inc. Kado didn't disclose exactly how much he invested, but he says it "wasn't a marginal amount."

"I'm always looking for things that are game changers," Kado says, "and this, in my mind, is a game changer because of the way it intersects robotics and women's health."

Haddock and the Quasar founders both faced one last hurdle: engineering the vibrator.

One person in Oregon was uniquely suited for the task.

Lola Vars is the person Oregon entrepreneurs call to engineer their sex tech. She says women “are not in power in the sex and pleasure industry,” but should be.

Lola Vars has always been interested in constructing things.

For a decade, she built houses and taught ceramics classes in Portland. Then Vars, 39, headed south to Corvallis to pursue a mechanical engineering doctorate at Oregon State University.

Her mentors and colleagues talk about her like she's already an American legend—the Annie Oakley of robotics.

"She's one of the most innovative and gifted people in the design world," says Dr. Robert Stone, Vars' Ph.D. adviser at OSU. "She's not just book smart, she knows what it means to make and manufacture things."

McBeth says, "She's kind of a magical unicorn."

Vars likes vintage Trail Blazers T-shirts and tattoos. She's red-haired, whip-smart and can speak as eloquently about feminist design practices as she can about memes. She says her advantage is being one of few women in Oregon engineering. That means she not only has the technical knowledge to design sex tech for people with vaginas, but she'll actually use the products.

"Women are sitting at the table for the first time as designers of toys for their own pleasure," Vars says.

Vars is the one person Oregon's pleasure tech startups have in common. She was the technical director at Lora DiCarlo and is now an engineering consultant for Quasar. Entrepreneurs turn to her because when they have an idea, she can engineer it.

OSU's Parmigiani says he recruited Vars onto the Lora DiCarlo team when a different project he'd been planning fell through. He says she "was immediately intrigued by it."

Vars says she had no specific interest in sex tech before working for Lora DiCarlo. It radicalized her. "I realized just how much of sex tech and pleasure tech is still run by men," she says.

Products like the ones Vars is helping design are unique in that they consider clitoral anatomy and user experiences in a way that most others do not.

Osé, for example, doesn't use typical vibration patterns but rather bio-mimicry to replicate human sensations. Devices such as Osé are also designed to stimulate the clitoris and the internal G-spot at the same time, while most other toys on the market target only one or the other.

(Haddock says the toy will be manufactured out of the country—she wouldn't say where—because no one in Oregon was capable of producing the micro-robotic products on a mass scale.)

"These are women having sexual experiences with partners and with toys and saying, 'I think we can do better,'" Vars says. "I'm excited to be in a place to help with engineering because it almost feels like a social responsibility."

She says that while working on the team that developed Osé at OSU, she was often forced to educate her male colleagues on "what exactly goes on during sex with women."

She found those conversations alarming.

"As a queer woman, it sometimes felt like a really great position to be in and sometimes felt like the definition of unpaid emotional labor," she says. "I'm starting to realize they've maybe never known what they were doing, which is a little terrifying. I would have six or seven men be like, 'Wait, women can do that?' And I'd be like, 'Uh-huh. She never told you?'"

Ashly Benson (left) and Lola Vars (right) at Quasar design meeting.

The pioneers of Oregon's pleasure tech say nobody ever expresses disgust with their projects. But that doesn't mean they're excited.

"The weird thing is that nobody will come out and say they don't agree with you," Vars says. "Everybody's like, 'Yeah, women's sexuality is awesome.' And I'm like, 'Then who's making these decisions? Why aren't investors flocking to our door?'"

Vars is hopeful that Portland can be a city where the pursuit of female pleasure is accepted and financed, but she's not sure: "Portland can sometimes represent itself as a far more forward-thinking place than it actually is."

Dayna Crozier is a Portland writer and editor. Like Quasar, she is working with Vars on designs for her new vibrator startup, which is so new it hasn't announced a name. Crozier believes she's entering the world of sex tech at a time when "people's minds are opening up and they're realizing that there's money to be made." While Crozier has a concept for the toy she'd like to create, she hasn't begun manufacturing a prototype.

One roadblock? The first two banks where she went to open accounts rejected her.

"A Chase branch manager turned me down because they were afraid it was going to go against the company's rule of not working with strip clubs or anything porn-related," Crozier says.

Eventually, she was able to open an account at Portland-based Umpqua Bank. She hopes to rely on self-funding to get her vibrator to market.

She's not alone in receiving barbed responses to her sex toy company pitch. "I'm used to getting things thrown back in my face for trying to stand up for myself," Haddock says, "and being called whiny or bitchy."

Chelsea Herbert and Rosie Jones, founders of a separate company, the Portland Toy Company, which launched last year selling handmade dildos, say they've been surprised by the amount of support they've received here. The duo craft silicone dildos out of Jones' home studio and sell them via their own Etsy shop and the online retailer Spectrum Boutique.

"I couldn't see myself doing this in Arizona," Herbert says of her home state. "Even when I talk about it with people when I visit, they're like, 'What?' Or it's a lot of giggling. It's really taboo."

But even in Portland, Herbert and Jones say they've been dismissed or denied opportunities multiple times because of the nature of their business.

"There are some people who, on paper, are like, 'Yeah, I'm sex positive.' But then when we've tried to be involved in their events, all of a sudden we're shoved in a closet off to the side," Jones says. "Even people who are well-intentioned, I think when it comes down to actually presenting sex toys, they don't really know how to navigate that."

By many measurements, Portland is still a small city with big ambitions. It'll probably never be the nation's tech capital. But entrepreneurs here—in cannabis, craft beer and, now, sex toys—are proving that some niche markets might not be so niche after all. They just serve populations that have never been taken seriously.

Evie Smith, founder of Portland-based Rebellious PR and Consulting, works specifically with underrepresented founders in sexual health across the nation, including Lora DiCarlo. She says the Pacific Northwest is helping to change the sex tech ecosystem.

"There are a lot of early stage female-founded companies here," Smith says. "Within that, so many of today's women founders are really body and sex positive. There's an authentic shift in thinking because of that."

McBeth says Quasar's founders don't have any choice but to smash expectations.

"Between the six of us," she says, "we have a million and a half dollars in student loan debt, so we don't have a choice but to be entrepreneurial."

At a recent design meeting, the Quasar group lounged on floor cushions around a small white board, reading aloud from medical journals on clitoral anatomy.

Trump Tax Breaks Helped Fund Women's Pleasure Tech

Lora Haddock's sex toy company has a very unlikely benefactor: President Donald J. Trump.

In 2017, Congress passed a package of tax cuts backed by the Trump administration. Among them? The creation of "opportunity zones," geographic areas across the country where investors can defer capital gains taxes. The goal was to spur development in low-income census tracts.

Under Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon defined these zones expansively—more than 10 percent of the state is in an opportunity zone. Most of the investment sparked by the tax deferment has gone into real estate, including apartment towers along Portland's waterfront.

But $3.1 million has gone to developing Haddock's vibrators.

As first reported last month by the Portland Business Journal, Haddock intentionally located her startup, Lora DiCarlo, in two Oregon cities with opportunity zones: Bend and Corvallis. She then worked with an accountant and the law firm Stoel Rives to create a firm called the Oregon Opportunity Zone Limited Partnership, in which investors can place capital gains.

"We saw a good opportunity to take money from wealthy individuals," Haddock says. "Investors get some really great benefits because it's in an opportunity zone—they invest in the fund, and when they pull that money out in 10 years, there's no taxation whatsoever."

This was clever bookkeeping—and fits within U.S. Treasury guidelines for opportunity zones. It means Trump tax breaks will subsidize investment in a sex toy designed to increase the pleasure of people with vaginas.

James Buchal, chairman of the Multnomah County Republican party, says he's not thrilled about the tax breaks—but not because they are boosting a sex toy startup.

"I think we should have a simple tax system that taxes everybody," he says. "I'm utterly against giving some companies special tax breaks. It makes a terrible mess out of things."

Meanwhile, another $99,637 was directly invested in March by the state of Oregon. Business Oregon awarded Lori DiCarlo that money as part of a program aimed at boosting startups that partner with Oregon's universities on research and development. (Much of Haddock's engineering was conducted at Oregon State University.)

"Taking the sex part out of it," says Business Oregon spokesman Nathan Buehler, "this was an interesting tech project."

Dr. Ada-Rhodes Short, Lora DiCarlo’s senior mechatronic design engineer.

A National Tech Show Rejected Lora Haddock's Invention. That Was a Mistake.

Last October, Lora Haddock's smart vibrator, Osé, won an innovation award in the robotics and drone product category at the Consumer Electronics Show—an enormous annual event in Las Vegas that showcases breakthrough technology from around the world.

Three months later, the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, stripped Osé of the award and banned Haddock's company, Lora DiCarlo, from exhibiting again. At the time, CTA spokeswoman Sarah Brown said the award was revoked because Osé "[did] not fit any of [CTA's] existing product categories."

It seemed like a defeat for Lora DiCarlo, the Bend, Ore.-based company that engineers sex toys for vaginal pleasure. But the setback put Osé on the map.

News of CTA rescinding the award spread quickly—with stories in publications like Wired, Glamour, Forbes and The New York Times. Haddock says by March, more than 200 articles had been written about the controversy, both nationally and internationally.

"This year's refusal to let the Osé on the show floor smacks of hypocrisy, given that sex robots and VR porn have both been presented at past shows," Wired wrote. "The difference? Sex robots are for men to stick their penises into—you know, for fun. According to the world's consumer tech show, women's pleasure still just doesn't matter."

By May, a ridiculed CTA announced it was giving the award back, saying it "did not handle this award properly."

Two months later, the association announced it had updated its policies for the 2020 CES to include a sex tech category. According to a press release, "tech-based sexual products" will be included at the show "on a one-year trial basis as part of the Health & Wellness product category."

Nitin Rai, who founded Portland's Elevate Capital, a fund that invests in startups run by women and people of color, says the reversal is a watershed moment.

"Haddock is the catalyst for CES changing its policies," Rai says, "That lends a lot of credibility to the industry."

Haddock says she's "cautiously optimistic about how the policy turned out and what the 2020 show ends up looking like."

Evie Smith, founder of Portland-based Rebellious PR and Consulting, which works with Lora DiCarlo, says the controversy exposed CES's "women and minority problem."

"Putting sex tech in the show is an acknowledgement that the next generation of entrepreneurs are women," she says, "and we advocate for our own health because nobody else will and nobody else has."

Note: This article has been edited to refer to Quasar as a pleasure tech startup rather than a vibrator startup. 

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