Banking On Sperm

  • It came to him in a dream. Ole Schou was a young Danish business student when he awoke one morning two decades ago with images of spermatozoa swimming in his head. Schou's strange nocturnal vision gave rise to an obsession. "Some people collect stamps; others play golf," he explains. "I studied sperm." With no scientific or medical training, Schou set out to make himself an expert, poring over the scientific literature and consulting specialists about different methods for freezing sperm. His goal: to establish "the best sperm bank in the world."

    Schou's single-minded devotion has paid off. Cryos, the company he founded in 1987 in the Danish city of Aarhus, claims to be the world's largest sperm bank, with more than 200 active donors and revenues nearing $1 million. In the high-tech world of modern reproduction, sperm is becoming a controversial business, and with his aggressive entrepreneurial flair, Schou is something of a trailblazer. Last year Cryos signed a special agreement with British authorities that will allow the firm to make bulk exports to a Scottish clinic that cannot find donors to meet its tough standards. Schou, 45, estimates that British sales could eventually bring the company more than $2 million annually.

    Cryos has benefited from a bewildering patchwork of European rules governing sperm donation. In Britain, for example, the law dictates that a single donor can father only 10 children. In Denmark, whose population of 5 million is less than one-tenth of Britain's, the limit is 25. In Austria and Sweden, laws allow children conceived through sperm donation to seek the identity of their parents when the children reach age 18. Denmark, however, has more sweeping protection of donor anonymity: Cryos does not maintain a record of its donors' names, using a coded identification number instead. According to Schou, the Swedish law has resulted in such a severe donor shortage that hundreds of Swedish couples seek help each year in Denmark. Attracting donors is not much of a problem in Aarhus, which has a large university population. But only about 10% of those who apply make it through the screening process, which includes a psychological assessment as well as a battery of medical tests to rule out HIV, hepatitis and other diseases.

    Cryos does not maintain the exhaustive profiles of donor characteristics used by U.S. sperm banks. The company limits its data to such fundamentals as hair and eye color, height and ethnic classification, which, says Schou, is the main difference from what he calls the "couture style" U.S. system of merchandising sperm. He is critical of the U.S. reliance on "positive eugenics," his term for the penchant for selecting donors based on detailed genetic, physical and psychological profiles.

    Schou believes sperm banks should practice "negative eugenics," testing for disease and severe genetic defects only to the extent that an average couple would. On the other hand, to supply a global marketplace, he is having to bend his principles. Cryos now supplies a few U.S. clinics with sperm, and in those cases has begun to provide more extensive donor profiles. To service increasing demand for non-Scandinavian ethnic types, Schou cooperates with a handful of overseas sperm banks.

    Cryos appears likely to continue to dominate Europe's commercial sperm-donor industry, and its growing success is provoking some criticism. Charles Sims, a clinical pathologist who co-founded California Cryobank, the best-known U.S. sperm bank, thinks Cryos' claims of market dominance are misplaced. "Sperm is not a commodity," he says. "It's not something you're selling like aspirin." But Ole Schou shrugs off those views. He is passionate about his company's mission to help thousands of would-be parents. In fact, he and his wife are about to become first-time parents--the old-fashioned way. "We've been working at it for many years, and believe me, it's not that easy."