Their investors call them disruptive innovators. Detractors like North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein call them “dirty scammers.” But Leda Health co-founders Madison Campbell and Liesel Vaidya think of themselves as advocates for sexual assault survivors.
Among the feminists leveraging Ethereum for subversive use cases, Leda Health’s do-it-yourself evidence-collecting kit for sexual assault survivors is among the most ambitious projects. So far, 16 members of Congress condemned Leda Health’s upcoming kits, which Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel described as “shamelessly trying to take financial advantage of the #MeToo movement.” Leda Health’s DIY kit was nearly banned in New Hampshire and Utah before it even launched. But that hasn’t deterred Campbell and Vaidya.
Campbell is a survivor herself, so she knows the reasons people don’t immediately go to police after an assault. In her case, by the time she’d grappled with the trauma and was ready to come forward, it would have just been her word against his.
“There are also rape kits in every state that have been lost,” Campbell said. “The sheer amount of sexual assault survivors that reach out to me and tell me this product could change their lives, that’s what keeps me going.”
As such, Campbell said her startup plans to launch these kits in fall 2021, partnering with several universities for a beta rollout. Support services, to complement the take-home kits, include therapy and transformative justice groups run by licensed facilitators.
“We plan on being a business-to-business company, for universities and corporations and the military, partners like that,” Campbell said. “Our goal is for institutions to eventually pay for products and services to help these students. We know it will be difficult, that we’ll need a lot of case studies showing whether this helps… including healing work with people who committed harm about accountability and boundaries, to end that cycle of harm.”
Starting by offering institutions free therapy services and resources should seem like a no-brainer. Yet critics argue these kits give survivors false hope, because they are less effective in court than rape kits managed by law enforcement and related clinics. On the other hand, every year tens of thousands of rape kits aren’t tested by police.
Vaidya said Leda Health’s Ethereum-powered mobile app gives survivors the choice to document their own accounts, using blockchain technology for time-stamping evidence collected in the kit, which puts power back in survivors’ hands.
“We’re not in the business of proving consent. We’re just in the business of providing resources,” Vaidya said.
According to Chief Deputy District Attorney John Henry, in California’s Riverside County, this commercial product will be the first of its kind. He said it’s too soon to tell whether this could help survivors who are, for whatever reason, reluctant to immediately turn to law enforcement. Timing is also a factor. If the survivor is unable to get to a clinic promptly after the assault, there won’t be any biological evidence left to collect.
Love them or hate them, there’s no denying these blockchain-savvy entrepreneurs are challenging the status quo in a space where women are horrifically underserved.
“Nurses and police have some degree of experience and training on what to ask, where to follow up, what information is important. That is information the general public doesn’t have. As a prosecutor, I’d rather have those statements, and the additional investigation that goes on, done by law enforcement and medical personnel,” Henry said. “If a kit is collected in a way that is inconsistent with regulations and best practices, it’s not inadmissible. But that is something the jury would need to take into account… I can see the benefit of some type of evidence, as opposed to none. I can’t give a definitive opinion yet about whether it [Leda Health] is a good idea or a bad idea.”
A rape kit alone, of any variety, cannot result in a conviction or expulsion. It is merely a tool used as part of a broader investigation. Even so, the idea of survivors managing their own data has sparked vehement backlash.
“Back in 2019, our office was broken into,” Vaidya said. “We’ve also documented potential investors engaging with social media posts calling for us to be jailed.”
Campbell added they are now both subjected to routine online harassment.
“We also take Ubers home from meetings or offices ever since 2019, because our lawyers told us not to take the subway. We might be followed,” Campbell said.
The way this controversial kit works is a nondescript box comes with plastic bags, swabs and instructions all labeled with QR codes. Users download Leda Health’s app and are prompted to type in information while they save evidence of the assault, such as ripped panties, in separate Ziploc bags.
“The blockchain creates a sense of accountability, because these records can’t be changed,” Vaidya said. “There’s only myself and perhaps one more person in the company that has access to the data and it’s encrypted…there are access locks regarding when and how and we might access that data if compelled to by a legal authority.”Leda Health outsources most of the tricky Ethereum software support to the blockchain startup Deqode. Deqode engineer Shivam Bohare said Leda Health’s system relies on Ethereum infrastructure services from Blocknative, a company that attracted investment from Coinbase Ventures, and Infura, a startup partially owned by Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin. The encrypted data and profile are attached to a specific user account, not any self-custodied token, so the blockchain aspects of this app all occur under the hood. Users don’t need to know anything about Ethereum.
“Access to the user data is guarded using strict authorization,” Bohare said. “Even the users don’t have access to their own data (without proper authorization from Leda Health administration) once it’s been uploaded to the cloud.”
Unlike a kit administered by police, survivors can physically hold the kit until they turn it over to lawyers or authorities, rather than hoping their case isn’t one of the thousands that gets lost in the system. Plus, the DIY kit, combined with the records stored through the app, can be used for mediation outside of court, like group therapy sessions.
“People tend to forget that self-collected evidence is extremely common in the U.S. court system and analyzed for admissibility and other issues on a regular basis,” said attorney Jiadai Lin, who provides outside counsel to Leda Health.
Indeed, rape kits donated by another private manufacturer were reportedly used in April 2020 in Monterey County, California, under a temporary process developed for the pandemic.
“I believe survivors should have the right to gather information about their own bodies on their own terms, and entrepreneurs should have the right to try their hand at innovation,” Lin said. “In my view, legislative efforts to ban the product have been excessively restrictive. And that makes me feel even more strongly about standing behind Leda Health.”
Critics cast the startup’s entrepreneurial approach as greedy opportunism. Leda Health investors like Romeen Sheth, a Harvard law school alum and former co-president of the Harvard Association for Law and Business, poured $2 million into the startup so far because they believe the for-profit strategy can complement nonprofit organizations already working in this space.
“Disruptive innovation in any industry is never comfortable; it never starts out as something that the incumbents are pleased with,” Sheth said. “I’m bullish on products and services that keep users as the top priority… I’m interested in investing in forward progress, not in maintaining the status quo. Leda Health defines that ethos and I’m hopeful their efforts make sexual trauma and sexual harassment less embarrassing, painful and traumatic.”
Now, as Campbell and Vaidya finish work on the prototype, Leda Health already started offering support groups for sexual assault survivors, led by licensed therapists.
“We have two groups going right now and another five starting in May,” Vaidya said.
Love them or hate them, there’s no denying these blockchain-savvy entrepreneurs are challenging the status quo in a space where women, in particular, are horrifically underserved by current resources.
“For sexual assault victims, the cost of the status quo, which includes under-reporting, a massive kit processing backlog and general lack of support services, is very high. Leda is demonstrating there are innovative low-risk solutions available,” said investor Duriya Farooqui. “Second, among the reasons an assault victim may not immediately report is because the procedure for collecting evidence via a rape kit can feel invasive and in itself can add to trauma. Leda wants to provide options.”