It all started with an orgasm, according to Lora Haddock, founder of Lora DiCarlo. The Oregon sexual tech company gained worldwide attention when their debut product won a Consumer Electronics Show Innovation Award, only to have it taken away due to the show’s so-called standards of decency. Since the Consumer Electronics Show previously included male-oriented sex tech products, this decision prompted conversations about sexual bias in the technology industry.
But first, about that orgasm. Haddock said that she experienced her first blended orgasm when she was 28. A blended orgasm is a result of stimulation to both the more external glans clitoris and the more internal area known by many as the “g-spot.”
“It was such an intense experience that it literally knocked me off the bed,” says Haddock. “I fell on the floor and laid there staring up at the ceiling and thought, how can I do that again?”
This experience served as inspiration for Lora DiCarlo’s debut product Osé which was engineered to elicit blended orgasms. Her vision was to build a hands-free device that would not rely on vibration. Instead, it would better mimic some of the sensations of a partner. Such a device would need to fit most bodies.
“We had to go and figure out sizing data,” explains Haddock, “So I had to ask some people some very awkward questions.”
This research resulted in a list of 52 technical requirements including anatomical sizing data, user interface features, and specific movement patterns. Her design started to become reality after she was introduced to Dr. John Parmigiani of the OSU Prototype Development Lab.
When Parmigiani met Haddock and her Director of Production Mark Hazelton, he only knew that they wanted to develop a product in the female health and wellness field. As Parmigiani recalls, Haddock proceeded to tell him about her first blended orgasm a few minutes into the meeting.
“I thought, okay this is a different kind of discussion and was a little outside of my comfort zone,” says Parmigiani. “Then, she gave me the list of 52 technical requirements and that brought me back into my comfort zone.”
He saw the project as a well-posed engineering problem that his team could solve. Haddock went on to meet with a couple of other firms but chose to work with Parmigiani’s lab.
“I wanted young creative people that are at the forefront of their fields,” explains Haddock, “We found that in a group of students who have never really been told ‘no you can’t do that’ before.”
In January 2018, Parmigiani formed a team of ten to twelve students who developed Lora DiCarlo’s prototype. This team included a mix of undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. students.
Previously, Parmigiani’s lab primarily worked with larger companies like Boeing. He said this project opened his eyes to the opportunity to work with start-ups on other projects.
“It’s the kind of thing I always wanted to do,” Parmigiani explains. “There are a lot of people out there with great ideas, that led me to refocus my research lab as the Prototype Development Lab.”
According to Parmigiani, his students also benefited from the collaboration.
“All the students involved really got to see what it’s like to try to start a company,” he says. “For a lot of our students, that’s the experience they want.”
Haddock hired two of these students to join her team at Lora DiCarlo. As the company grew, she hired more OSU engineering graduates or students to expand her technical team.
Things really took off when Lora DiCarlo submitted Osé (then called Vela) for consideration for a Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Innovation Award. CES is an annual electronics trade show produced by The Consumer Technology Association (CTA). According to the CTA, three judges score each entrant using criteria including design and innovation. Entrants scoring above the designated standard become honorees. Lora DiCarlo’s Osé personal massager was selected as a CES 2019 Innovation Awards Honoree in the Robotics and Drone product category.
“It’s very validating to have such a large association in technology recognize the innovation that we created,” says Haddock. “We also thought it was a signifier that the tech industry as a whole was changing and things were shifting around to be more inclusive.”
A few weeks later the award was rescinded. Haddock said the CES official rules were originally cited.
Those rules state: “Entries deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane, or not in keeping with CTA’s image will be disqualified.”
After she challenged them about their previous inclusion of male-oriented sex tech at recent CES shows, representatives of CTA informed her the Osé didn’t qualify for the robotics category or any other category.
The team at Lora DiCarlo decided to go public. They published an open letter from Lora Haddock outlining what happened and what Haddock describes as CES’s history of gender bias. This letter is on the company website at loradicarlo.com.
Both Haddock and Parmigiani said losing the award was disappointing. However, the resulting press in publications like the New York Times and Wired generated interest in Osé, Lora DiCarlo, and the OSU Prototype Development Lab.
“I think CTA actually did us a very big favor,” says Haddock.
Within two weeks, over 15,000 people joined the Lora DiCarlo email list. The company also received an outpouring of calls, emails, and social media messages of support.
“It roused an amazing amount of support across the board,” says Haddock. “To have that much support from so many different factions and demographics of human beings was very inspiring for us. It’s allowed us a better and bigger platform for us to be able to speak out from.”
Haddock said she is using that platform to promote inclusivity and diversity within the tech industry. She also seeks to promote more sex-positive conversations.
“I think as a society we are starting to see a lot more people being more empowered to start businesses like this and to speak up,” says Haddock. “If you are in a position where you want to start something new and you want to be heard, just don’t ever be quiet. I never was and that’s how we got as far as we have.”
Parmigiani said the New York Times’ article also resulted in entrepreneurs and potential inventors contacting him about the possibility of working with the Prototype Development Lab. These leads come from industries ranging from kitchenware to therapeutic devices.
“It’s all been positive because it was a way to get the word out about the Prototype Development Lab,” says Parmigiani. “We want to find more Lora Haddocks who have great marketable ideas!”
As a company, Lora DiCarlo is currently focused on getting Osé ready to manufacture. They plan to release the product in late fall 2019. In addition, the team is working on two more products and a Virtual Reality developer’s tool kit for integrations with Osé.
“Hopefully we will have the first product for folks with vaginas to be able to use with virtual reality,” says Haddock.
Much of the resulting press criticized the CTA for their lack of inclusivity. This conversation continues from 2018 when the show included no female keynote speakers and just a few female panelists. In 2019, only 20 of the 89 CES award judges were female.
“We are definitely in a time in social and human history where there are a lot of pivotal changes being made.” explains Haddock. “I think there’s still very much an opportunity for [the CTA] to get on board. Everything else is changing and they are going to get left behind unless they make the appropriate changes along with the rest of society.”
By Samantha Sied