So-called ‘femtech’ — where technology and women’s health collide — is about so much more than menstruation, and the sector is having a “hockey stick” moment.
There are female founders pioneering products around conception, pregnancy, miscarriage, motherhood, menopause, disease diagnosis and even — shock, horror — sexual pleasure. The overall femtech market, which covers all of these things and more, is set to be worth $50bn by 2025. It has been a long time coming.
Denmark’s Ida Tin (who coined the term femtech) was a pioneer when she launched the period tracking app Clue in 2013, but substantial investment has only arrived more recently.
More than $1bn has been pumped into the sector since 2014, with around $750m of that in 2019 alone.
Unconscious bias still steers VC decision making (just 2.2 per cent of VC funding goes to women-led companies) and female founders still share war stories of clueless investors who “don’t get” the pill or recoil at the sight of sanitary products (80 per cent of healthcare VCs have never invested in women’s health). Yet there is hope.
Elvie, the British start-up known for its smartphone-linked pelvic floor trainer and silent breastpump, raised $42m last year in the largest female tech funding round of its time. Early in 2020, before the coronavirus crisis, even healthier sums had been handed out to female-focused “doctor-on-demand” platforms such as Maven and Advantia Health ($45m each). With services for everything from IVF to postnatal depression, no area is off-limits.
Take the menopause. Until recently, millions of women suffered in silence with little help beyond HRT (which does not work for everyone) and “menopause magnets” (there’s no evidence these widgets work at all).
Now, whether they are at work or at home, women battling hot flushes, insomnia and anxiety can access support through tele-health start-ups such as Gennev (Seattle), Elektra Health (New York) and Peppy (London). At the same time, hardware start-ups are developing cooling bracelets and pillows — one Israeli start-up even built a snowy virtual therapy environment that can reduce flushes and night sweats by half.
Sexual wellness is another hotbed of innovation. The US streaming app Rosy (for women struggling with low sex drive) just raised $1m, joining sexual exploration start-ups like Spain’s Emjoy, and American leaders OMGyes and O.school. There are also women engineering new pleasure devices in the $30bn sextech market.
Those at the frontier of femtech do not always get it right. Swedish fertility start-up Natural Cycles, founded by Cern physicist Elina Berglund, got burnt after it inadvertently ran ads making misleading claims. And, as with any virgin territory, there will be cowboys looking to make a quick buck. Dozens of free apps will share users’ intimate data with Facebook — and you may not want Mark Zuckerberg knowing when you have your period.
But sharing data is not always bad, and artificially intelligent tools deliver better services the more information they are fed. In some cases it is imperative we share data too, because women’s health has been overlooked for so long (80 per cent of medical research is still done on male mice, meaning most study-backed businesses are inherently built for men).
So who is tackling this dearth of data? Mike Lavigne (who co-founded Clue with Ms Tin) is now helping Helene Guillaume launch women’s app Wild.AI to counter the lack of science-led, female-centric sports services. Similarly, London-based Pexxi is using AI-data analysis to help women find the best contraceptive pill. In France, Efelya applies AI to flag high-risk pregnancies, while fertility clinic Apricity is building AI tools to help more parents conceive.
The takeaway? If you are reading this at your “working from home” desk, it is time to call for femtech perks. What better way for businesses to signal they are equal opportunities employers than investing in services that support all women throughout their careers?
The author is a freelance journalist for Sifted, the FT-backed media site for European start-ups
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