With male investors embarrassed to ask questions about periods and breastfeeding, will femtech ever take off?

Are investors starting to see the potential of femtech in healthcare?
Are investors starting to see the potential of femtech in healthcare? Credit: Anass Bachar / EyeEm 

Over the  last century, there has been a revolution in women's lives  in everything from employment to fertility and having our say in how the country is run. But there's one fundamental area which has only recently experienced such an overhaul: health. 

Men still make up the majority of clinical trial participants (famously exemplified when researchers investigated interactions between “female Viagra” and alcohol, and 92 per cent of the study group was male). We have seen stubbornly little innovation in the menstruation sector. Menopause remains taboo.

But thanks to a growing breed of female founders – among them Ida Tin, founder of the Clue fertility tracker, who coined the term “femtech”  in 2013 – change is afoot.

Innovations such as WUKA Wear period pants and nixit cups are taking on menstruation with a social conscience (nixit founder Rachael Newton was horrified to learn that the average woman will use 11,000 tampons in their lifetime). Lina Chan’s platform Adia Health is equipping women with the tools and knowledge they need to understand fertility. Clementine app founder Kim Palmer is tackling the mental side of women’s health.  

This just the beginning, and studies are forecasting that the global women’s health market will hit £42.3bn by 2025. So far, so positive - but a business can only go so far without finance, and we know that all-female start-up teams receive just one per cent of the funding pie.

Elvie has created a pelvic floor trainer that links to an app on your iPhone to show the strength of your pelvic floor squeezes. They have a partnership with the NHS e to help treat female incontinence.

Investors are warming to femtech’s potential, but with most VC firms dominated by men - who tend to invest in what they know, struggle to understand the value of women-orientated products, or are too embarrassed to ask questions around technology that is based on"taboo" subjects like breastfeeding or the menopause -  can the sector ever really take off?

Just ask Tania Boler. Her kegel trainer and breast pump business Elvie hit headlines in April when it raised £32m in Series B funding - the biggest femtech investment to date. She attributes her success to “the numbers,” by which she means the one in 10 women who will need to have pelvic floor surgery at some point in their lives, or the third of women who experience incontinence. Why, you might wonder, has nothing been done sooner?

But even Boler admits that trying to raise money from male investors, with a product that's completely female-focused, and aimed at problems not openly discussed, was a “challenge”. This, despite the female consumer of tech “accounting for more than 80 per cent of decision-making when it comes to healthcare spending”. 

The experiences of some founders at the helm of these businesses are troubling.

“In pitch networking events, there’s little representation of women in business or women as investors,” says Ruby Raut of WUKA Wear. Ida Tin calls it a “blind spot”. She had to work tirelessly to explain to the money men why there was a need for her business, and why it is useful to women to know when their next period is due. “The data can resonate, but deeper emotional resonance? That’s harder,”  she says.

Kim Palmer had similar issues: “Many VCs think about disruption and innovation only in the technological context. They could see the need for Clementine, but not the how. Marketing to a female audience is about building trust and community.” 

Yet VCs may now be sensing potential in an industry Tin says is “culturally ripe for innovation”. Gian Seehra, an early-stage investor at Octopus Ventures (which backed Elvie) think that we’ll see an increase in data and personalisation of health for women.

Chan is equally optimistic: “As we’ve seen in other tech areas such as fashion or fintech, these segments usually develop at the pace of career cycles. By that I mean a group of people are successful in a given company and then each of them go on to set up various businesses and that’s how it spreads.”

Undoubtedly, we need more female VCs. Women make up just 13 per cent of decision-makers in UK venture capital and two-thirds of firms have no female decision-makers in their teams at all.

So as VC firms diversify and bring on women as partners, will femtech flourish? You bet. Five years ago, investment in the sector stood at just below £100m in total, Seehra tells me. This year it has already reached £300m. The world’s first femtech fund was created last June by venture capitalist platform Portfolia.

But power will lie with the consumer: as more women want more agency over their own bodies, the femtech movement will go mainstream.  

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Five Femtech Go-tos

Elvie

Pelvic floor and breast pump pioneers. Founded by Tania Boler and Alexander Asseily in 2013, the Elvie Trainer is an app-connected kegel tracker with real-time feedback. The Elvie Pump is the world’s first silent wearable breast pump. “Women shouldn’t have to make do with shoddy design or pink spin-offs when there are self-driving cars in the world,” the founders say. 

Nixit

Bringing the menstrual cup into the mainstream. Circular, soft, suction-free, made with 100 per cent medical grade BPA silicone offering up to 12 hours protection. Founder Rachael Newton says: “I hadn’t realised tampons were so drying, that they contain pesticides, bleach and even glue. I had been putting them in the most absorbent part of my body for years without question. I felt cheated – was this really the best we could do?”

Adia Health

At home hormone test, access to fertility experts and personalised programmes. With a reported 75,000 fertility treatments conducted in the UK annually, companies like Adia are needed more than ever. Adia’s mission is to empower women with knowledge, and to change the approach to women’s reproductive health to one that is proactive, personalised and holistic. “The more women that can help each other in the femtech space, the better off we will all be,” they say.

Clementine

Hypnotherapy sessions focused on confidence, sleep and stress. Daily mantras, blogs and a new series of sessions around body acceptance. Early femtech innovations have focused on the physical; Clementine exists to “change our mindsets about sex, eating and exercise”.

Clue

An encyclopedia on all things sex and menstrual cycle. An app tracking your period and ovulation. Trailblazer in the femtech space. And founder Ida Tin is just getting started – expect great things from an app appalled that women put so many hormones into their body. The raison d’etre? “Because it shouldn’t be embarrassing to have a natural biology that can create humans.” 

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