From home fertility tests to innovative period products, startups focused on women's health are springing up around the world and catching investors' attention
By Sharon Kimathi
LONDON, May 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - No longer a women's-only industry, the so-called femtech sector is grabbing the attention of investors betting on a worldwide boom in products and services designed to meet women's often-neglected healthcare needs.
From apps offering expert online medical advice to home fertility testing kits, the global femtech market is expected to reach $60 billion by 2027, according to a study by Emergen Research, a research and consulting firm.
Coined by Ida Tin - co-founder and chief executive of Danish menstruation-tracking app Clue, the term femtech can refer to software, diagnostics, products or services that harness technology to address women's health and well-being.
But despite the segment's growth, female-focused care is still overlooked, with only 4% of global healthcare research and development spending going specifically towards women's health, according to business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.
Approximately 810 women still die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the World Health Organizaton (WHO).
Femtech innovations could help tackle pregnancy and birth complications, as well as fight taboos such as shame about periods or ignorance about the menopause, experts said.
Three femtech chief executives and an investor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation about what they hope the sector can achieve:
TACKLING HEALTH INEQUALITIES
It was a determination to address health inequalities that disadvantage poorer women and those from ethnic minorities that led femtech entrepreneur Mridula Pore and her co-founders to set up Peppy, a British employee healthcare benefits platform focusing on family support.
Founded in 2018 by Pore, Evan Harris, and Max Landry, Peppy specialises in providing employees with access to "expert practitioners" through its app.
"The healthcare system is increasingly becoming a postcode lottery," Pore told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to differences in healthcare services according to where a woman lives and whether she is white or from an ethnic minority group.
"We recognised that a virtual remote platform could equalise access and provide support and a safe space without judgment for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women seeking fertility and pregnancy guidance as the maternal outcomes are much worse for Black and Asian women."
Black women are four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth, according to the latest report by MBRRACE-UK (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK).
Women from Asian ethnic backgrounds face a two-fold risk, and women living in the most deprived areas of Britain are almost three times more likely to die than those in the most affluent areas.
ATTRACTING NEW INVESTMENT
An increase in the number of women working in venture capital is vital for fomenting femtech businesses around the world, said Frederik Petursson Madsen, chief executive and co-founder of Danish biotech firm Cirqle Biomedical.
Securing venture capital is vital for companies like Cirqle, which is working to develop "next-generation contraceptive technology" to replace traditional hormonal birth control, Madsen said.
"There is a need for more female investors who will advocate for women's health issues that have been neglected for too long," he said in emailed comments.
"Women now make up 4.9% of investors in the United States, which is still low, but it is an improvement from previous years," he added.
But the industry must also actively engage male investors and decision makers, he said.
"Women's health issues are everyone's health issues; therefore, we need champions across genders."
BREAKING PERIOD TABOOS
Thang Vo-Ta, chief executive and co-founder of Callaly, a British period product startup, said drawing more men into the sector was vital for shaking off the stigma of femtech as a women-only industry.
"Women's rights are all about human rights," he said. "You don't call things 'maletech', but I understand the need for 'femtech' as it galvanises a group and helps people identify this new movement," Vo-Ta said.
Beside challenging stigma among investors, Vo-Ta said he wanted to help "break the taboos associated with menstrual blood".
Callaly's co-founder Alex Hooi - a gynaecologist - has invented a new sanitary product called a "tampliner" – a tampon with a small panty liner attached to the string that aims to "revolutionise your period".
"We want to normalise the conversation about periods, as I think a lot of gender discrimination starts with menstruation," he said.
HARNESSING TECH SOLUTIONS
Fertility is a major growth area for femtech companies and highlights how technological developments can be incorporated into improved healthcare services, said Karen Page, general partner at U.S.-based venture capital firm B-Capital.
Apps including Belarus-based Flo and U.S.-based Mira use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help women chart their fertility.
"Technology can enable the healthcare system to provide more helpful tools, and we need to integrate them into the current healthcare plan," Page said, saying fertility was only one area where new technology could bring healthcare benefits.
Numerous fertility-related femtech startups have received significant investments, Page said in a video interview.
Modern Fertility, which was founded in 2017 to address gaps in women's healthcare through fertility testing, research and education, was bought earlier this year by Ro, a digital elective care and telemedicine provider in March.
Page said greater emphasis on healthcare during the pandemic could prove another catalyst for femtech growth.
"Are there companies that can make it? Absolutely. There's a market for it and the foundation of success leads to expansion," she said.
(Reporting by Sharon Kimathi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)