Shaping the Future of FemTech

I shouldn’t need to convince you that “FemTech” matters. Even in the abstract, with no concrete definition, there should be an instinctive awareness that women are a vast and powerful demographic, that technology created or leveraged specifically for that population is not only good, but possibly also incredibly lucrative. Maybe even lucrative enough to get venture capitalists excited. But before we skip ahead to the dollar signs, perhaps a quick refresher on why women as a demographic matter more than ever before.      


Women these days are living longer. Yes, longer than men. Women are the caregivers-in-chief of their households, which has more trickle down impact than you might imagine. Women are also consumers in chief, guiding spend on cars, home improvement, groceries, and other household bills. Particularly striking: women are responsible for 80-90 cents on the dollar of every healthcare decision made.  


What is FemTech?

Because of all these factors and more--we haven’t even touched physiology yet--women experience unique health needs throughout the course of their lives. Around 2016, Ida Tin, the CEO of the period-tracking app Clue coined the term “FemTech” to refer to a rising wave of startups operating at the intersection of technology and female health. In some circles, FemTech can be defined as an even broader slate of technologies that are more generally geared towards improving women’s lives, but the primary focus is specifically on health.


Emerging FemTech Companies

Early FemTech startups are tackling some big issues: period tracking, fertility, family planning, maternal and child care, and pregnancy to name a few. In some ways, this first wave of startups can largely be seen as an extension of the rise of various self-management tools and trackers -- the FitBits and MyFitnessPals of the world. A core component of what these apps and companies are trying to do is help women track, understand, and act on their personal data. That being said, there’s still a lot of room to grow: non-invasive endometriosis screening, spit-based fertility tests, Uber-like birth control delivery, and at home pap smears are all on their way to the market to make critical female health services more accessible and attainable.

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(Source: Frost & Sullivan)

FemTech is still a largely underserved market with huge opportunities for growth. As promised, when we look at the dollar signs, we see that about $1 billion has gone into FemTech since 2015, according to research from PitchBook. In 2017, about $400 million was invested in companies that fall into the FemTech bucket. By some estimates, FemTech could be a $50 billion industry by 2025. The latest funding announcements indicate this trend isn’t slowing down anytime soon: NextGen Jane, a company that uses tampons to tell women about their reproductive health, just raised $9 million in new funding, while London-based Elvie, which makes a smart breast pump and pelvic floor trainer, just raised $42 million in Series B funding.      


The Challenges in FemTech

And yet. Yes, there’s a yet. FemTech is not the feel good story of the year. With the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, a critical eye will quickly uncover some challenges and issues with the space. For starters, the venture capital community is predominantly male. In 2019, women represent a paltry 9% of ‘decision-makers’ at US venture capital firms. This is not to say that men can’t or won’t invest in FemTech, but more than one anecdote suggests men may be slightly squeamish when it comes to discussing kegels, vaginas, menopause, or periods in their diligence review meetings.

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(Source: Crunchbase)

What’s more, it’s highly likely a large portion of these companies being built for women (ahem, allegedly) are not being run by women. The FemTech market may be approaching $50 billion in the next five years, but only about 10% of venture money goes to women-led startups. Again, not to say men can’t or won’t lead successful FemTech startups, but a number of early startups in the space--some led by men--seem to be missing the mark. Glow, for example, which is led by four men and has raised more than $20 million in venture funding, at one point on-boarded users to its app by allowing them to select from one of three ‘journeys’: avoiding pregnancy, trying to conceive, and fertility treatments. The assumption from the outset is that pregnancy drives period tracking -- an assumption that may immediately exclude a broad swath of the female population. These types of tracking tools, which have been called ‘intimate surveillance’ in some circles, are no doubt meant to empower women, but may ultimately introduce new privacy concerns, and subject women to added scrutiny and stress in the already sensitive arenas of conception and fertility.  


Admitted issues with the space aside, there is still a lot to be excited about in FemTech. Elvie is not the only startup tackling the pelvic floor. VaGenie, an LA-based startup, is developing a connected device that provides biofeedback training that will help women avoid issues associated with weak pelvic floors like leaking, lower back pain, and pelvic organ prolapse. Another startup, Kegg, is developing a similar connected device, and taking the concept a step further to incorporate cervical mucus sensing. San Francisco-based DotLab is building a non-invasive diagnostic for endometriosis. Momseze, Nest Collaborative, and Jubel Health are all providing support for new Moms, whether by connecting them to their providers or facilitating video visits with lactation counselors. Meanwhile, Jessie, is taking more of a platform approach, aiming to be a full-service, on-demand clinic with one of the largest and most comprehensive networks of affordable virtual care services for women. I’m also proud to say each of these companies is run by women.    


What does the future hold?

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The promise and potential of FemTech is huge. The market is growing quickly, as are the interested parties -- women, VCs, healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies, employers, insurers...the list goes on. This space is still in its early days, but the excitement for and support of these first innovations shows a real motivation to make improvements where options have typically been limited. While the consumer focus feels like a natural place to start, hopefully the movement continues to grow to address some real systemic issues like the alarmingly high US maternal mortality rate. At this point, consider the door opened. FemTech could lead to any number of possibilities. Hopefully we can build thoughtful solutions that are truly useful, rather than just finding another way to make a buck off of women and their bodies.


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