The category in the technology sector which caters to female-related wellness, issues, and solutions is known as Femtech—the up and coming sub-sector that didn’t even exist around five years ago. In its early stages, femtech was synonymous with fertility tracking applications, but given its increasing visibility with the support of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, the category now embraces pregnancy, maternal and sexual health, chronic diseases, and more.
Although it is difficult to point out exactly when femtech became a thing, today, there exist many promising startups and initiatives that are changing the nature of female entrepreneurship as well as the use of technology in the realm of female wellbeing.
One such startup is London-based Elvie, founded by Tania Boler and Alexander Asseily. The hardware business manufactures the world’s first silent, wearable breast pumps for which they raised 24 million dollars last year. Among the Elvie Pump’s many features that make it discreet and comfortable, the most unique one is perhaps that it can fit snugly in the bra. The BPA-free pump can also be connected to the Elvie app to monitor real-time milk volume and control the pump remotely. Elvie has also designed a device to train the pelvic floor for strength called the Elvie Trainer, which won the Red Dot Design award in 2016. It is designed to train kegel muscles through workouts that can be tracked on the app with biofeedback. The company has also initiated much-needed conversations on women issues such as public breastfeeding and pelvic floor health, serving well its corporate social responsibility.
Combining data-driven tech with fashion, San Francisco startup Bellabeat is known for The Leaf— a water-resistant tracking device that monitors activity, stress, sleep, meditation, and reproductive health. The wearer can access this data and adjust their diet and exercise based on their hormones and menstrual cycle. Even though the wellness market is dotted with wearable trackers such as smart rings and watches, products designed specifically for women are rare. The Leaf can be worn as a bracelet, necklace, or clip, and looks like a chic piece of jewellery. The product was named “the best overall smart jewellery” by Business Insider in April this year.
Next up in femtech innovation is Berlin-based Inne, which offers a hormone-tracking subscription product to monitor fertility and natural contraception. Its first-of-its-kind at-home test uses saliva to track a woman’s fertility window, giving feedback on ovulation, progesterone levels, and cervical fluids.
Even in countries such as India, where most women-related health and wellness issues are taboo, femtech is slowly picking up pace. Some of the better known Indian femtech startups include CareMother by CareNX and MyAva. Founded by Aditya Kulkarni, CareMother consists of a mobile app, web portal, and digital diagnostics kit carried by professionals to conduct doorstep tests and diagnosis for conceiving women. The startup aims to tackle the challenge of highly prevalent high-risk pregnancies—around 5 million—in the country by making antenatal testing and fetal heart monitoring (using machine learning to predict fetal health outcomes) accessible and hassle-free. These tests are carried out by healthcare workers and the data is transferred to doctors in real-time.
A subset of femtech which deals with menopausal issues and solutions is called menotech, and a Seattle-based startup in this sub-sector, Gennev, has been identifying menopause categories for the last four years. Gennev is a first-of-its-kind online clinic, offering menopause-expert OB/GYNs and dietitians, wellness products, education, and community. Moreover, all their resources are screened by physicians certified by the North American Menopause Society clinic.
Unfortunately, despite all the innovation and enthusiasm in femtech, the sector remains undeveloped, with only 4% of healthcare R&D allotted to women’s health, according to TechCrunch. Further, according to a Rock Health analysis report, the funding declined to 3.3% in 2019.
The shortage of investment in femtech startups is linked to the challenges female entrepreneurs face in getting capital. As per Crunchbase, in 2019, 2.8% of VC funding went to women-led startups but the number fell to 2.3% in 2020. However, even though figures hint at sexist reasons, not all female entrepreneurs feel that way. We spoke to one such entrepreneur, the founder of MyAva, who had a different perspective on this issue.
While working on a diagnostic system for cervical cancer for rural Indian women, Evelyn Immanuel noticed some gaps in the healthcare system. This pushed her to start MyAva. “Our focus is to be a women’s health buddy beyond period and pregnancy tracking; a platform that you can rely on for anything related to women’s wellness. We chose to stick to chronic conditions such as PCOS,” Immanuel told Unboxed, adding, “because about 20% of Indian women suffer from it. This number is also underestimated as many cases go undiagnosed due to a lack of awareness. “Usually, the solution is gynaecologists prescribing birth-control pills. But for a chronic condition, you need something sustainable instead of depending on medication alone,” she said. With a team of experts including gynaecologists, nutritionists, dermatologists, fitness experts, etc., MyAva offers personalized health programs for a fee, extending from 3–12 months.
When asked about whether she faced difficulties getting financial support as a female entrepreneur, Immanuel said that it’s a struggle for any new business. “I don’t think the ecosystem has been biased against femtech startups per se. It depends on how you’re approaching the market. Just like how consumers figure out the available services, investors also try to figure out the right way to invest. It’s a little slower in femtech, like any new venture.”
Aside from their paid programs, MyAva is also a free platform for anyone who wants to be a part of the female wellness community. The members, currently about 15,000, help each other out with things as simple as a healthy breakfast recipe to more symptom-specific questions.