9 March 2020

The Future of Femtech

International Women’s Day 2020 was celebrated on Sunday 8 March this year. The day is all about encouraging female empowerment, celebrating the achievements of women and raising awareness about the need to continue to address gender bias both in the workplace and society as a whole.

A recent government report shows that women make up only around 23% of the STEM workforce, and it is clear that we still live in a world designed by men. The number of female inventors has doubled between 1998 and 2017, from 6.8% of inventors being women, to 12.7%. Although the actual numbers remain low, the trend is promising. In the particular area of Femtech, a report by Clearview IP in 2018 showed that the number of female inventors named on patent applications is 35%, substantially higher than the proportion of 21% for patent applications over all technology areas, showing a drive in technology for women, by women. But what exactly is Femtech all about?

The term “Femtech” was coined by Ida Tin, the founder of a period tracking app called “Clue”. Using Clue, symptoms of the menstrual cycle, including basal temperature, are tracked in order to pinpoint ovulation, which can be used to improve chances of conception. In addition, Clue allows a huge number (30+) of cyclical symptoms to be tracked allowing women to gain insight into their own individual, unique menstrual patterns. The app also provides an abundance of information about how the female body works – which is so much more complex and fascinating than what you get taught in your school biology lessons.

Femtech generally relates to technology for women’s health. Such technologies include fertility solutions, period and fertility tracking apps, pelvic healthcare, pregnancy and nursing care, at home fertility and monitoring devices, general healthcare, period care goods, and women’s sexual wellness.

The Femtech industry is a rapidly growing market, expected to become a $50 billion market by 2025 (Frost and Sullivan). The level of venture capital investment in this area has increased from $23 million ten years ago to $391 million in 2019. However, the level of investment may still be being hampered by male investors who may not appreciate the value of Femtech products, and seeing Femtech as being a bit of a niche area.

The biggest single investment in Femtech to date was $42 million to British company Elvie. Elvie’s Tania Boler notably said “in an ideal world we wouldn’t need Femtech, because 51% of the UK population is women. It’s definitely not niche”.

Elvie makes two main products: a silent, wearable breastpump, and a pelvic floor trainer, each of which can connect to an app.

Elvie’s pump allows women the freedom to pump wherever, whenever, by simply placing the pump inside their nursing bra. This is a dramatic lifestyle shift in which women can now incorporate pumping in their day to day life instead of needing to set aside time in the day to be attached to numerous wires, power sources, or manually pumping. Workplace equality is improved by providing a pumping solution which does not put women at a disadvantage by cutting into work time or needing to use their breaks for pumping. Breastfeeding mothers can participate in ordinary activities such as working, studying, doing household chores, or just going out to see friends, without having plan their activities around needing to pump at specific times of the day when they are away from their child.

Elvie’s other product, the pelvic floor trainer, is advertised as helping with better bladder control, faster postnatal recovery, and enhanced intimacy, all as a result of strengthening the pelvic floor.  The device includes force sensors to measure the strength of the pelvic muscles, and gives feedback during performance of Kegel exercises via the connected app. Performing exercises correctly can be important in reducing incontinence and risk of pelvic floor damage, and being able to monitor improvements can provide motivation to continue with the exercises over time.

Increasing developments in the area of pelvic floor health, such as the Elvie trainer, are addressing common issues such as incontinence to a greater extent, as the “taboo” on women’s intimate health needs is being lifted. Other examples in the area of pelvic floor health include apps such as the NHS “Squeezy” app which sends reminders to perform Kegel exercises throughout the day, and can be used to support physiotherapy programs. These apps and devices becoming more prevalent and widely available help to raise awareness of pelvic floor health issues and educate women on how to improve the quality of their lives by improving their pelvic floor strength; that is, women suffering from incontinence do not just have to accept the fate of wearing a Tena Lady on daily basis in case of a surprise wee when they sneeze.

Of course, such companies as Tena clearly have their place in providing solutions for incontinence.  In addition to the well-known incontinence pads, Tena also includes a range of products including disposable incontinence underwear which are available in a range of colours and styles, in order to provide more choice and to make a step closer to “normality” compared to needing to use an incontinence pad.

Along similar lines, but in the period product market, some companies are offering “period underwear”, which are a more eco-friendly and sustainable option of period care goods compared to conventional sanitary towels and tampons, which are disposable and can contain large amounts of plastic. Thinx is one such company, and provides various different types of underwear which vary by style, colour, size, and the level of flow they are capable of absorbing. Thinx is also trying to improve social equality – on its website it highlights that “1 in 5 students struggle to afford period products or are unable to purchase them at all, with 84% of young people either missing a class or knowing someone who has missed a class due to lack of access”. Accordingly, girls from disadvantaged background who are unable to afford period care goods are more likely to have their education detrimentally impacted. Thinx recognises that availability of period goods is a social issue that needs addressing, and is involved in initiatives to improve access to basic hygiene products.

The Mooncup is a more established sustainable period product, the popularity of which is increasing as the concern for the environment also increases. The impact of conventional disposable period goods is highlighted on Mooncup’s website – on celebrating their 15th birthday in 2017 they indicated that the Mooncup had resulted in 1.7 billion fewer tampons and pads ending up on our beaches or in landfill. However, it is clear that there is still so much potential for more women to make the move over to reusable, sustainable period care goods: the Mooncup website quotes statistics from the Great British Beach Clean Survey in 2018 which found an average of 3 used sanitary product items per 100m of UK beach surveyed.

Sustainable solutions to period care goods is a growing area, in addition to the re-usable solutions such as those from Thinx and the Mooncup, the more conventional sanitary towels and tampons are being overhauled by companies. For example, organic cotton is being used in new sanitary towels and tampons (e.g. Mondays, Flo, Natracare), and cotton tampon applicators are replacing conventional plastic applicators (Flo).

Cycle tracking apps such as Clue, mentioned above are becoming more popular, with many different options now available. Natural Cycles, one such app is even certified in the EU and US for use as a contraceptive – it pinpoints fertile days (6 days per cycle) using daily temperature measurements, and indicates that these are the days you would need to rely on another form of contraceptive in order to avoid getting pregnant. The app can also be set to a mode for planning a pregnancy, as well as avoiding pregnancy.

In addition to cycle tracking apps, wearable fertility trackers such as Ava are available in order to improve chances of conception when trying for a baby. Ava is a bracelet which takes measurements of skin temperature, resting pulse rate, heart rate variability, perfusion, and breathing rate during sleep. The device syncs with an app in order for the apps algorithm to use the collected data to determine ovulation and fertile window.

Investment in companies providing IVF and egg freezing is also increasing, allowing women more freedom as to when to choose to have a family. Increasing investment in these areas and improving access to such services is important in a number of different ways. Women are able to have more flexibility as to the time of their life they choose to have a baby, and are not as constrained by the proverbial ticking clock. Equality can be improved for women in same-sex relationships through improved access to these technologies for starting a family.

It is clear that Femtech is exploding with innovation right now, and that there is still a wealth of further opportunity to be had. However, one particular area where technology is currently lacking is in the area of menopause. Women of menopausal age are the fastest growing demographic of the workforce (Government report on Menopause), so solutions which help reduce and manage menopausal symptoms could be important in improving quality of life, ability to continue working, and reducing sick days. There is therefore potential for lots of growth for new technologies in this area.

These technology areas are relevant to the lives of most women, and as these issues are discussed more openly and honestly there can be more innovation, more investment, and more needs being met.

Women are increasingly speaking out about the issues affecting them and making their voices heard in order to make the world work for them. This rising wave of “Femtech” is just one example in which the world is adapting to work better for women – new and innovative solutions are being developed in response to very real need and demand, and this is ultimately empowering women through education and choice.