Femtech, or Female Technology, is the merging of modern technology and women’s health to address age-old issues. The market is booming, and it’s long overdue.
Not only is this fascinating sector causing a stir in the tech world, it’s also shaking off old stigmas attached to female health and wellbeing. Here we look at the recent market growth, map the development of femtech through patent milestones, and ask: where next?
Advances in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, for example around AI and the Internet of Things, have largely contributed to the rise of femtech, which is set to be the next big disruptor in the global healthcare market. The numbers speak for themselves:
An increase in funding: femtech companies received more than $1 billion in funding between 2015 and 2018, and the world’s first femtech fund was created last year by venture capitalist platform Portfolia.
The value of the industry is increasing: estimated at $200m in 2018, with a potential of $50 billion by 2025 (according to a report by research consultancy Frost & Sullivan).
The fast and hard growth of the industry demonstrates that there has been a gap in the market. To the majority of women, this is no surprise. How, then, has it taken until now for the market to boom?
Of course, you cannot offer simple answers to complex issues, but there are a few, interconnected, reasons at the centre of the conundrum:
1. The last taboo
There is, and always has been, an element of embarrassment talking about women’s health. Even today, talking about periods often is unthinkable in certain professional environments. Too uncomfortable. Too inappropriate. But worryingly the taboo has a more lasting impact than our collective discomfort. Taboo can and has influenced the speed of development of technology around this important topic.
In 2013 Ida Tin, founder of the period-tracking app Clue, coined the tagline ‘femtech’. It took this shiny new name to shift the thinking around women’s health. Despite the technology often literally being about sex, women’s health isn’t considered ‘sexy’.
It’s no surprise that bright, young entrepreneurs would much rather work on technologies which are considered ‘on-trend’ and disruptive, such as AI or crypto currency and not, for example, menstruation. It’s safe to say, the fewer inventors focus their brain power on one sector, the lesser the advances that sector will see.
2. It’s a man’s world
The majority of investors, innovators, entrepreneurs and scientist are men (see our article on the statistics of female inventors). Studies have shown that investors invest in causes they can relate to, and because (by definition) femtech products don’t directly benefit men, male investors may not be drawn towards them. Further, perhaps the taboo is felt more strongly amongst the male population.
But it’s time to shove gender bias aside: a report that looked at start-ups founded by men and women concluded that female-owned companies did better financially than men’s.
3. Lack of data
We have far more information on how drugs and diseases affect men than we do for women. In the US government-funded medical trials have only been allowed to include women since 1993. Even to this day, the majority of medical trials are conducted on men only.
The market is growing and demand is getting louder and less apologetic about asking for what it wants. Women (and men) are getting tired of circling around awkward issues that are so crucially important to our lives. Savvy entrepreneurs have picked up on this, and a number of interesting start-ups are taking the ‘trendy’ technologies AI and the IoT, and are applying them to the femtech space.
Let’s take a look at how far society has come in women’s health solutions.
Then and now: the progress of femtech through the lens of the patent system
Breast pump Then (1854) The first breast pump patent was filed in 1854 by Orwell H. Needham. The pump was based on the design of a machine for milking cows, essentially requiring the woman’s breast to be inserted in place of an udder. It’s interesting that women have been lactating for millennia, yet humans created a device for milking cattle before turning their ingenuity to a woman’s breast pump.
Now We now have wireless, silent, electric breast pumps on the market, which can be worn in a nursing bra. Many of the hands-free breast pumps on the market also provide real-time volume measurement via an app.
As well as recognising the difference between women and cattle, these new products enable women to re-enter the work force soon after giving birth – if that’s what they want. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minster of New Zealand, thanks wireless breast pumps for making possible her return to work just weeks after giving birth.
Fertility and conception Then (1969) The first patent to a home pregnancy test was granted in 1969, and the product was made available to the mass market in the 1970s (this is despite unease over sexual morality and concerns from doctors over the ability of women to follow the kit’s instructions and cope with the results without a doctor).
Now A 100% biodegradable pregnancy test has been patented, which can be flushed after use. The analysis offered by home testing has also advanced, for example the ovulation predictor provides “accurate dates of ovulation in order to help in determining pregnancy or contraception”.
With many players trying to enter this new market, there will naturally be some failures and risks to watch out for. Natural Cycles is a fertility tracker which was certified as contraception and approved for use across the EU. However, the number of women becoming pregnant while relying on the app has prompted some countries to review the certification, and an advert claiming that app is highly accurate has been banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority for being “misleading”.
Tampons Then (1931) The first patent for an applicator tampon was filed in 1931 (by a man). A number of patents confirm that many tampons and sanitary towels include harmful substances, such as asbestos and derivatives from petrol (for example, rayon and viscose).
Now To address the use of harmful substances in sanitary products, a number of female-led femtech starts-ups are developing fully biodegradable tampons made from organic materials, even having a biodegradable water-soluble tampon applicator.
For the really techy amongst us, the “bluetooth tampon” might soon become the norm, described as a “cell phone based tampon monitoring system”.
Technology directed to women’s issues has come far, and innovation in the sector is still in an exciting phase. That begs the question, what more is to come?
Ida Tin has theorised that one glaring omission from the list of technologies covered by femtech is the menopause. The menopause is one of the topics most highly shrouded in taboo, which might be a reason for the lack of growth in this area so far. However, the market potential is huge. The negative effects of the menopause can be of such great magnitude that many women – if in a financial position to do so – would eagerly consider investing in / buying a product which offers a solution. For future generations, gender balance and equal pay will be the norm, thus, it is to be expected that this demographic, going through menopause at some point in their lives, is one likely to be in a position to spend money on products and services that benefit them – such as femtech.
Another area for development is disease monitoring. It’s important to remember that femtech isn’t limited to reproductive matters, because women are not simply reproductive machines. Diagnosing and treating diseases in women is a huge area for advancement. For example, research is being done into using smart tampons to diagnose debilitating diseases such as endometriosis. Further, early diagnosis of disease may be made possible in the future by the huge increase in data from the tracking devices currently on the market. In 2018 a collaboration between Fitbit and Clue was announced, which will provide more data linking tracking and women’s health. The huge increase in available data will hopefully generate further innovation.
It’s exciting to see the rapid growth of the industry, and to consider the advances which will be made in the coming years. It’s also good to see that the evolution of femtech is reflected in patents, which can both promote investment into, and provide protection for, innovation in femtech.
Issues that affect half of the population have long taken a back-seat in the tech world, and it’s good to see progress being made. After all, who run the world? Girls!