(Image credit: Peppy)
Femtech has become something of a buzzword in the last five years – but what does it actually mean? The industry encompasses any products and software that aid women, with a particular focus on women’s health. Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan believes the industry could be worth $50 billion by 2025, as it generated $820 million in 2019 alone.
However, this market is a bit of a Wild West. There are so many different offerings and services, from breast pumps to period-tracking apps to menopausal support, that it can feel like there’s no set strategy on how to grow a femtech team and business. At the same time, perhaps that’s the adventurous allure of it.
The Org spoke to three British femtech companies on how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it, and what they see the femtech industry evolving into.
Callaly: Venture into the unknown
Founded in 2014, Callaly is a company that creates customised period product boxes, which can include its revolutionary redesigned tampon; one that comes with a liner to help with any bleeding that it doesn’t initially absorb. The reimagined applicator also keeps your fingers clean during insertion and removal, which is both more hygienic and comfortable for use. Just last month, the company raised £1.7 million in equity crowdfunding, reaching 170% of its target.
CEO and co-founder Thang Vo-Ta says that their femtech journey began by capitalising on a market with a “dire lack of innovation.” Eco-consciousness is another underdeveloped factor in most period products, which is why Vo-Ta says the company is trying to become a key player in that space too.
Callaly’s “tampliners” are more than 95% biodegradable (and they’re “trying to get closer to 100% all the time”) with 100% recyclable and compostable packaging. The company is the first British period care B Corp.
Innovation, Vo-Ta believes, is what makes them stand out in this space.
“Unlike our competition, Callaly offers full customisation of products, including tailored absorbencies, all delivered through the customer’s letterbox,” he said. “This is executed using state-of-the-art robotics and manufacturing processes, including the world's first automated tampliner machine.”
When innovation is a core part of your offering, Vo-Ta argues, it’s easier to implement it into all your operations and, further down the line, company culture.
“We have built operations from the ground up, including developing in-house R&D, supply chains, packaging, and logistics,” he said. “We have also designed and developed bespoke automated machinery, backed by over £1.5m in innovation funding from the UK Government's innovation agency: Innovate UK.
“The only reason we have been able to do this is because of the fantastic team of people with a broad range of diverse backgrounds and super skills around us.”
Callaly’s team is made up of professionals from all walks of life. Co-founders Dr. Alex Hooi, Vo-Ta, and Ewa Radziwon were a gynaecologist, investment banker, and garment technologist, respectively. Vo-Ta says that it’s the glaring problems within the period-care space that aid their vision forward. In short – there are so many problems, which inspire so many more solutions.
“For too long, the media and period-care industry have created an unrealistic image of people who menstruate, including those of trans men, disabled people, and people of marginalised races, bodies and belief systems,” he said. “Central to our mission is the belief that people with periods deserve better quality products.”
Peppy: Femtech is more than just women
Inequality in healthcare has dangerous implications for women, and this even more worrying for women of BAME backgrounds. A 2019 report by MBRRACE UK shows that Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. Women of Black and minority ethnic groups are also at a greater risk of long-term health problems.
Peppy, founded in 2018, is a service that connects families and employers with experts on how to improve the healthcare journeys of people going through underserviced health issues and conditions, which tend to disproportionately affect women.
Explaining what drove her and co-founders Evan Harris and Max Landry to start up Peppy, Co-founder Mridula Pore said: “I had recently just become a parent, and I was seeing the threshold for care going up and up. This is a global phenomenon, not just a UK one; we have an aging population. People have increased acute health care needs and those healthcare services are really important. It's right that you're spending money on expensive interventions, but it means other people can get left behind.”
When people think of femtech, it’s easy for your mind to wander to gadgets rather than something service-based like Peppy. However, issues that affect women don’t affect them alone. Pore explains that fertility, menstruation, and menopause affect families, households, and partners alike. Femtech doesn’t just exist for women – it exists to uplift societies by supporting women within them.
“Speak to any partner of someone who’s going through menopause,” Pore says, “and they are going through it with them! As a manager, this is something you can do to support your teams.”
Peppy can help enable employers to have software systems in place which connect their staff to experts in the field – and by virtue of this act, help employees feel safer and more validated in seeking help for those problems within their workplace. This summer, the company raised a £1.7 million seed funding round for its employee health benefits app.
Pore says that while Peppy’s organisational clients (which include corporate heavyweights such as the NHS, Aviva, Santander, Penguin Random House, and Novartis) are companies who recognise the need for what it can offer – company cultures differ widely and greatly.
“We take those organisations to the next step of wherever they are in their journey,” she said. “It just depends on the nature and makeup of the team. But of course, what is universally true is that everyone will go through phases of life when they’ve seen that their mental or physical health is vulnerable – I think we’ve all seen that during this period with the pandemic.”
Juno Bio: Educate investors
Juno Bio’s mission is to get women familiar with something they may have never even thought about: their vaginal microbiome. The company, founded in 2018, provides home sampling kits for women which it then analyses to understand the genetic make-up of the bacteria in their vagina. The vaginal microbiome is “significantly implicated in over 30 major women’s health conditions” and plays a massive role in women’s general health. This includes bacterial vaginosis, which affects 10% of women every year, and preterm birth, which is the leading cause of death in children under five.
Co-founder and scientist Hana Janebdar says that femtech, and the vaginal microbiome niche in particular, is very much at the beginning of its boom – which can be both a blessing and a struggle: “When I first started pitching this, nobody had really heard of the vaginal microbiome," she said. “Back in 2017 and 2018, it was brand new.”
This means that initially, the process involved a lot of education.
“When you’re talking to people in biotech, it’s very clear how you pitch the vaginal microbiome because it's so analogous to the gut health boom in the way that it exploded with micro bacteria,” she explained. “When you're talking to an investor, though, that perhaps might not even be familiar with the microbiome but is more familiar with femtech as a growing area, you have to pitch it as ‘femtech is more than just periods’ and ‘femtech is more than just fertility.’ There's a very strong educational component.”
Janebdar says she was faced by male investors who were uncomfortable with the word “vagina” and a lot of female investors who had never heard of the vaginal microbiome and conditions she spoke of – and had to quickly educate them in a digestible way, “all in a space of something like two minutes.”
And yet, the femtech start-up has received funding from the likes of Entrepreneur First and Ada Ventures. The latter raised £27m to invest £500,000 seed funding apiece in a number of femtech companies, including Juno Bio.
She believes that femtech will continue to grow and demand informed and sympathetic investors in its wake.
“Period care, contraception, fertility - that will all grow,” she says. “And of course there are other areas of health tech that need a female focused approach for it to work from women. Women have more chronic conditions, the way they have a heart condition is different.”
Femtech, she believes, will go on to gradually segment into niches and specialisms, but for now, it’s enjoying being a communal melting pot of ideas.
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