Last week I attended the Femtech Forum 2020 – virtually of course! I found it really informative, inspiring and I’m really excited to see the new innovations in the women’s health care field. There are some really talented and awesome women out there and I hope to feature their amazing companies on our website in the future! Here's a snippet of what was covered in each session.
The first session was all about ‘Balancing Trust, Privacy and Innovation in Femtech’. The panel was Marina Gerner - a tech journalist, Nicole Leeds - Clue, Natasha Singh - Gemserv, Dr Stephanie Kuku - Hardian Health, NHS & WHO and Therese Manheimer - Grace Health. It was such an interesting panel and discussion, we all rely so much on technology these days and reveal so much personal information – but do we actually know where this is going and being used for? It was reassuring to hear that privacy and data protection is very key for all these companies from the offset, they created their platforms with safety & privacy in mind which is great for us! It was also really interesting to hear that across the board, they agreed that areas such as Endometriosis & Menopause have huge gaps in the market and need further research into to really push forward in innovation.
The second session of the day was ‘Designing Products to Suit (and fit) A Modern Woman’s Needs’. This panel included Olga Razumovskaya – EM, Danela Zagar – Intimina, Urska Srsen – Bellabeat, Eirini Rapti – Inne, Kristy Chong – Modibodi. This session highlighted how we need to think of women beyond their menstrual cycle. Women’s lives are extremely busy balancing family, work and everything else in between, that we need apps and technology that make our health easy and accessible. Wellness is still seen as a luxury, not a necessity – this has to change as we only have one mind and body! They also agreed that a lot of the innovation in Femtech are about educating women about their bodies because for too long women have been left to educate themselves, which a lot of these amazing innovators are trying to change. I feel like we are going to see lots more products to help women – so watch this space!
Next up, we had a further panel discussion – ‘Investing in Femtech: Challenges & Opportunities’. The panel was: Berenice Magistretti – Tech Journalist, Sophia Benz – Atomico, Louise Samet – Blossom Capital, Maren Sannon – January Ventures. Education was a key talking point as it was pointed out that women are looking to each other and communities to share their stories and find knowledge off of their own backs, education can help end a lot of stigmas and taboos. We need to stop dividing men and women, interestingly, some of the panel said that for a lot of investing panels they had struggled to get the board of men to appreciate the problem, they thought of it as ‘niche’ (even though we’re half of the population!), it wasn’t until they entered a boardroom with a man who had gone through an infertility struggle with his partner and a husband who had a wife really struggling with menopause did it strike a chord and they appreciated what the goal was. Opportunity wise, there are so many gaps in the market! Sexual Wellness is not porn and needs to be treated as a viable opportunity, as innovation is needed in breaking through the ‘taboo’ for a large underserved market, with plenty of room for disruption. The key for Femtech companies is to envision their users and how you are fixing their problems, talk to them and get their feedback. Commonly, investors are looking for a few elements when looking at start-up companies. Firstly, are they recession proof categories – women’s health and contraceptives are never going to go down in a recession! Secondly, are they mission driven – something you really care about? What change do you want to see in 10 years’ time? Another element is a company with no borders and the potential to become a multi-million-pound company. So if you’re thinking about launching, bear this in mind.
The last session before the lunch break was a chat with Michelle Kennedy, the Founder and CEO of Peanut (last week’s spotlight company!) and wow what a woman! She told the story behind Peanut and what she has learnt along the way – it was super inspiring! She then dropped that Peanut are going to develop into the Menopause realm for women too, so watch this space! Go and check out our spotlight article here, for further info about Peanut.
After lunch, we kicked off with a subject that I feel very passionate about – ‘The Gender Gap in Medical Research’. This panel was great and included: Laura Lovett – Mobihealthnews, Jill Angelo – Gennev, Ilka Schellschmidt – Bayer, Helene Guillaume – Wild.ai and Dr Brittany Barreto – Femtech Focus. It kicked off with a shocking statistic, women have only been included in clinical trials since 1994! Genetic sequencing, metabolism, drugs and science research has all been based on white males for centuries, this doesn’t help women or other ethnicities at all! Each individual can react differently to a drug for a health issue, so it is really worrying that everything is based on these white males. This is definitely something we can expect to change in the medical world, but we also need to see the change within the boardrooms. We need more women VCs so there’s less time needed to explain the problem to investors during presentations. Women want to work with a physician who they can relate to, understands them and is caring – this is something that women are getting let down upon time and time again. I am hopeful after hearing this discussion that this is on health companies and innovators radars, Bayer have also stated on their website that women’s health – predominantly Menopause and Endometriosis are also key areas that they’re looking into.
‘Fertility: Not Just a Women’s Issue’ was our next session and we had our first male on the panel. Amy Lewin – Sifted, Lea Von Bidder – Ava, Khaled Kteily – Legacy, Elina Berglund Scherwitzl – Natural Cycles and Alyssa Atkins – Lilia, were our fantastic panel discussing this issue. It was clear through this session that this is something that every couple need to talk about, even before any issues arise. Couples are deciding to have children later these days and services like Lilia (egg freezing concierge) and Legacy (sperm freezing and testing concierge) makes it a lot more viable for couples to get pregnant whenever they want, but the talk of fertility and the options available is often not discussed in the way that infertility is. Natural Cycles & Ava both help a woman track her fertility and reproductive health, with these advancements in technology it’s giving the power back to women and couples to decide when is right for them if they would like to have a family. It’s also very important that if you are with a man, this is a conversation that they need to be involved with too. It’s really exciting to see the improvements in this space.
The penultimate discussion was ‘Is Sexual Wellness Still a Taboo in Business and Venture’. This panel consisted of Berenice Magistretti -Tech Journalist, Dr Jane Van Dis – Maven Clinic, Lora DiCarlo – Lora DiCarlo, Trish Costello – Portfolia and Billy Quinlan – Ferly. This topic was really insightful and highlighted just how far we need to go to break the ‘stigmas’ and ‘taboos’ around Sexual Wellness. By being mindful of our language that we use, so as not to call sexual wellness a taboo or stigma, making vagina, periods and orgasm normal words without cringing will also massively help propel this space forward too, as they all said what an amazing space it is to work in. Lora DiCarlo & Ferly have both struggled to overcome the Facebook algorithms with their ads, being shut down due to Facebook assuming that it’s to do with explicit content and porn. Sexual wellness is not porn! LDC create micro-robotic massagers for mind-blowing orgasms, offer sexual coaching and help women claim back their sexuality, Ferly is helping women achieve mindful sex with their audio guides, both of these companies are very much needed in this world, but have really suffered when appearing online with ads and videos that they have posted getting reactions that really sexualise women. Why are women and their vaginas seen as either very medicalised and very sexualised?! LDC also won an award but it got revoked as it was rooted in gender bias and a fear of vaginas – in this day and age, why is this still seen as ‘taboo’?! They have experienced a lot of setbacks in funding due to this bias too. The main message from this discussion is that there’s a lack of education and ignorance in this matter, people closest to them were also worried about them going into this sector, because they thought that they wouldn’t be taken seriously as entrepreneurs and would be risking a lot by doing it. We need to normalise the language used and educate people more on the matter, as it’s really important that women can feel empowered in their sexual wellness. This is an exciting area to work in and I really hope that these impressions do change over time.
The last session of the day was all about ‘Launching and Scaling a Successful Femtech Startup’, led by Chris O’Brien – Venture Beat, Afton Vechery – Modern Fertility, Kat Manalac – Y Combinator, Katherine Ryder – Maven Clinic and Crystal Etienne – Ruby Love. It was really interesting to hear these amazing entrepreneurs’ stories. You only need one strong partner to say yes to you to receive funding, you just have to convince the one person in your interview track that you are building something huge in this space. It was tough for Maven Clinic to get investment to start with as the Femtech sector was relatively new and the US market saw it as a very small niche market, Europe on the other hand didn’t see it like that at all. The more female founders that are coming forward are helping others to make the US market see that females outspend men year on year, they make 80% of the decisions and that it is a huge market, so we will start to see progress in this soon. Afton, experienced male investors saying they had to go and check with their wives as they didn’t really get it, then after talking to their wives they’d call back and say they were interested. Afton, was looking for investors who got the problem and connected with it from the start so it was hard for them to find this. Crystal completely bootstrapped her company, meaning it had no debts and agreed a common share deal with a single investing company from the UK, meaning she still had the majority of shares, controls her board and she felt good with the partners to grow with. It was really interesting to hear some of the challenges these women have overcome and was really inspiring to see how far they’ve come. I can only hope to one day follow in their footsteps!
I think the main takeaway point for me across the whole day, was the fact that clinical trials have been historically gender biased (no surprise there!) – this has to change, along with the fact that there are huge gaps in the Femtech world for areas such as Endometriosis and Menopause. It made me hopeful that we will actually see companies focus on this going forward, I know the huge pharma company Bayer have actually put this as one of their goals this year – fingers crossed! Another reoccurring theme throughout the day, is the lack of education for women across the board. Women are out of touch with their bodies, confused to know what is actually normal and we need to remove the ‘shame’ and ‘taboo’ away from women’s health, opting for open and honest conversations so women have more power over their bodies and health! I strongly believe that if we continue to share our stories and empower each other, that we can all make a change together. I hope to see some great technologies and companies expand within the Femtech world, I can’t wait for next year’s event!