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How femtech is putting women's healthcare front and centre

For a long time, femtech has been considered a niche, but a growing number of tech companies are hoping to change that narrative.
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Written by Aimee Chanthadavong on
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Image: Getty

Women may make up half of the world's population, yet the technological innovations designed specifically to target women's health have been more than lacklustre.

However, there is no denying that the female technology (femtech) sector, which has long been underfunded and overlooked, is having a real moment. Increasingly, mobile health solutions, telehealth, and wearable devices are being made readily available to address everything from menstrual care, fertility, pregnancy care, to menopause and geriatric care, and general health and wellness.

Frost and Sullivan predicts the global femtech market revenue will increase at a compound growth annual rate of nearly 13% and reach $1.1 billion by 2024. Separately, BIS Research forecasts by 2030 the sector will hit $3.04 billion.

Who's in the room?

Despite the expected uptick, the constraints for founders who are looking to break into the market -- and who so happen to be mainly women -- are still very real and apparent.

Femtech Collective co-founder Megan Capriccio pins part of the problem to the uneven distribution of women and men in the investment community.

"Capital tends to sit in a very male dominated industry, in which education becomes such a high necessary aspect of a company pitch that you almost have to reassess how a pitch is given in the femtech space because it requires so much background," she told ZDNet. 

"Investors tend to want, 'Here's my short story of why I came here and here are the numbers'. But with femtech, if you don't understand why a device to help menstruation pain will be a hot seller, it's quite difficult … so it's just trying to find the balance of 'How do we educate?' … and 'Why this company is worth investing in?'" 

Ovira founder Alice Williams quickly realised it was this education piece that was going to be key to helping her get her company off the ground. 

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Image: Ovira

Ovira is a device designed to offer women non-invasive, drug-free menstrual pain relief, particularly for those who suffer endometriosis, fibroids, polycystic ovary syndrome, or pelvic inflammatory disease. It uses a form of electrotherapy technology to send low-level pulses of electric vibration to block pain signals to the brain.

"I think the things that resonated with investors was telling a story about how bad this problem is. Once you tell your story they could understand and hearing it from a first-hand perspective really helped," she said.

"As in, I blackout from my period pain. It's just something all us women experience, we don't want to take thousands of pharmaceutical pills in our lifetime to treat this problem, and the fact that there are driverless cars, rocket ships, and these incredible tech companies, yet billions and billions of women still have to suffer each month through period pain, it's actually ridiculous."

Williams admitted while it was often easy to blame the lack of attention on femtech on gender differences, she made sure it was not going to deter her from succeeding. Last March, Ovira secured AU$1 million in funding from Blackbird Ventures.

"You do always have to explain a bit more … there were a lot of investors who gave an immediate no, but you have to be resilient, regardless, when you're raising capital," Williams said.

"If I go in there and think it's because I'm a woman, I can't change that. I feel that there are a lot of women who say it's because I'm a woman, well how about you change to think it's something about my pitch, or I'm not telling my story well enough. You can change all of those things and that gives you a lot more energy."

Isharna Walsh shared a similar experience. Walsh is a Sri-Lankan-born Australian who now resides in the United States, and is the founder and CEO of sexual wellness app Coral. Prior to starting her own company, Walsh was previously an economic advisor with the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and an investor with Los Angeles-based Embark Ventures.

"I think having experience in venture capital meant I knew how to speak the language and what investors are looking for in a pitch," she said.

"Also, I am very conscious of the financial dynamics: Venture investors are only interested in businesses that could turn into billion-dollar companies, and that should influence the way you talk about your ambition."

It is this type of resilience that SBE Australia is trying to reinforce in all the female founders who participate in its various entrepreneur programs. SBE Australia was founded to give women-led businesses access to tools, network, and people to help them scale their business, as well as provide honest feedback about their business and their entrepreneur skills.

"It is hard to get people to give you money. I say no to probably at least 10 to 15 businesses every week and most of them are male-led business. It's not that women get less than men do, it's just there's less of them, so therefore it's the way it's been measured," SBE chairman Kerrie Lee Sinclair explained.

She agreed that gender imbalance could not be the only rationale as to why there are so few femtech companies out there.

"It suggests that men don't have empathy, and I don't agree with that … I think we have to be careful. I also think knowing that women, as consumers, are 80% of the buying decision, most smart investors … the investment decision is easy … I think it's a question of how do we … help male investors be empathetic to the problems that exist in the world, not just to themselves," Sinclair said.

It's not you, it's me

For Kylie Frazer, co-founder and managing director of female-founded early-stage venture capital firm Eleanor Ventures, investing in femtech is sometimes viewed as being not as attractive as software, for instance.

"We're sector agnostic. We invest across all sectors, but we skew 90% software. Occasionally, we will invest in a hardware company, but it needs to have a deep tech application, and the hardware in most instances are almost incidental," Frazer said.

She further explained that quite often femtech products are not as appealing to investors -- or at Eleanor Ventures at least -- because they are often consumer-focused and hardware-based, making them tough sells from the get-go.

"All of those are hard for a reason because they're don't offer as high margin as software," Frazer said. "Founders just need to be self-aware and honest about how much is market signalling and how much is a gender issue."

This was something Williams recognised early on when she was seeking funding for Ovira. "I'm a female founder, I'm solo, I didn't go to McKinsey, I've never done a startup before, I haven't worked in one, I'm solving a woman's problem, I'm doing a consumer product -- they're all the things that make it very unsexy to invest in," she admitted.

But even if femtech is not something that is suitable for Eleanor Ventures, Frazer said she did not see the sector's potential growth opportunity or find the sector of personal interest. Together with her business partner Rachael Neumann, Frazer has personally invested in female-founded sexual health and wellness company Lbdo that specialises in making ergonomic sex toys and Australian-made oils and lubricants.

"It wasn't a great fit with the investment thesis of Eleanor, but we loved the founder and know this is an underserved market. Also, how fun is it to say, 'I invest in vibrators'," Frazer said.

Pushing the boundaries

One company that has been leading the charge in the femtech space is Presagen, an Australian-based startup that uses AI to improve medical diagnosis. It is also the company behind the development of Life Whisperer, an AI solution designed to help physicians identify the most viable embryos for in-vitro fertilisation.

The company was co-founded by Presagen CEO Michelle Perugini, her husband and chief strategy officer Don Perugini, and chief scientist and AI officer Jonathan Hall in 2016. These days the team is working on expanding into the United States, a market that Perugini acknowledged as being much larger when compared to Australia.

She suspected this came down to capital being more readily available and the US investor archetype, which she described as "more innovative, forward thinking, and willing to back risk and that big global vision".

"I think it's due to the amount of capital available and being able to carve out part of their fund to support femtech or social impact type investments," she said. "They're just able to do that whereas here there's more generalist funds that aren't supporting risk investments … it's a real missed opportunity I think for companies in the femtech space, whereas in the US you have very specific funds trying to tackle these areas."

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Image: Getty

The barriers to entry in Australia, however, have continued to lower, according to Perugini.

"Femtech is emerging because technology has enabled everyone to play more of an equal playing field. Technology has made it cheaper to get started," she said. 

"It's certainly the case with programs that companies like AWS provide. They allow companies to get started with a proof of concept and get quite a fair way along in development of technologies that they wouldn't have been able to fund or support themselves in the past. I think there's a real emergence in the femtech space because of that."

Rise up

Capriccio is optimistic Australia will have a place in helping the burgeoning global femtech market prosper. 

"In the last few years, women are finding their voice … and acknowledging their suffering and know that they don't have to suffer anymore. That's the first step to be able to create innovation: Acknowledge there's this problem," she said.

"For a long time, women were told, if you want to be successful in business, if you want to be successful in a career or life, you're going to have to ignore these very basic things about yourself, so like monthly cramps, hot flushes, and things that can totally throw off your day. But now we're starting to find that voice more and more.

"The next step is how we fix it, which obviously takes a little bit longer. But the more that we are talking about these issues and highlighting the gaps that can be filled, we're seeing more and more entrepreneurs taking the lead and coming up with solutions for individuals and for women more broadly."

Sinclair is also seeing similar inclinations, and believes Australia has the potential to be a major leader in the femtech sector. "If you tracked a lot of the femtech stuff, you would see that it will often come back to Australia," she said. 

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