If you approached a venture capitalist and offered them access to a $600 billion dollar market opportunity, their ears would likely prick up. If you then explained that market was menopause, how many would begin to look deeply uncomfortable?
This is the issue faced by multiple entrepreneurs within the women’s health and femtech spaces, with startup founders given the brush off when it comes to ‘taboo’ topics such as menopause or pelvic floor issues – often times with the argument that it is a niche issue without scope for global scale.
As Bellabeat, the women’s health wearable startup, says on its website, women outnumber men worldwide by 66 million: there is nothing ‘niche’ about women’s health.
In theory, a large portion of the global population will most likely encounter certain female-focused milestones such as pregnancy, postpartum or menopause. And these milestone moments can sometimes present challenges – challenges which haven’t traditionally been addressed publicly, but which are quickly gaining momentum as startups and consumers alike are eager to change the status quo.
The change is clearly not a moment too soon – the femtech industry is set to be worth $50bn by 2025, and yet many founders within the space still face an uphill struggle when it comes educating investors and retailers about the issues facing women today, and the clear customer demand for these products.
For Tania Boler, a seasoned veteran within the women’s health field who formerly worked for the United Nations, it was her own experience of pregnancy which made her realise how little we discuss or deal with pelvic floor issues as a society – something which affects up to 1 in 3 women. This led her to found Elvie, which not only produced an award-winning Kegel trainer but also a revolutionary approach to breastfeeding on the go.
While she is now regarded as one of the key figures within the women’s health movement and somewhat of a femtech rockstar, the ascent wasn’t without its challenges. Boler has spoken of meetings where male VCs had no idea what a Kegel trainer actually was, even 15 minutes into the session. Rather than falling at the first hurdle, Boler turned the lack of recognition surrounding women’s health to her advantage, instead creating a strong Elvie movement and community which aims to have difficult conversations about issues affecting women worldwide – whether it be the gender pay gap, women’s rights or breastfeeding in public.
London Fashion Week 2018 saw model Valeria Garcia walking the runway whilst pumping from her Elvie breast pumps, an iconic moment not just for the brand, but for working mothers everywhere who saw a women literally doing her job whilst producing milk for her child – a multi-definition approach to the phrase ‘providing for one’s family’.
In the case of Elvie, the products are groundbreaking but only offer so many opportunities for each individual media outlet to tell that functionality story, so it is this evolutionary approach to the women’s health conversation and the company’s willingness to push boundaries which has enabled it to become truly mainstream and ensure continued media mentions.
The success has paid off – 2019 saw the organisation receive $42m in Series B funding, and Boler was recently named Tech Gamechanger Woman of the Year at the 2021 Glamour Woman of the Year Awards.
Another inspirational founder is Michelle Kennedy, founder of social networking app Peanut, aimed at mothers and those trying to conceive. The app is used by 1.6 million users worldwide and a key component in its success has been the company’s readiness to address issues affecting women.
A recent collaboration with Chrissy Teigen saw Peanut working to change negative vocabulary within the women’s health space such as ‘geriatric pregnancy’, while the company has spoken publicly over gender equality during Covid and encouraged female voter participation in the US election.
Doing so has allowed Kennedy to emerge as a dynamic thought leader who is driving much-needed discussions on women’s issues today. And it’s working – the company has received £9.6m in Series A funding and user engagement has increased 30% since the start of the pandemic.
There are hundreds of companies doing incredible things across the femtech and women’s health space, all of which could take a standalone approach within the news agenda. In the pregnancy arena, Lia has produced the world’s first biodegradable and flushable pregnancy test – a huge step away from environmentally-damaging plastic tests, but also an interesting acknowledgement of the fact that not every woman wants a pregnancy test peeking out of the bathroom wastebin.
Efelya, Nuvo and Velmio are all changing the face of antenatal care and awareness, while startups such as Coroflo and Milkstork are enabling customers to take charge of their breastfeeding journey and equip users to make the best choices for their own parenting circumstances.
For those at a different life stage, the rise in menopause-related wearables such as Grace Cooling and Thermaband is just the start of an industry which is set to explode – especially in furthering conversation around such a major, life-changing phase for women.
For these companies and others vying within the femtech space, the coming years will be a hotbed of strong founder views and compelling product innovation, breaking down the barriers surrounding ‘women’s problems’. By initiating difficult conversations and acknowledging the issues facing its customer base in an innovative and thought-provoking way, these companies, their leadership teams and the investors behind the brands stand to become part of a movement rather than ‘just’ a product.
As Michelle Kennedy of Peanut says, “you come for the tool and you stay for the community”.
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