Humans as a species love to categorize. To help us understand the world around us, we give everything a name — each other, our pets, our moods, the earthy smell of a forest after rain. And when we’re particularly excited about something, we’ll give it a nickname, too. In this fashion “femtech” was born, a term used to describe the section of the Venn diagram where technology and female health care get busy. The term was coined around 2016, about the time that seriously innovative ideas started popping up in that particular sliver of space.
Think back to the then-scandalizing ads for Thinx period-proof underwear. There was also Fin, a crowdfunded fingertip vibrator; Clue, an ovulation tracker; and Cora, the organic menstrual-products subscription service. Before long, seriously big cash began to flow.
Last year, an estimated $400 million was invested in companies that fell under the femtech umbrella — and about $1 billion total since 2015, says research firm PitchBook. Today, Cora is neatly filed in Target’s personal-care aisle (with competitors like Tampax), and ideas continue to proliferate. “Smart tampons” that would collect blood and tissue for monthly genetic testing to help diagnose diseases like endometriosis, cervical cancer, and even indirectly measure a patient’s ovarian reserve, may not be far off, thanks to startups like NextGen Jane. By some estimates, the entire femtech space could represent a $50 billion industry by 2025.
It goes without saying that both health care and technology are fields where American women and their needs have been overlooked. But we will say it. And back it up with exhibits A and B: A recent survey that shows that the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world, and statistics that show a dearth of female leaders in Silicon Valley (only seven percent of partners at the top 100 venture capital firms are women).
“The truth is the vast majority of investors, even in health care, are men,” says Trish Costello, the CEO founder of investment fund Portfolia and the Portfolia FemTech Fund, an arm specifically devoted to women’s health-care companies. “Sometimes they’re just downright uncomfortable with products that deal with menopause, childbirth, periods, anything. One said to me, ‘I don’t want to have to talk about vaginas every Monday morning at my partner meeting.’ ” The fact that this paradigm is shifting is very exciting. And yet, as investments in femtech grow and the companies serving women’s health-care concerns become profitable, there is a persistent question that looms: How useful are these innovations, really? In some cases, is this just another way for women to pay premium for…being women?
Take tampons and sanitary napkins. They’re essentials for a menstruating population. In the United States, though, they’ve been sold and taxed as luxury goods, rather than as a medical necessity that would be exempt from sales tax or purchasable through government-assistance programs like Medicaid. Since protests picked up steam in recent years, 10 states have amended their laws to drop the tax, but 35 have not. (Fun fact: Five states have no sales tax.) This is all to say: Women represent a huge market, and in some ways, because of a lack of care options, a vulnerable one.
Menstrual hygiene has undergone more innovation due to femtech company attention than it had in decades (new sustainable, reusable plastic options; organic-cotton subscription services; menstrual underwear), but these changes do not necessarily come cheap. A standard box of 50 assorted store-brand tampons costs $4.99. For the equivalent of 50 Cora tampons, a product launched partly in response to what the company viewed as potentially dangerous synthetic materials, the cost at Target would be about $15.60. Caring for the female body is still being regarded as a luxury and sold at that price.