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.
When you think of the tech industry, you often think of male entrepreneurs. But more and more women are making a mark in this field, and one result of this is the rise of a new industry called FemTech. Ida Tin, CEO of the period-tracking app Clue and coiner of the term “FemTech,” recently discussed where the industry is going on a Geekettes panel, along with Clue’s Science and Education Manager Anna Druet and Head of Content Amanda Cormier.
FemTech is any technology geared toward improving women’s lives, Tin explained. It includes not only period-tracking apps like Clue but also pelvic floor exercisers like the Yarlap, smart sex toys like the Lioness, and birth control apps like Nurx. When Tin started seeing all these companies pop up, she thought, “Hold on, there is a category on the rise here.” She explained on the panel, “That’s a big thing. … Then, investors can say, ‘I have four FemTech companies in my portfolio’ instead of ‘I have a company for women peeing in their pants.’ That’s hard for a male investor to say.”
As more and more people in the tech industry and outside it understand the importance of FemTech, it will grow and grow. So, here are some things to understand about FemTech and its future.
“Women can only fulfill their potential and their life purpose when they have some agency over their own body and their own childbearing,” Tin explained, pointing out that there’s been little innovation in birth control since the Pill’s invention in the 50s. The goal of FemTech is to give women more control over their health, their happiness, and their futures. Knowledge is power, after all, and technology gives us knowledge.
Speaking of knowledge, apps like Clue are informative not just for users but also for the scientific understanding of our bodies. “One of the exciting things about merging tech and female health is that we start having exciting amounts of data,” says Tin. “We can talk to millions.” As an example, Druet said Clue has found that women’s hormones are different in East and West Germany. Getting this data otherwise would “take so much money and so much effort,” she explained. Similarly, data from Lioness have established the three kinds of female orgasm. It’s much easier for companies to analyze the data their users are already putting out than it is for an institution to get a study approved, carried out, and published.
Between helping women understand their own bodies and adding to the greater scientific knowledge about the female body, FemTech can ultimately help those suffering from medical conditions. For example, endometriosis takes 10 years on average to diagnose. But if a woman can track her period symptoms with an app, it may be able to tell her that her periods are abnormal and she should go to a doctor. And when she’s at the doctor’s, she can accurately report what symptoms she’s been experiencing to receive a diagnosis and treatment faster. “Every data point you track is helping shape the future for younger girls,” said Druet.
Unfortunately, the majority of the tech industry is still male, which can make it a struggle for women’s health startups to get funding and attention. However, when FemTech companies do succeed, they help men understand women’s health. When Tin gives presentations to men, she’ll often show a graph of female hormonal changes throughout the month and then another showing how male hormones stay constant. At that point, the men begin to think, “Maybe I don’t fully understand it, but I understand there’s something I don’t understand,” she said.
Clue has a feature that lets you share your cycle with someone else if you’d like, and the period-tracking app MyFLO has a “partner sync” feature that tells your partner what you might like based on where you are in your cycle. These kinds of capabilities allow us all to value women’s health instead of viewing it as mysterious or irrelevant.
Women are routinely gaslighted about their own pain or told by doctors that their health issues are normal. Or, their sexual problems are treated as unimportantbecause they’re not supposed to like sex anyway. By creating technology to improve women’s reproductive and sexual health, FemTech is getting us to talk about these topics and treat them like they matter — because they do.
“There’s an emerging understanding that there are many needs, and where there are many needs, there’s also many opportunities,” said Tin. The exciting part is, these needs are just beginning to be recognized, and there will be many more opportunities down the road to improve women’s lives through technology.
There are a lot of people who never thought they’d see the day venture capitalists would funnel millions into femtech businesses, direct-to-consumer tampon retailers no less. But that’s our new reality and Cora is proof.
San Francisco-based Cora, which develops and sells organic tampons, pads and other personal care products, has just closed a $7.5 million Series A led by Harbinger Ventures. Cora is one of many femtech startups to raise funding this week alone, in what is turning out to be a red-hot year for VC investment in the space.
Femtech, defined as any software, diagnostics, products and services that leverage technology to improve women’s health, has attracted at least $241 million in VC funding so far this year, according to PitchBook. That puts the sector on pace to secure nearly $1 billion in investment by year-end, greatly surpassing last year’s record of $650 million. For more historical context, startups in the space brought in only $62 million in 2012, $225 million in 2014 and $231 million in 2016.
“Investors have realized there is a huge pent-up demand in the market for healthier products for women,” Cora co-founder Molly Hayward tells TechCrunch. “The way in which the VC world is structured, there just has not been a lot of representation. It’s really difficult to understand the value of a product you aren’t ever going to use or to understand a problem you aren’t ever going to have, particularly around period care. This isn’t something we were talking about as a society five years ago.”
The three-year-old startup operates a little differently than your run-of-the-mill D2C company. Like TOMS, the popular footwear brand, Cora donates a month’s supply of products for every month’s supply sold. To date, Cora has donated 5 million pads to girls in India and Kenya and 100,000 products to women in the U.S.
“To me, [Cora] was this incredible, holistic opportunity to change the way that women experience their period,” Hayward said.
Investors must be excited about Cora’s growth. Though she didn’t disclose specific numbers, Hayward says the brand has expanded 400 percent year-over-year, a metric they are expecting to sustain with this new bout of funding. Cora’s products are sold on a subscription basis, with prices ranging from $8 per month for six tampons to $16 per month for 24. For those unfamiliar with the costs of such products, $8 for six tampons comes at quite the premium. A box of 50 Playtex tampons, for example, retails for around $9.
In Cora’s case, customers are shelling out extra cash for millennial-inspired branding, a soothing unboxing experience and a general ease of access to its products, as well as Cora’s organic, hypoallergenic and compostable materials, which aren’t characteristic of many similar products on the market.
Cora plans to use the capital to put more of its items in Target stores, where it already sells its tampons and pads, and expand its portfolio of products. As part of the funding, Cora has added two more women to its board of directors: Lisa Bougie, the former GM of Stitch Fix, and Andrea Freedman, the former chief financial officer of Method. Its board is now 80 percent female.
Graz-based SteadySense has developed a unique method of identifying a woman’s most fertile days. Founded in 2016, the startup has just raised a round of €6 million led by eQventure.
At the heart of SteadySense’s new product is an intelligent temperature measurement sensor embedded in an adhesive patch that, in combination with its femSense app, enables women to get pregnant much faster. The femSense Kinderwunsch Conception Support Patch is a discreet skin coloured patch made of biocompatible materials.
“Our patch is affixed under the arm and worn during the menstrual cycle for a period of five to seven days,” said founder and CEO Werner Koele. “The patch measures the body temperature continuously and stores the data until it is read via NFC by a smartphone. The femSense app processes the data using a self-learning algorithm and displays the fertile days in the app. This is the basal body temperature method 4.0.”
“During the day the temperature of the human body varies but remains more constant while sleeping,” said Dr. Michael Schenk, who has accompanied the product development of femSense since the founding phase. “During ovulation, the body temperature rises by 0.2° C to 0.5° C. This is the so-called basal temperature jump. While conventional methods measure only the warm-up temperature, femSense measures and compares temperature curves over several days, reliably detecting ovulation.”
The cycle tracking app helps women understand their bodies better, because it combines a menstrual diary in calendar form (fertile days, menstruation), as well as documenting moods and symptoms with visualised statistics. The cycle tracker can also be used independently of the femSense Kinderwunsch Conception Support Patch as a first step on the way to having children.