We live in a world designed for men. On average, smartphones are 5.5 inches too big for women’s hands. Offices tend to be 5 degrees too cold. Cars are designed around the body of ‘Reference Man’, meaning that women are nearly 50% more likely to be seriously hurt. Speech-recognition software is trained on recordings of male voices: Google’s version is 70% more likely to understand men. Fitness monitors underestimate steps during housework by up to 74%, and they don’t count steps taken while pushing a pram.
This bias, uncovered by writer and activist Caroline Criado Perez, leaves us with a “one-size-fits-men” approach to tech. This no longer cuts the mustard, so can femtech startups begin unravelling decades of gender blindness to cater to the dismissed needs of half of the population?
Femtech is a buzzword used to describe software, products and apps that are focused on improving women’s health and wellbeing. Not everyone is sold on the phrase, but it had humble beginnings. Danish-born entrepreneur Ida Tin coined the term when she noticed startups popping up that were similar to her own period-tracking app, Clue. From strengthening your pelvic floor, to supporting you through pregnancy and motherhood, these startups were filled with promise of cutting through the bullshit and empowering women to understand their bodies - as long as the body menstruates and reproduces, that is.
Ida addressed the crowd at a Geekettes event explaining the need to categorise the trend: “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."
Creating a specific name compartmentalised women’s health startups, making them a more marketable product. Crucially, it helps women pitch to men about issues that aren’t relevant to them. In 2018, female-led startups in the US received just 2.2% of $130 billion in VC funding, according to data by PitchBook. I’ll say that again. Almost 98% of VC funding was given to men. Outside of the US, a recent report found that 93% of European VC funding went to all male founding teams. Only one per cent went to all female companies. Ironically, research shows that startups with female leadership were more profitable than male-only founding teams. The amount of deals that female founders are closing is increasing, and earlier this year wearable breast-pump maker Elvie announced it had raised $42 million in Series B funding, led by IPGL. This is the biggest investment that femtech has ever seen, and there are other signs of the appetite increasing. Google have launched a female-only founders programme at their Shoreditch campus, and female-led VC firm Portfolia runs a femtech dedicated fund.
It’s yet impossible to tell whether this growing appetite is purely profit driven, rather than reflective of changing attitudes to the necessity of startups in the space. Stigma and aversion toward female sexual liberation and bodily functions is still rife. Last year, Laurence Fontinoy, founder of fertility-tracking app Woom, spoke to The Guardian about dealing with investors. She recalled a room full of investors breaking into laughter at the mention of menopause.“It’s tough. 95% of the time you’re pitching to men who can’t relate to the product. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. you have to show more [potential], more traction”,
Kim Palmer, founder of hypnotherapy wellness app, Clementine, can relate.“I know from having many conversations with male VCs that they really struggle to get their heads around femtech. This is a huge ecosystem we need to try and change. Maybe it’s trailblazers like Elvie that need to prove this,” Palmer muses. “My worry is that my brand, and others like it, will die in the meantime.”
If pound signs are driving this market, it’s worth it. Market analysts Frost & Sullivan have forecast femtech will be worth $50bn by 2025. But women’s health startups are more than a profit spinning trend. They are opening up conversations about topics made taboo through archaic oppression of women. They are altering the language used to describe, sell and promote their products by talking directly to women. Take a look at Elvie, for example. They are taking the stigmatised subject of pelvic floor weakness and secretive breastfeeding, bringing them into the light and screaming - THIS IS NORMAL! IT SHOULD BE EASIER! As soon as you enter their website, you are faced with beautifully captured images of diverse female bodies. The language is direct, strong, and straight to the point. There’s no flowery or avoidant wording. This is the voice of tech that is actually built for women, by women.
They are reaching out beyond their website, with marketing that demands a reaction. They commissioned a huge vagina-shaped blimp to fly over Edinburgh Fringe Festival - after their ‘Pissing Booth’ pop-up was rejected because it looked like a vagina. The uncomfort caused by and the rejection of this marketing campaign shows how indecent female genitalia are still considered to be.
Elvie aren’t the only ones leading this troupe into candid marketing. Take almost any femtech company; Clue describes their menstrual tracking app as “confident, empowering and scientific.” Ferly is a UK-based sexual self-care app founded in 2018. The website reads “No, [sexual self-care] is not wanking in a bathtub while eating avocado toast #millennials. Sexual self-care is all about tuning into your body, connecting with your mind and learning what you want and what you don’t want. This is your journey to better understanding your relationship to sex.” Smart vibrator startup Lioness is selling to ‘people with vaginas’, a simple language change that acknowledges trans individuals. Smart tampon startup NextGenJane talks about shedding your endometrial lining, and the first words you read on Evekit, a sexual health testing service, is “Fanny got funk?”
Femtech is not pretty pink products, it’s a movement dedicated to women’s wellness. Kim Palmer founded Clementine when she started having panic attacks after years of pushing herself. “I built this app because I didn't feel what was on offer was tailored with women in mind.” She didn’t think women resonated with the colour palettes and characters used by her competitors. She wanted clean, modern and fresh photography. She was designing her products with women in mind, by finding out what problems they are facing, and working with them.
“We get feedback that says ‘You’re in my head’,” Kim added. “This is because we understand women - we aren't men sitting in an office trying to tell another man to craft copy that he thinks women will like, and that comes through in the words.”
Kim and her team spoke to 600 women about body image and self-esteem and designed their newest content around that. “It was sad, but hardly surprising. Women rated their body on average as a five,” she recalled. “They described themselves as hideous, they suck in their tummy in during sex, feel guilty if they ate “bad” food, and cover up in dark baggy clothes.”
These companies are offering much more than Instagrammable quotes, pictures of mothers, cute feminine names and pleasant colour schemes. They are completely smashing the rigid, prude and outdated approach to women’s health, stepping in where doctor’s fail to take female pain seriously, and shattering stigma that shrouds normal bodily functions in shame.
While innovation has infiltrated technology across the board, period products have been left behind. They are unfairly taxed, they pollute our oceans and are poorly designed. As a woman who has bled every single month since she was 10 years old, it’s genuinely exciting to see organic tampons, period pants,a kickstarter campaign for a mooncup that tells you when it’s full and a tampon that’s infused with CBD to ease pain, or a balm to soothe cramps. These companies recognise that period poverty affects millions of girls worldwide, and donate, advocate and build sustainable supply chains to tackle that.
Countless startups are building digital communities where women can feel understood, heard and supported. You can sign up to be a Pleasure Pioneer for Ferly. AvaWorld is filled with scientific articles discussing everything around menstruation, fertility and pregnancy. You can join Vibio’s VibeGang to bring new products into reality, explore your sexuality and connect with like-minded people.
Lea von Bidder, the founder and CEO of Ava, who sell a fertility tracking bracelet, says these communities have been born out of frustration; women are fed up with euphemisms and awkward conversations surrounding their health. “These communities are wonderful because a lot of women are in situations where either their friends or family aren't people they can talk to,” she commented. “It really helps to not do this alone, to have women around you who are going through similar life stages, and reliable information to help you understand what’s going on with your body.”
Vibio are building a wearable, app controlled vibrator for solo-play and couples. The wearable connects to bluetooth, so the partner can control the app from anywhere in the world. Couple’s can set ‘pleasure goals’ that they both decide on - like using the wearable outside or organising a threesome.
Vibio’s founder, Alma Ramirez-Acosta, believes in the power of sex toys in liberting female sexuality. This doesn’t mean every woman wants their partner to turn their vibrator on while they are out having dinner with friends, but Vibio is encouraging women to speak up about their wants and needs. “We are taking masturabation from being an individual experience, to something that you share with your partner and have conversations about - to have fun and feel more pleasure.”
Accepting and sharing your dreams, desires and concerns in the bedroom forms the backbone of the sex positive movement. “We are encouraging exploration within boundaries” Alma explained. Their Instagram feed is a visualisation of this - an educational moodboard of naked skin and tangled bodies. The wearable itself fits just on the opening on the vagina, shaped against the clitorous. “We made our wearable external because 80% of women masturbate with their clitorious and not vaginally,” Alma said. “We also designed it anatomically so it fits to women’s bodies. They essentially sit on it, then it’s comfortable and secure enough to walk around with.”
Vibio recruit female testers who provide feedback on each version of the product, the importance of which cannot be overstated. This ensures that the products are made for women, not based on assumptions.
Femtech is much much more than fun sex toys or nifty cycle trackers. They are more than products. They are advancing women’s health care that’s been neglected for too long. There’s a portable scanner to detect breast cancer, and a tampon that can diagnose endometriosis. It’s more than youth-friendly language. It’s empowering women to have the tools to build their self-esteem, their wellness, their connection to their bodies and how they work, with services grounded in scientific knowledge and research. It’s what women have been waiting for.
This is where things get complicated. Femtech companies have built a community - but it’s often a limited access club. With a focus on fertility, pregnancy and periods, the space can be trans-exclusionary. It doesn’t recognise or cater to women who don’t menstruate. Reproduction and motherhood is the prime focus, making the space a barren landscape for women who don’t want children, or can’t have them. Ovulation tracking apps fail women who fall pregnant and then choose to have an abortion or if you have a reproductive disorder. Katherine Hughes has Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and she feels left out of the delivery of period tracking apps. “One of the apps I've been using sends push notifications to remind me to update my calendar and input my period and it's like, yep, haven't had one to put in,” she explained. “1 in 8 women have PCOS, we are a huge part of the market. We should be catered for.”
In an ideal world, tracking apps could be tailored to a range of health needs, but we aren’t there yet. Clinical research has historically been conducted on men, and this will take years to rectify. We’re off to a good start, with studies on hormone therapy menopausal symptoms, periods and productivity , sexual dysfunction associated with psychiatric disorders, and pregnancy and polycystic ovary syndrome popping up from time to time.
Medical research is an incredibly slow process, so I sat down with Lea von Bidder, to see how a startup plans to advance women’s healthcare. Their flagship product, the fertility tracking wristband, monitors five vital signs, including your pulse, breathing rate and skin temperature while you sleep. The data helps to inform their research. “When we started this company, and we looked at what the internet told you about trying to conceive, there were so many old wives tales that had really no database behind it. And that's what we set out to change,” Lea explained.
Ava started as a gadget to help women concieve, but it’s become much bigger. It soon became clear that women didn’t just want to track their cycle to get pregnant, but also to understand their personal rhythms. Acknowledging, understanding and accepting your cycle is a way for women to break down any internal stigma they hold, Lea explains. “Women find peace in understanding what’s happening, and a curiosity in tracking the changes.”
How about working class women or those who live in remote communities who can’t afford to splash £249 on a wristband to tell them when their period is coming? Advancements in women’s health should benefit women from all walks of life - and Lea acknowledges the limited accessibility their pricing causes. “This is something that I hope we will be able to change over the next few years, because we want to have a product that is successful for everyone,” she shares. In the meantime, Ava keep their content free and are looking to have conversations with third parties that will potentially provide the product to underprivileged communities.
I am thankful we are starting to see concrete shifts in the conversation around women’s health. I'm a long way away from the girl at high school who stuffed pads up her jumper sleeves so people wouldn't laugh, who couldn't explain why I couldn't go swimming for fear of a boy knowing I was bleeding - but we still have a way to go before we can talk as freely about menstrual cramps as having back ache, and before female pain is taken seriously. I believe femtech startups can lead the way to this becoming a reality. If only profit remains secondary to catering to women - all women - and empowerment doesn’t morph into a meaningless buzzword to sell overpriced gimmicks we don't actually need.
The femtech space has evolved since Ida Tin christened it, but creating an ecosystem that values and caters to women’s individual needs is going to take more than pricey products and hashtags, especially when marketing outside of Western, urban cities. Fertility tracking bracelets aren’t going to help women who choose to have an abortion, audio erotica apps that turn you on aren’t going to cure porn’s misogny problem and absorbant pants aren’t going to cure period poverty. But it sure is a promising start.
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