FemTech is the Future

A mobile phone with a female face

FemTech advances are revolutionising women’s healthcare. Image credit: The Oxford Scientist.

The term “FemTech” was coined to encompass the emerging ecosystem of start-ups within medical technology (MedTech) focused on innovations for women’s health. Since its coining in 2016 by Ida Tin, co-founder of the period-tracking app, Clue, it has highlighted  gender and sex health inequity, accelerated innovation, and grown funding of women’s health. These have transformed FemTech into a multibillion-dollar industry

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the female ‘a mutilated male’ and ‘the relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled’. Despite being dead for over two millennia, his archaic views have endured through patriarchal systems of power, resulting in a deep lack of understanding of the health of women and individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) today. Despite making up 50% of the global population and being responsible for 80% of healthcare-related spending, the funding for women’s health research is only a fraction of men’s and is discrepant with disease burden. This funding gap, combined with a ‘male as default’ approach remaining prevalent in research, clinical trials, medical training and health policy, is a poignant testament to the necessity of the FemTech revolution. 

‘Despite making up 50% of the global population, the funding for women’s health research is only a fraction of men’s.’

Recent years have seen a rising tide of women’s health and wellness products. Since its birth, FemTech has diversified into all areas of health, from redesigning the tampon to reducing bias in the development of diagnostic AI. Currently, some areas of women’s health get more airtime than others—for example, maternal and sexual health have an abundance of new ventures, while menopause and contraception rest in more stagnant waters.

As innovators narrow in on this white space, menopause will become an area to watch. Women are increasingly taking up leadership positions, and their careers are peaking between the age of 40-65 – coincidently, the age of onset of perimenopause. While 63% of working women believe menopause negatively impacts their working life, only 6% of FemTech companies focus on this area. As the stigma surrounding menopause continues to erode, and women over 50 become more prominent in the workforce, there is mounting pressure to find better treatments. 

The more generic solutions are likely to parallel the trends we see across the rest of the Fem- and MedTech industries, namely a growth in wearable trackers, symptom-tracking apps and telemedicine—all tailored to menopause. Inspiring innovations are emerging to treat symptoms, such as hot-flush alleviation devices, including the Embr Wave and Grace, which aim to hijack the body’s own thermoregulation system. Future generations of menopause products could even leverage cutting-edge research into ovarian tissue preservation to prolong fertility, delay menopause and increase longevity.  

Where we find the good, we also find the bad and ugly. In healthcare, and especially in FemTech, data is a double-edged sword. In the right hands, it can empower disruptive thinking and innovation; however, wielded by predatory forces it becomes a powerful surveillance tool benefitting medical companies and marketing agencies. Many companies appear to be capitalising on the increasing demand for FemTech, releasing products with negligible scientific rooting and selling confidential data to the highest bidder. Menstrual and fertility-tracking apps have become commonplace, with millions of women entering intimate details about their cycles, symptoms, and sex lives in confidence, expecting health insights in return. 

‘In healthcare, and especially in FemTech, data is a double-edged sword.’

In a systematic review of the 73 available traditional cycle-tracking apps, the maximum accuracy of prediction for ovulation was a pitiful 21%. Ava and other temperature-tracking wearables offer more promising results, by using AI to predict fertility with up to 90% accuracy. However, these devices remain expensive and can only be used by those who have cycles of 24-35 days, potentially excluding groups who may need it the most, including those with conditions  that can lead to irregular periods such as polycystic ovary syndrome or endometriosis. Moreover, a review by the global Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps revealed  80% of cycle tracking apps sell or share your personal and health data with third parties, predominantly for marketing purposes. Advertisers use it to contextually target users with personalised marketing for wellness solutions. In some cases, this increases accessibility to genuine solutions for women. However, many of these products are fraudulent, and with reliable information on women’s health being relatively fragmented, it can be difficult to tell the difference. 

GetaDrip’s £250 fertility IV, for example,  was heralded as a fertility-enhancing product until the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said there was no evidence to support this claim and could, therefore, ‘exploit vulnerable women’. Unsurprisingly, this product has now been withdrawn from the women’s health market. Some family-planning apps, like Ovia Health, even shared data with employers and health insurers after gaining consent from users by hiding clauses in small print amongst T&Cs. An additional danger is that these data can be weaponised by prosecutors in countries with limited reproductive or abortion rights, such as the US

Consumers are becoming more conscious of their privacy, and pressure from regulators to engage in socially responsible product governance is rising. Having women represented in the boardroom leads to better decision-making, including better safety and data privacy regulations, and even faster recall of defective products. This gives FemTech companies with gender-diverse leadership teams the advantage. Ideally, we will see an industry-wide revolution wherein companies would be expected to have more transparent and explicit data-sharing policies. This, coupled with robust anonymisation and meaningful aggregation of data, will ensure users maintain their privacy. 

The most cutting-edge FemTech solutions will arise from innovative research: great discoveries require even greater funding. Unfortunately, global venture funding dropped by 35% in 2022. Although the MedTech industry drew its largest funding to date ($9.9bn), the total number of MedTech venture capital (VC) deals is at its lowest since 2013, with early stage startups suffering most from shrinking funding opportunities. On top of this, FemTech faces additional challenges in gaining capital. Women represent only 12% of decision-makers in VCs, who are less likely to invest in female-founded companies, which comprise 85% of FemTech start-ups. This, combined with a general lack of public awareness of women’s health, poses additional barriers when pitching FemTech solutions to investors. The US currently hosts half of all FemTech companies whilst the UK & Europe only represent 27%, likely due to individuals and institutions being generally more “risk”averse when it comes to investment. 

Thus, to ensure FemTech and health equity have a bright future, we must examine our perception of risk. One could, and probably should, argue that in a reality where women and AFAB individuals are dying unnecessarily due to a gap in our healthcare systems, the real risk is inaction. Plus, it makes financial sense: an estimated $300 million investment into research focused on women could yield a $13bn economic return. Thankfully, there is a growing number of investor groups, such as Angel Academe and Alma Angels, as well as accelerators, including Panacea Stars and the FemTech Lab, providing opportunities for female entrepreneurs and FemTech start-ups. 

In a world where women have growing purchasing power, drive the healthcare economy, and are demanding better healthcare solutions for unmet needs, FemTech is the future . For the industry to experience sustainable and long-term growth, FemTech ventures must focus on developing solutions that are data-driven and research-backed whilst also protecting privacy, building customer trust, and prioritising diverse representation in the boardroom and beyond. As FemTech pioneers and founders become more established, gain capital, and become funders themselves, they will further stoke the fire of the FemTech revolution.