Femtech: Breaking barriers in women’s health through innovation and investment

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Femtech is a growing field that has rapidly expanded from niche market to global ecosystem. From period-tracking apps and smart pelvic floor trainers to wearable breast pumps – both start-ups and well-established multinationals are prioritizing tech innovation in women’s health. But are investors keeping up with this trend, or is the strong gender skew in venture capital hampering the femtech field?

The rise of femtech

February 11th is the International Day of Women & Girls in Science, a yearly initiative of the United Nations recognizing women’s contribution to research and innovation. We know that diversity improves innovation ­– more perspectives make for better science. And although research into women’s health has long been neglected, a heightened emphasis on gender equality and an increase in the number of women scientists is leading to increased activity in this area.

Femtech is a relatively young field where technology is used to address unmet female needs. The term itself was coined in 2016 by Ida Tin, CEO of the company behind the pioneering menstruation-tracking app Clue. The sector has a broad focus, ranging from obstetrics and gynecology (e.g. menstrual, sexual, reproductive, or maternal health) to general health conditions which affect women and men differently (such as cardiovascular or oncological conditions). The products and services developed to address women’s needs are equally varied, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices, virtual care services, and digital solutions.

“Europe accounts for 25% of the world’s femtech companies, and Belgium is home to an increasing number of players.” – Liesbeth Demuyser

According to a 2021 report from FemTech Analytics, Europe accounts for 25% of the world’s femtech companies, and Belgium is home to an increasing number of players. One of the earliest of these is Mithra, a women’s health company developing pharmaceuticals for contraception and menopause, founded in 1999 and publicly listed on Euronext Brussels in 2015. In more recent years, the region has also given rise to new femtech start-ups, including in the field of menstrual health (Guud), personalized prenatal care (bloomlife), post-breast surgery healing (Mammoptix), and fertility tracking (Odyssey Fertility).

According to Hanne T’Kindt, co-founder of Odyssey Fertility, the goal of femtech is not only to support women’s health, but also to empower them: “Women all over the world should have access to accurate information about their bodies,” she says. “We should establish a community where women can express themselves and have their needs heard.”

Understudied and underserved

It’s well established that research has historically favored male interests, leading to persistent gender disparities in diagnostics, treatment, and care. A classic example is that women are more likely to die of a heart attack than men. This difference is largely due to misdiagnosis and lack of treatment, as women often exhibit specific symptoms before a heart attack which have been understudied in cardiovascular research. Similarly, clinical studies have long been conducted exclusively with male participants, leading to women receiving incorrect prescriptions or dosages.

“Only 4% of R&D funds in the healthcare sector are aimed specifically at women’s health.” – Liesbeth Demuyser

Frustratingly, this sex bias in research isn’t a thing of the past – to this day, female-specific health issues are given less research attention and funding compared to male health concerns. A 2020 paper on funding allocations by the US National Institutes of Health found that in nearly three-quarters of cases where a disease primarily affects one sex, the funding favors males. In industry, there is a similar skew: only 4% of R&D funds in the healthcare sector are aimed specifically at women’s health. The femtech industry strives to balance this situation, yet many aspects of women’s health – both reproductive and general – remain under-studied. There is a lot of catching up to be done.

Barriers blocking femtech progress

Compounding the issue is that entrepreneurship and investment continue to be largely male-dominated fields. T’Kindt from Odyssey Fertility emphasizes the challenge of engaging men on female health topics. “The concept of the biological clock remains foreign to most men. The only ones who take us seriously are those who have experienced a fertility journey themselves or have seen a close friend or family member struggle with infertility.” Morgane Leten, co-founder of Guud, agrees: “We have to work much harder to convince men of the significance of our mission than we do with women investors.” This poses a substantial challenge to femtech innovation, as a significant portion of venture capital funds still don’t have a single female senior partner in their investment team.

“We have to work much harder to convince men of the significance of our mission than we do with women investors.” – Morgane Leten

The good news is that investors are becoming increasingly aware of the femtech field and it’s growing potential for good investments. The size of the worldwide femtech market increased from $32.44 billion in 2022 to $37.39 billion in 2023 and is expected to increase further to $68.9 billion within four years. There are a few reasons for this dramatic growth: firstly, women obviously make up a huge portion of the world population, and secondly, they already tend to spend a lot on healthcare products and services. Unfortunately though, not all fields in female health are doing equally well. According to FemTech Analytics, about 75% of the total femtech market is made up by companies active in fertility, pregnancy, maternity, and contraception. Other segments, such as vaginal health, menopause, mental wellbeing, or general women’s health, tend to be less popular among investors. A reason for this discrepancy might be due to the business opportunities in these fields being  less obvious or appealing to men. Start-ups working in fields like menstruation are reporting it difficult to overcome squeamishness with the topic – a problem when a significant number of potential investors are men.

Female innovators breaking through the glass ceiling

The gender imbalance among investors can also lead to added social challenges for women entrepreneurs. Leten explains how she faces specific issues because of her gender: “Investors often tend to direct their attention towards my male partner, leaving me overlooked. When I take control of the conversation and my husband steps back, the investors react surprised.” Despite recent progress, there are still relatively few companies with women in C-level management positions. This is remarkable, particularly as research shows that businesses with gender-diverse management teams outperform those with a single gender representation, generating twice as much revenue per dollar invested.

Read this article to learn more about closing the gender gap in biotech funding!

So, what can we do to support women in their entrepreneurial endeavors? Offering professional and tailored career guidance can of course be a first step in the right direction. Leten agrees. “As an entrepreneur, you encounter certain challenges, both professionally and personally, but you can always solve them with a good entourage.” Secondly, we need passionate women operating with a clear mission and vision. For example the Inspiring Fifty award, which recognizes the top fifty women in tech careers across Belgium, can help to motivate young women considering similar paths. Finally, we also have to learn how to deal with subconscious biases.

Increased diversity, in terms of gender and beyond, leads to more inclusive and balanced solutions as well as a greater chance of business success. In the quest for meaningful change, it is imperative we include a range of voices and give everyone a seat at the table.

Note: In this article we are aiming to be gender inclusive, and use the word woman/female to denote anyone who identifies as a woman and faces similar experiences.