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Femtech history

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Technology that addresses women’s health is a relatively new thing, with femtech gathering pace only in the last 10 years. 

According to UK Tech News, femtech is defined as technologies that focus specifically on women’s health. This includes hormonal disorders, period tracking, pelvic health, birth control and sexual wellness. It takes the form of applications, devices, products and data.

Where did it all begin?

The term ‘femtech’, a shortened term for female health through technology, is the brainchild of Ida Tin, the Danish-born founder of Clue, a period and ovulation tracking app.

In an article on its website, Ms Tin recalls holding her smartphone in one hand and a thermometer in the other and wishing she could merge the two to track her fertile days. So Clue came to be. One of the early pioneers, it paved the way for further innovations and is now just one name in the femtech space.

For a good while, the femtech focus was largely on periods, fertility and pregnancy, and some of the biggest names in the field, such as menstrual tracking apps Clue and Flo, are still concentrated here.

However, as interest in the field has increased, femtech start-ups are broadening their horizons and starting to look at a variety of issues and conditions that disproportionately affect women, such as osteoporosis, breast cancer, stroke and depression.

Taking control

The rise in femtech has given women the opportunity to take control of their health, allowing them the means to understand it and improve it.

Increasingly, women want to have a say over which type of treatment, hospital and medication they use. Being able to do that with a phone and internet connection is incredibly powerful.

Femtech is also breaking down barriers when it comes to accessibility in healthcare, by providing access to medical support without the red tape, cost and time required to visit in person.

Apps allowing women to easily track their menstrual cycles, for example, give users an insight into their normal, helping to take control of their fertility and spot any anomalies early.

Changing the tide

Women have been underrepresented in healthcare for some time. In fact, in 1977 women of childbearing age were excluded from taking part in drug trials by the US Food and Drug Administration completely, regardless of whether they wanted, or could have, children or not.

The edict was the result of certain drugs, most notoriously thalidomide, causing serious birth defects.

Guidelines were changed in 1983, as it began to be recognised that many factors, including body size, hormones and body fat distribution, can affect the way drugs are metabolised, which could ultimately mean that life-saving drugs would not work in the same way for women as for men.

In an article for the New York Times, Michelle Tempest, a partner at London-based healthcare consultancy Candesic, notes that women lag behind men and that research has been overwhelmingly tailored to the male body.

This gender gap has led to significantly worse health outcomes for women. As a result, the tech industry’s role in women’s health may be more important now than ever.

As a result, the New York Times claims femtech is the next big thing in healthcare. And considering that women spend $500 billion a year on medical expenses, it is beginning to attract the attention of VC portfolios. A mostly male investment community remains one of the biggest challenges, but when it stands to make $50 billion by 2025, even the men might take note.

A look to the future

Recently, FemTech Lab was opened in London to encourage more innovative companies to establish their presence in this industry.

And across the pond, Femtech Focus is a non-profit organisation founded to empower, equip and bring together healthcare professionals. Both organisations exist to support and raise the profile of femtech.

It might have taken a while, but femtech is a welcome arrival and here to stay. The market potential is huge, and investors are interested.

Age-old taboos around women’s health have caused heel-dragging in the past, but those excuses won’t wash with a society that counts women as having higher buying power than men.

The numbers speak for themselves, with the femtech industry predicted to be worth a massive $60bn by 2027, up from an already healthy $21.7m in 2020. Meanwhile, total global venture capital investments in femtech stood at $520m dollars last year.

And while these numbers pale into insignificance compared to some of its tech-based peers – the market is made up of over 200 start-ups worldwide, compared to around 12,000 fintech, or financial tech, start-ups in operation today – it’s an ever-growing field.

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Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, say campaigners

Campaigners have warned that health tools could overlook women from marginalised communities

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Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, campaigners have warned, amid concern that the sector could perpetuate long-standing racial inequities.

Femtech is already showing promise to help clinicians make better diagnoses and support women with managing their health.

But as excitement grows, campaigners have warned that these powerful tools could overlook women from marginalised communities and perpetuate long-standing racial inequities in how care is delivered.

“Any technology meant to help people track and improve women’s health outcomes must be inclusive and anti-racist,” Dr Regina Davis Moss, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice, told Femtech World.

“Black women have historically been disregarded, overlooked and undermined by the medical technology industry. It is past time for our interests and needs to be prioritised in clinical trials and other forms of scientific research.

“Femtech companies must ensure that their research and clinical trials equitably involve communities of all backgrounds.”

Around 2,000 femtech companies and apps have sprung up in the last decade to address women’s needs, including tracking apps, fertility solutions and menopause platforms.

These new tools are often built using machine learning, a subset of AI where algorithms are trained to find patterns in large data sets like billing information and test results.

The data these algorithms are built on, however, often reflect inequities and bias that have long plagued the healthcare system. Research shows clinicians often provide different care to white patients and patients of colour. Those differences in how patients are treated get immortalised in data, which are then used to train algorithms.

“When our research omits subsets of the population, the accuracy and potential benefits of that research do not extend to those who disproportionately bear the burden of disease,” said Dr Monique Gary, breast surgical oncologist at Grand View Health.

“We are seeing already how AI can harm marginalised communities, where biased algorithms require racial or ethnic minorities to be considerably ‘more ill’ than their white counterparts to receive the same diagnosis, treatment, or resource. This is perilous and avoidable.”

To create responsible and equitable technologies that include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) women, Gary said companies could start identifying and recruiting experts of colour, via pipeline programmes and incubators.

“We need to start listening to, believing and supporting the voices of Black women,” she said.

“In 2024, women of all ages and races, ethnicities and orientations are telling us out loud what they need to actualise a better version of healthcare which incorporates significant tech utilisation. It’s now up to us to listen.”

Ashley Jones, creative director of Tones of Melanin, said femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism and prioritise inclusivity.

“Companies in femtech should actively seek out diverse perspectives and experiences, particularly from BIPOC women, in both their datasets and research.

“This includes collaborating with BIPOC brands, stakeholders and organisations to ensure that their products address the specific needs and concerns of BIPOC women.”

Tech developers, Jones said, could address racism by implementing robust diversity and inclusion initiatives within their teams, actively seeking out BIPOC voices in decision-making processes and educating themselves on the unique experiences of BIPOC women in healthcare.

Sylvia Kang, co-founder and CEO at Mira, pointed out that femtech companies should also focus on affordability, as cost can be preventing women from marginalised communities from accessing healthcare.

“Most of the people that can access femtech tools for their health are white mid-to-high income women,” Kang explained.

“Unfortunately, there are some communities, including BIPOC that do not have enough resources to purchase these tools.

“I believe it’s our responsibility to take action and democratise our data and tools in specific ways.”

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US start-up raises US$4.3m to address maternal mental health

The funding is hoped to help FamilyWell scale throughout New England and expand nationally

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The US mental health start-up FamilyWell Health has raised US$4.3m in seed financing to support women facing maternal mental health challenges.

FamilyWell Health is a behavioural health company that integrates specialised mental health services, such as coaching, therapy and psychiatry, into OB/GYN practices.

The platform aims to provide pregnant and postpartum patients with specialised support for depression, anxiety and other perinatal mental health concerns.

New mothers face dire maternal mental health challenges in the US, with a staggering one in seven women suffering from postpartum depression.

Individuals who seek treatment typically wait for months to be seen by a mental health provider and instead turn to their obstetricians, who are often hesitant to screen for mental health conditions knowing there is a shortage of therapists and psychiatrists.

“I had difficulty finding support when I experienced postpartum depression and have cared for countless new moms struggling to access mental health care during one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives,” said Dr Jessica Gaulton, founder and CEO of FamilyWell.

“My experience, both as a survivor and as a practicing neonatologist, inspired me to start FamilyWell to provide equitable, affordable, and accessible mental healthcare for new mothers.”

By partnering with OB providers, Gaulton said FamilyWell would increase access to mental health support for pregnant and postpartum individuals where and when they need it.

The funding, led by .406 Ventures with participation from GreyMatter Capital and Mother Ventures, is hoped to help the start-up scale throughout New England and expand nationally.

Payal Divakaran, partner at .406 Ventures, said: “Given our team’s deep experience backing innovative behavioural health and women’s health companies, we had been looking at this intersection for quite some time.

“FamilyWell offers an elegant solution that is a win-win for all stakeholders, including obstetric practices. Dr Gaulton and her team have built an incredible, mission-driven company poised to address a critical need in women’s mental health.”

Dr Melissa Sherman, medical director and obstetrician at Essex OB/GYN Associates, a FamilyWell customer, added: “When you’re pregnant or caring for a newborn, you can’t afford to wait months for help.

“With FamilyWell, patients get help within days and have ongoing support through one of the biggest transitions of their lives.”

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‘Women crave the quick fix of a silver bullet’: menopause experts have their say on talking therapies

Talking therapies could reduce symptoms that may not be otherwise relieved through HRT, specialists have argued

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The recent research showing talking therapies could help women through menopause is a “fantastic step forward” in the advocation of choice, experts have said, warning that HRT alone will not reduce all symptoms.

Talking therapies, such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy, have been found to effectively treat menopause symptoms, such as low mood and anxiety.

Researchers from University College London have shown that the practices, which focus on developing behavioural patterns, coping strategies and relaxation techniques, could have benefits beyond those of HRT, including improved sleep, memory and concentration.

The techniques, experts told Femtech World, could help dampen down women’s physiological system, reducing symptoms that may not be otherwise relieved through HRT.

“Our ability to regulate the stress hormone is hampered during menopause, meaning we sit further up the stress scale than we did before,” said Dr Bev Taylor, psychologist and menopause educator.

“Stress also makes many menopausal symptoms worse, either in frequency or severity. These techniques reduce symptoms by dampening down our physiological system and bringing us back down the stress scale.”

The beauty of them, Taylor said, is that they can be used by anyone.

“Whether you can or want to take HRT or whether you want to use them alongside treatments like HRT, you can. This research is a fantastic step forward in the advocation of choice.”

Catherine Harland, menopause educator, coach and founder member of MenoClarity, said talking therapies had received a lot of backlash since the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended them in their updated guidelines.

“Whilst I understand how life-changing talking therapies can be, I fully appreciate why so many women crave the ‘quick fix of a silver bullet’ in the form of HRT as we have been taught this from a young age,” she said. “We have been taught to turn to pharmaceuticals for any symptoms we experience.”

Modern women, Harland said, live stressful, fast-paced lives, juggling a multitude of things and often feel too busy to fit talking therapies into the mix.

“Menopause is a highly sensitive time and it’s vital women begin to understand the importance of self-care which includes talking therapies and mindfulness.

“HRT alone will not reduce symptoms of stress, trauma and metabolic disease caused by living in a high cortisol state for long periods of time.”

Around 15 per cent of women aged 45 to 64 in England are currently prescribed HRT, which has increased rapidly in the last two years from around 11 per cent and continues to increase.

The main benefit of HRT, according to the NHS website, is that it can help relieve most menopause and perimenopause symptoms, including hot flushes, brain fog, joint pains, mood swings and vaginal dryness.

Draft NHS guidelines recommend offering cognitive behavioural therapy, alongside or instead of HRT.

Dr Shahzadi Harper, menopause specialist and founder of The Harper Clinic, said talking therapies could benefit women experiencing menopause symptoms and help them feel more in control. However, she said they should not be it at the forefront of the menopause conversation.

Dr Shahzadi Harper, menopause specialist and founder of The Harper Clinic

“Talking therapies do not address the inherent hormone deficiency that arises due to perimenopause and menopause and the long-term consequences of declining hormone levels,” Harper explained.

“I don’t think they should be at the forefront and definitely not instead of HRT. However, I do think they could be a useful tool, especially as the symptoms of menopause can be quite debilitating and affect mental health and mood.”

Dr Clare Spencer, menopause specialist, GP and co-founder of My Menopause Centre, said while HRT could help many women manage symptoms of the menopause, there would be some women who may continue to experience symptoms, such as poor sleep, low mood and anxiety, despite being on it.

“Women may face other difficulties at the time of the menopause that may be additional causes of stress which can also impact on experience of symptoms of the menopause.

Dr Clare Spencer, GP, menopause specialist and co-founder of My Menopause Centre

“In these cases, there is a place for talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness, to help break some of the vicious cycles that can then exist.

“There is also a role for talking therapies in helping women who have been advised not to take HRT or do not wish to.”

She said, however, that long NHS waiting lists could prevent women from getting the support they need.

“There is an issue with access to cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness-based therapies through the NHS which does need resolving to allow more women access timely support,” she added.

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