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Opinion

Openings in Japan’s femtech sector: more than pink packaging needed

By Alecia Thomson, Tokyo-based femtech specialist at Intralink

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The first edition of Femtech Tokyo took place between October 20 and 22 at Tokyo Big Sight

As much as we were excited to see Japan’s first big femtech show, we were as struck by what we didn’t see, says Alecia Thomson.

We attended the first Femtech Tokyo expo the other day, at the Tokyo Big Sight convention centre. We’ve seen smaller femtech events in Japan in the last few years, but this was the first of this scale, held at a venue which usually hosts major shows about quantum computing, automotive tech, smart factories and the like.

In this sense, it was a ground-breaking moment to see femtech finally arriving in Japan. But what we found at the event surprised us, and points to significant opportunities for western femtech firms interested in moving into the market.

What we saw – and didn’t

We walked through the halls and attended conference sessions, including an interesting talk by Seiko Noda, former Minister for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality.

But, as much as we were excited to be at Japan’s first big femtech show, we were as struck by what we didn’t see at the event as what we did.

Most items on show were as general as beauty products and supplements, with no hi-tech or digital aspects at all.

Conspicuous by their absence were technologies that address the real problems women face – such as menstrual health, infertility and menopause, as well as breast, ovarian and cervical cancers.

From the video we took, you can see booth after booth of undergarments – from sanitary shorts to night bras and corrective underwear – supplements, herbal teas, Kegel trainers and CBD products.

I would hope there’s much more to femtech than protein powder in pink packaging!

Serious challenges

Conversely, Seiko Noda talked about the serious challenges Japan needs to overcome – including its declining birth rate, an ageing population and the taboo around some women’s health issues.

She was proud to tell the crowd that last year she started the Parliamentary Assembly for the Promotion of Femtech. Through this initiative, she hopes to harness the power of technology to lighten the load for women experiencing complications with menstruation, fertility and menopause.

In fact, she highlighted that Japan is facing many unprecedented challenges where femtech can potentially help. And these are being driven to some extent by the country’s ‘womenomics’ policy to encourage more women into its shrinking work force –  a significant shift, as Japan has traditionally enjoyed less female economic participation than other developed countries.

An older workforce tapping into womenomics means Japan needs to think about female employees who may be struggling with women’s health issues, as well as who is now caring for children and elderly parents back at home.

Noda’s parliamentary group is working to address many of these issues, but she called on Japanese corporations to get involved as well. And, to do that, many would benefit greatly from input from western tech firms.

Considerable interest

Not all is doom and gloom for women in Japan, though. Formerly-taboo topics such as infertility treatment and menopause are becoming easier to talk about, according to Noda.

She also spoke about two government programmes recently rolled out: the Ministry of Economics, Trade & Industry (METI) is supporting 20 Japanese femtech startups, while the Ministry of Health, Labour & Welfare (MHLW) has been providing increased reimbursement for infertility treatments since April this year.

And, the expo aside, it’s been heartening for me to see first-hand that there’s considerable interest amongst Japanese corporations in expanding their business in the femtech space.

We’ve recently had several meeting requests from large Japanese companies wanting to learn more about femtech and to explore how western tech firms can help them.

One of our clients that has gained particular traction with Japanese corporations has been Elvie, a British femtech start-up, founded by President Tania Boler, which recently closed a Series C funding round of £70m. We’ve had the privilege of supporting the company in Japan with market research and by initiating conversations with potential partners.

Elvie has gained interest from large retailers, drugstore chains, e-commerce companies and various media outlets. And it was good to see its first product on the Japanese market – its connected pelvic floor trainer – on show at Femtech Tokyo via its Japanese partner Ajuma.

I’ve also recently supported an American/Hong Kong company developing a wearable breast cancer detection device. With breast cancer the most prevalent type amongst Japanese women, this has attracted keen interest from Japanese companies wanting to move into this space, as well as the wider medical community.

 In-country partners

Such attention from Japanese companies is key, because western femtech firms really need in-country partners to help them address the unique characteristics of the Japanese market and to access its complex, multi-layered sales channels.

We saw wide recognition of this at Femtech Tokyo, with all but one of the western companies there exhibiting from the booths of their Japanese partners rather than going it alone.

The good news for any western firm eyeing up the market is that, given Japan’s demographic challenges and the appetite for femtech innovation amongst its corporations, the timing could not be better.

The dates for next year’s Femtech Tokyo have now been announced: 5 – 7 October 2023. We’ll be there again. And we look forward to seeing more innovative products next year – hopefully thanks to a good number of cutting-edge western tech firms.

 

Alecia Thomson is the Tokyo-based femtech specialist at Intralink, an international business development consultancy that helps western tech firms expand in Asia. To find out more email [email protected]

Opinion

‘We are not allowed to talk about our bodies’: why we need to address social media censorship

By Clio Wood, women’s health advocate and founder of &Breathe

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Social media censorship is just another example of women’s issues being sidelined and women being made, yet again, to feel small.

The gender data gap is huge and, if you’ve ever read the great Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women, you’ll know what I mean. It touches every day of a female life.

That impact includes social media too. Because while the social media platforms are notoriously secretive about their internal workings, it’s a pretty safe bet that social media algorithms, like most of the rest of life, are built on male data and trained on male behaviours.

This means that as long as women have different behaviours and priorities of what they want to see on these platforms, we’re going to find it a struggle.

Meta and Tiktok are silencing women’s health and sexual wellbeing content. Censorship harms women’s health: it increases women’s pain, and disempowers women, which in turn means the gender health gap cannot close. What annoys you when you’re on your phone scrolling has long-lasting impact for us and our children.

I’ve experienced this censorship first hand on Instagram, with my reach being restricted for simply posting a body confidence reel of me dancing in a bikini.

That in itself – one example of many – is infuriating, but what’s especially galling is that everyday men’s health topics are left uncensored, and hyper sexualised women’s bodies, unsolicited “dick pics” and fake accounts using nearly naked female profile pictures are making their way into social media feeds and inboxes unchecked. The hypocrisy of the situation is clear.

All the while charities are being forced to use male nipples instead of female ones, and female-led period brands are losing hundreds of thousands of pounds when their ad accounts get deleted.

Creators, charities, medical practitioners and brands are being censored constantly through algorithms picking up words like sex, vagina, vulva, or period. Which are all normal human functions or body parts and integral to these creators’ missions. You can’t be a period care brand without talking about periods.

CensHERship aims to alter the trajectory of the current algorithms and end the routine censorship of women’s health content online

Creators end up using written symbols and numbers to disguise these words and bleep them out in speech to try to get around this censorship.

It’s examples like this that finally led me – after many years of finding this situation ridiculous – to do something about it.

Together with Anna O’Sullivan, we’ve created CensHERship, a campaign which aims to alter the trajectory of the current algorithms and hopefully restore some balance to what is allowed on social media. Our ultimate aim is to bring the platforms to the table for discussion by this time next year.

We launched a survey in late January 2024 to try to collect as much information as we can about the incidences of muting and censorship that female creators are experiencing, whether they are educators, charities, brands or medical professionals. The results emphasised that this is a widespread issue taking in all of women’s health and sexual wellbeing.

In tandem we hosted an intimate roundtable to launch the CensHERship campaign and found, to our astonishment, that the problem goes much deeper than social media. Women’s health and sexual wellbeing brands are being refused bank accounts, insurance and being kicked off payment platforms without warning.

Social media censorship is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just one more example of women’s issues being sidelined and women being made, yet again, to feel small.

We’re not being allowed the freedom to talk about our own bodies and health, because speaking up goes against the male-gaze archetype of the female role and body. Let’s end CensHERship once and for all.

Clio Wood is a women’s health advocate, journalist, author and Founder of &Breathe.

Anna O’Sullivan is a communications and marketing professional and writes FutureFemHealth 

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Opinion

Revolutionising women’s health: the rise of femtech innovations

By Jo Barnard, founder and creative director of Morrama

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In the fast-evolving landscape of female technology, 2024 is poised to mark a pivotal year in growth and innovation.

Investors are increasingly recognising the vast potential of a typically overlooked audience, which encompasses 45+ year-old women with disposable income and actively seeking solutions.

As the femtech sector continues to gain momentum, we can anticipate the introduction of innovative features, products and services – such as intelligent menstrual cups, connected pads addressing menstrual cramps and wearables with hot flush detection capabilities, all with an growing focus on the unique needs of the individual.

Removing the guesswork through data

Whilst we mustn’t devalue leading medical advice on female health – including period complications, fertility, and menopause – they can feel like one-size-fits-all treatments that are only offered in the more severe cases. In reality, women’s health is a very personal and nuanced journey. The next few months promise the advent of smarter versions of pre-existing products, in an effort to help women understand their bodies better.

Take Emm, for instance. The company created a menstrual cup embedded with sensors to track menstrual flow, providing users with valuable insights into their menstrual health.

Similarly, wearables such as FemSense utilise advanced algorithms to predict ovulation with 99.7 per cent accuracy. These cutting-edge digital and physical devices help unlock new insights into the complexities of the female body, paving the way for more informed decision-making and improved health outcomes.

Addressing gaps in conventional treatments

While the femtech sector continues to push the boundaries of innovation, it also seeks to address long-standing gaps in the provision of medical solutions for various female health issues.

Conventional treatments, such as contraceptive pills for managing period pains, IVF for fertility problems or hormone replacements for menopause often fall short in meeting the diverse needs of women.

Against this backdrop, femtech brands are pioneering a more specialised and inclusive approach – as highlighted by brands like Tina, which I explore into more detail below – tailoring products to specific demographics, including people of colour, individuals with physical constraints and those with distinct religious beliefs.

Prioritising design, technology, and user experience

Central to the femtech revolution is a strategic focus on design and technology, aimed at enhancing the quality of life for women across the globe. Leading brands such as Emm, Embr and Tina are at the forefront of this movement, developing solutions that not only empower women but also drive positive societal change.

Tina’s aim, for example, is to create inclusive design for all bodies and abilities, engineered with anatomy in mind. Their tampon applicator takes into account correct angles and depth, and prides itself in being “first-period friendly”, reducing the stigma surrounding women’s health for the next generations.

These brands can only achieve this by opening up the conversation and incorporating feedback from diverse communities in order to deliver products that resonate with women from all walks of life.

In addition, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January offered valuable insights into the evolving landscape of femtech, where innovation is not solely defined by radical disruptions but by incremental improvements to existing products and services.

Highlights from the show included: Movano Health’s Evie Ring, a smart health ring utilising AI to analyse women’s menstrual and sleep data; and Vivoo’s new at-home smart UTI test, showing that a dipstick test can be beautiful and utilising the capabilities of smartphones to give more accurate readings.

With femtech brands historically focusing on function over aesthetics, it’s positive to see companies considering smarter delivery mechanisms, more thoughtful design and more personalised educational pathways. The result is that women feel more empowered and valued as individuals.

Importance of research and evidence-based practice

However, as femtech continues to grow and develop, it’s also crucial not to lose sight of the importance of scientific rigour and evidence-based practice. For every truly science-based solution there will inevitably be a flood of lower quality copycats and brands promoting products that serve only as a placebo.

Building trust in femtech solutions requires a commitment to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement. Only by investing in rigorous scientific enquiry can we ensure that femtech products and services meet the highest standards of safety, efficacy and reliability.

A bright future for femtech

I’m excited for the future of femtech. As we look ahead to the next few months and beyond, let us embrace innovation, inclusivity, open-mindedness and evidence-based practice as our guiding principles.

More than ever, the industry has the potential to usher in a new era of personalised, proactive and women-centred healthcare, making a meaningful impact on women’s quality of life as well as the broader population as well.

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Opinion

How the UK’s ‘pharmacy first’ policy will change women’s healthcare

By Katherine Bridges, head of brand and clinical lead at the pharmacy app Charac

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On the January 31, the UK government will roll out its long-awaited “pharmacy first” policy, a measure designed to cut the size of the NHS backlog – which currently stands at around 7.6 million patients.

With “pharmacy first”, patients suffering from various lesser ailments – such as sore throats and shingles – will be directed to their local pharmacy as their first port of call.

Pharmacies will also be able to supply certain prescription medicines. It is hoped that this will ease pressure on Britain’s seriously overstretched hospitals and GPs.

The policy is set to transform healthcare provision in the UK, which is important for women’s health across the country. If the policy can be carried through successfully, women’s access to NHS will improve in a number of ways. The success of “pharmacy first” will, however, rely on a big technological upgrade to Britain’s 11,500 high-street pharmacies.

Improving women’s access

This shift of several key medical functions to Britain’s pharmacies will give women easier access to important medicines and treatments. For instance, under “pharmacy first” patients will be able to pick up prescription medicine for urinary tract infections (UTIs) from pharmacies; previously this required a GP appointment beforehand.

This change will be especially valuable for women, given that this ailment disproportionately affects women, with roughly 50 per cent experiencing one over the course of their lives.

Crucially, under the new policy, women will also be able to purchase contraceptive pills at their pharmacies without seeing a GP. It is vitally important, but easily prescribed and administered medications such as this that will see “pharmacy first” freeing up countless of hours of GP and hospital time.

Further, the reduction of pressure on GPs and hospitals will improve women’s access to critical medical procedures and treatments. For instance, the policy will put a dent in the NHS’s mastectomies backlog, which is currently putting thousands of women in the UK at a greater risk of breast cancer.

Femtech critical to making a success of “pharmacy first”

Of course, “pharmacy first” represents a very large administrative and operational task for Britain’s high-street pharmacies.

It is uncertain whether these pharmacies, in their current state, will be able to meet the challenge. Community pharmacies are often small and family run. As such, they find it difficult to afford key labour-saving technologies that cut costs and free up time.

These pharmacies’ internal systems are often ramshackle and antiquated. Many still run on paper, making everything from prescriptions to payroll arduous and time-consuming.

It is clear that these pharmacies will need to undergo a big technological upgrade as the policy is rolled out this year. Femtech will play a key role in this effort.

Femtech technologies could help pharmacists manage the transition to a greater scope of provision. For instance, femtech companies, such as Vivoo’s at-home women’s UTI test, could help pharmacists manage the task of treating this common women’s ailment.

Another would be the online self-assessment system Tuune, which matches women to the contraceptive treatment appropriate to their particular hormonal profile.

Innovations like these will be an essential part of women’s healthcare in the age of “pharmacy first”, driving efficiencies in high-street pharmacies and expanding women’s access to treatment.

The future of health tech will empower women

Other health technologies will help amplify the impact of femtech. Apps, such as Charac, offer a dashboard for both pharmacists and their customers, allowing customers to book pharmacy appointments and get their prescriptions delivered to their door.

These kinds of accessible, integrated health tech systems that will prove so valuable in the age of “pharmacy first” will also help improve patient outcomes for women. One of the primary hindrances to better healthcare for women is a lack of information and access.

Research by the Department of Health and Social Care revealed that around 85 per cent of British women did not feel comfortable talking to their GPs about their physical health, and a similar percentage can remember an occasion where they did not feel listened to by medical professionals.

Similarly, knowledge of women’s health issues is often low: less than one in five UK women felt that they had enough information on menstrual health, and less than one in 10 felt they knew enough about gynaecological conditions.

What’s clear is that a lack of information and access is leading to worse health outcomes for women than men, but health tech can make a valuable contribution – streamlining appointments and prescriptions, raising public awareness of health conditions and the treatment services that women can access and making patient outcomes and healthcare more equal.

As “pharmacy first” becomes policy, we have a chance to use the latest developments in femtech and health tech to both make a dent in the NHS backlog, and to put women’s healthcare on a surer foundation.

Katherine Bridges is head of brand and clinical lead at the pharmacy app Charac.

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