The future of female health and wellness: An introduction to emerging trends, challenges, and technologies. Q&A
In a recent webinar, Erica Kantor, Sagentia and Dr Eileen Buttimer, Oakland Innovation, explored the changing world of female health and wellness. focusing on the repercussions of the historic female health gap, the emerging challenges, and the exciting opportunities for science and technology innovation.
We would like to thank all who attended, and those who joined in by asking questions. Due to time restrictions, we were unable to answer all of them on the day, but we have published a selection of questions and answers below.
If you missed the webinar, you can view it here.
Q. Which big companies have impressed you most in terms of pursuing emerging opportunities in female health? Were these organic initiatives or M&A?
A. It is great to see large players driving innovation across the consumer and medical markets. Some of the consumer players that stand out are those investing in femtech related to feminine hygiene, such as P&G and Kimberly Clarke. In consumer healthcare we are seeing continued growth in the dietary supplement space as women become more aware of nutritional requirements for prevention of health issues, led by big players like Bayer, Pfizer, and Amway.
It is also very interesting to watch the tech giants as they grow their presence in healthcare. For example, Apple is investing in women’s digital healthcare, and partnering with the NIH and Harvard University on a long-term women’s health study.
Finally, there are some great examples of large Medtech companies expanding their portfolios to address emerging female health opportunities. Hologic has partnered with Clarius to develop its wireless, handheld ultrasound scanner for breast health, and CooperSurgical has acquired the only non-hormonal IUD for birth control in the US. But while most multinationals are starting to explore new markets and disruptive technologies, they will likely continue to innovate around their core businesses, which are the more traditional diagnostics, pharma, surgical, and reproductive medicine sectors.
Q. With many areas still male dominated – and a lot of female health innovation driven by women – how do we get men involved in the conversation, and helping to drive change?
A. From what we’ve heard from female founders of femtech start-ups, there are still barriers to securing funding, particularly since 88% of VC decision makers in the US are men. Convincing male investors that the next big thing is a smart tampon can be challenging when they can’t relate to the issue – or find it uncomfortable. Opening your pitch with the potential return on investment can be a great way to find common ground in these situations.
Afterall, with femtech expected to become a $50bn market by 2025, who wouldn’t be interested!
More and more men are also getting clued up as we continue to tackle taboos. We need to get men involved in the conversation early on so that they understand the depth of the challenge. Once they do, from our experience, they’re more than happy to get stuck in and help find solutions.
Q. With diagnostic devices moving to point-of-care and home settings, do you foresee products on the horizon for “at home” sample collection and monitoring of conditions?
A. We are certainly seeing an increase in innovation in at home diagnostics. Moving care into the home allows patients and consumers to monitor and manage their conditions conveniently, discreetly, and remotely. Some areas are well established, such as diabetes monitoring and pregnancy tests. However, as women become more aware of health and wellness issues, they are wanting to take more control, starting with diagnostics.
We are seeing multiple growth areas, including nutrition testing, DNA health testing, sexually transmitted disease screening, cholesterol testing, and microbiome testing; and the rise of telemedicine post-COVID-19 will likely drive further uptake in this market.
One great example of an at-home device is from inne, a German start-up who has developed a hormone-based minilab which uses a daily saliva test to track reproductive health. Perhaps we’ll start to see at-home diagnostic devices for analysing your monthly menstrual sample!
Of course, the biggest challenge when asking someone to collect and analyse samples at home is the risk of human error. Robust human factors and user centred design is critical to ensuring results are accurate and actionable.
Q. Current generations are accustomed to the convenience of single-use menstrual products. How do you change consumer habits, particularly in reducing waste?
A. Cost is a strong driver in changing consumer habits. In fact, millions of people who menstruate around the world can’t even afford to buy menstrual products. This includes in developed countries like the UK where period poverty affects 1 in 10 young women, who are therefore missing out on vital education, work, and social activities. The problem is exacerbated in developing countries. Government programmes are helping, but reusable products could have a huge impact on improving the accessibility of menstrual care.
Awareness is also driving change: as periods become less taboo, women are educating themselves about their options, and sharing their stories with others.
The other main driver is the increased awareness and emphasis on sustainability. All consumer product companies will need to consider this key criterion, focusing particularly on packaging and single-use vs reuse products. The growing influence of Gen Z will continue to drive the sustainability agenda, and we can therefore expect to see more reusable solutions such as menstrual cups, period underwear, reusable pads, and biodegradable pads.
Q. What role do employers play in normalising and advancing female health and wellness?
A. We think employers play a vital role in raising awareness, increasing access, and providing support for women’s health. Women need to feel comfortable talking about conditions that could be affecting their performance, whether it’s endometriosis or menopause – particularly since women over 50 are the fastest growing group in the workforce!
Working environments and employee benefits can also have a huge impact. In fact, employers who advance both female and male health and wellness can expect happier, more engaged, more loyal employees.
For new mums, for instance, having a safe, comfortable space to express milk and to securely store breastmilk, can help with the transition back to work. Some companies are even offering breastmilk shipping services for new mums who need to travel.
More controversially, some large corporations like Facebook and Google are now offering egg freezing as an employee benefit. While for some women this may provide a sense of freedom and a way for them to prioritise their career, other women may worry that their employer expects them to postpone childbearing. And of course, freezing your eggs is no guarantee of a baby.
Q. Do you believe that female health and wellness technologies will also benefit the Global South?
A. Yes, we believe that emerging technologies offer ways to support women in remote or low-income areas with access to reliable healthcare, information and services, helping to democratize female health. A few great examples include: the EVA System from MobileODT, a handheld, mobile colposcope for cervical screening; the iBreastExam, a portable, wireless imaging device for early detection of breast cancer in the developing world; and Grace Health, a start-up providing fertility and general health services to women in developing countries via a mobile app.
Developing countries suffer from multiple barriers to growth when it comes to female health, such as cultural and societal issues, but they also present a huge untapped market that would benefit from increased awareness, education, and female-specific technologies.
Q. Do you think innovators in this space have enough support from intellectual property firms to help protect their ideas? Do IP firms have enough awareness or expertise in femtech?
A. Start-ups with patents tend to have a higher chance of securing funding from investors than start-ups without. In a market where it can be challenging to convince investors (particularly male investors) of the value of your product or service, any corroboration can be helpful. Ensuring you have a clear value proposition, strong ROI plan, and a novel, patentable solution can help to win over even the most sceptical of investors.
Although femtech is still a nascent and under-saturated market, IP firms will need to have deep enough knowledge of the space in order to help start-ups (and large corporations) form effective IP strategies, and maximise the value of their intellectual property.
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