In this month's Download article series, we are addressing the recent proliferation of technological solutions that fall into the category of 'femtech'. As a term, 'femtech' is convenient but controversial. It is useful to describe products, services and applications designed to improve the lives or engage with the lifestyles of people assigned female at birth (AFAB) but it is an imperfect term. Where possible we refer to people or users but on occasion the context may require us to be specific about the biology of those users. In those cases we will use language that balances the importance of accuracy and inclusivity with readability and clarity.
Critics of the word femtech argue that while it is convenient as a catch all term, that very convenience lumps together products with very different purposes. This runs the risk of forcing these products to compete for funding and market share from investors and stockists who continue to view women as a homogenous group and a niche interest.
Aside from the risks of pigeonholing, the concept of femtech risks excluding trans men and non-binary individuals who are already at higher risk of negative health outcomes. Trans men are far more likely to be excluded from healthcare services which are designed around AFAB individuals who identify as women. Both the concept and the reality of femtech risks further excluding these people, though simple changes to language and pronouns can help significantly.
Despite these criticisms there is a strong argument that increased focus on perceived 'female' spending power has opened doors for new products and services to differentiate themselves where they would otherwise struggle for attention. The rise in femtech products brings with it a data goldmine and the possibility of larger and more disaggregated datasets in under-researched areas such as menstrual health and menopause.
The tech we consider in this article series is predominantly designed to address biological needs or desires of those with gynaecological anatomy – eg menstruation, fertility, pregnancy (and avoiding it), breastfeeding, menopause. Most but not all these individuals were AFAB and would describe themselves as women, but the category includes non-binary individuals and trans men. Some products are designed to support the treatment of cancers and other medical conditions that either predominantly or overwhelmingly affected by those who are AFAB. Other products support sexual health or pleasure.
Problematic though the femtech terminology may be, there is no question that it is now a significant – and growing – part of the personal tech sector. For a clearer view of the topic we sat down with Marija Butkovic, the founder and CEO of Women of Wearables (WoW), to get her take on the future of femtech, the challenges faced by female founders and the opportunities on the horizon.
WoW is a thriving community of women and allies in emerging technologies such as wearable tech, IoT (internet of things) and healthtech. WoW provides its global membership of over 20,000 women with educational resources on upcoming tech innovation, career and business advice and networking opportunities. Alongside this, WoW also provide business memberships to a number of tech start-ups and initiatives, offering them the opportunity to promote their offerings and boost their cash flow.
What femtech arguably needs most is a sense of community and the benefits that come with connection. Tech start-ups are disproportionately helmed and funded by men. While other diversity challenges are evident (founders are overwhelmingly white and from advantaged socioeconomic groups) gender diversity is a big problem in tech. Development and funding opportunities often coming from within pre-existing networks and women often lack access to those networks. WoW seeks to challenge the status quo and Marija mentioned that WoW will be launching a WoW marketplace and job board in the near future. This will offer their members a centralised place to sell or buy discounted tech products or services and search for business opportunities.
The US remains the biggest market for femtech offerings, with greater funding, investment, and, arguably, innovation than Europe, primarily due to market size. However, Marija has noticed interesting trends emerging within the UK, as femtech founders better empathise with the needs of their users to tackle health issues in more a holistic sense. Overlooked issues, such as mental health and age-related health, are finally coming to the fore.
Femtech has heavily focused on fertility or pregnancy solutions, targeting those planning or experiencing pregnancies, so it is no surprise that many new enterprises are turning to the next stage: parenthood. Marija is particularly aware of the emergence of new products and services focusing on the critical period after a child is born after recently becoming a mother herself. She told us that although she thought she was prepared, she found she was not fully aware of the challenges facing parents. Unsurprisingly, parenting solutions have been dubbed ParentTech. In a recent article for Forbes, Marija introduced an emerging ecosystem for ParentTech, "Parenthood Ventures", which helps support start-ups disrupting the industry serving parents and children.
Marija believes that the problem of access to funding for femtech founders is more about education than opportunity, telling us "we need to raise more awareness about the need to educate founders on their options with regards to funding". This should include where and how people should seek to raise funding, and who they can raise funding from. She noted that a common misconception among founders is that they can only raise funding from VC and angel investors. In reality, there are plenty of other opportunities for start-ups to raise finance – such as crowdfunding, loans and government grants – and founders need to be as imaginative in their approach to funding as they are in their approach to product development.
Another concern for Marija is the lack of awareness she often sees from founders regarding the regulatory hurdles they may face. Founders should know that they are often entering a highly regulated tech space and will need to deal with different regulatory approaches in different markets.
Marija often sees founders consumed with building of their product and focused on the user experience but leaving it too late to focus on the data privacy and security elements that are essential to ensure a successful, sustainable launch. Founders should be asking themselves from the very start how they plan to collect and store health-related data and should be able to explain it clearly to others, including their users. Marija believes that helping femtech businesses to avoid these pitfalls is how law firms and experts can make a dramatic impact on their trajectory of growth and success, by empowering them to grow in the right direction.
Marija thinks that investors in the UK and Europe need to become less risk adverse when selecting who to invest in and how much they are willing to invest. Those who control the purse strings need to become more aware of the potential returns from early stage femtech start-ups. There is big money to be made in the market for female focused products and services, and they are far more than just a way to diversify a portfolio.
We asked Marija about the roles for men in femtech. Does the growth of personal wellbeing devices targeting men (often imaginatively dubbed 'maletech') present an opportunity or a threat to femtech founders seeking funds and exposure? In Marija’s view, men must play a crucial role in the development and growth of femtech. The industry needs to strive for greater inclusivity; only then can products and services address the real needs of individual users rather than the perceived needs of categories of people. Men continue to dominate in the ideation and investment side of the tech space, so founders must engage with them and encourage them to think about user needs and experiences beyond their own.
Marija notes that there are some interesting solutions that address male wellbeing needs, which are growing in prominence and are complimentary to the products currently on offer for women. The innovative start-up Legacy, which invests in a concierge service for sperm freezing, is just one example of this. This service is now included in some workplace benefits in the US and supports a wider trend towards tackling the arguably underserved male fertility sector. It is possible that these services would have developed without the influence of the femtech boom, but Marija believes that the femtech focus on user needs has helped influence more nuanced thinking about them across the whole tech sector.
Time will tell whether the femtech label persists for much longer or whether products and services currently labelled as femtech will shake off that moniker and take their rightful place in the mainstream of consumer-focused lifestyle and wellbeing solutions. The femtech market, as currently characterised, is predicted to experience exponential growth over the next few years, with the value of femtech businesses predicted to exceed $60 billion worldwide by the year 2027. Marija is confident that we will see a wider diversity of product offerings, as investment into the innovation around women’s health and wellbeing continues to grow.
To discuss the issues raised in this article in more detail, please reach out to a member of our Life Sciences & Healthcare or Technology, Media & Communications teams.
Alison Dennis looks at the causes of bias in digital healthcare products and how to eliminate it.
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Alexandra Richardson and Phil Shepherd look at the issues facing femtech funding and at the potential for growth.
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Debbie Heywood looks at privacy issues with femtech apps and at how getting compliance right can help address some of the issues of bias in digital health products.
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Tasmina Goraya looks at the application of medical device and healthcare law to femtech products and services.
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