Digital health tools for women a growing, necessary and wanted market

By Heather Mack
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The market for women-specific digital health tools is ripe, buttressed by the growing number of women tech entrepreneurs, the desire for family planning data, and increasing call for accommodations for women in the workplace, according to a panel at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. While women haven’t historically been the focus in technology – both in the workforce or in the consumer target – that is changing, the panel concurred. Not only are the combined industries of family planning, breastfeeding and infant nutrition worth several hundred billion dollars per year, but people are becoming more comfortable talking about it.

“This is the first time ever at TechCrunch Disrupt that we’ve been able to talk about women’s reproductive health, which is a huge issue that affects, you know, half of the population,” said TechCrunch moderator Sarah Buhr. “Why has it taken so long, with all the health tech, with all the technology in general, to start looking at women’s health?”

Ida Tin, founder of Berlin-based Clue, which makes a period-tracking app, pointed to the emergence of women working in tech, as well as a growing desire for data-driven insight about personal health. However, given the detail about this kind of data, these apps and tools must be implemented with a high degree of security and ethics, the panel speakers said. And it takes women creating these tools to understand that.

“I think it makes a difference when you have something happening in your body, and since most companies are started by men, it’s not been at the top of their mind,” said Tin. “As more women are becoming tech entrepreneurs, it’s something we see happening.

Women’s health is especially inviting for tech innovation as it will be more applicable on a regular basis.

“One of the things we have working for us is this monthly reminder from biology, and one of the things that’s really exciting about female biology is we never really figure it out,” said Tin. “From a woman having her first period to having her last, there are all these events happening through life. From not wanting to be pregnant to wanting to be, to going through pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding ... There is always something that we want to understand and questions we have.”

Additionally, the speakers said, this isn’t as simple as wanting to lose weight or take more steps or get better sleep. It’s about creating – or preventing – another life.

“With women’s health, there is just a different motivation,” said Alvarez. “If you are tracking something that has something that has directly with a child’s health and wellness, there is more motivation. It’s actionable in different ways.”

As more women are combining full-time careers with family instead of either/or, it has ignited the need for sophisticated tools to manage their lifestyles, but also made many people realize that research and innovation in reproductive health tools isn’t very current.
 
“A lot of research out there is really out of date, so when a woman or couple goes to educate themselves, they may not have gotten the best information about how to proceed with getting pregnant,” said Deborah Anderson-Bialis, who is the cofounder of IVF concierge app FertilityIQ.

When Anderson-Bialis and her husband started thinking about having a family in their mid-twenties, they went about freezing her eggs for later use. During that process, they discovered they weren’t as fertile as they had hoped, which got them on an IVF journey comprising many doctors and tens of thousands of dollars.

With today’s demographics of parents, Anderson-Bialis said, digital tools to streamline that process are wanted and necessary. Couples looking to use fertility services are confronted with many choices, so they will want reputable reviews of clinics where they can also compare price points, as well as find those that will work best for them (FertilityIQ takes 80 data points from the couple to find the best match). While FertilityIQ currently doesn’t cost anything to users, the company plans to start charging.

“There’s a million reasons we’re getting married older, we’re getting older, wiser, more established. Unfortuntely, it’s not the way biology wanted it to happen,” she said. “In nature, we weren’t at the peak of our careers during menopause, we were dead. Right now, there is a $3 billion for IVF alone. The average successful IVF user spends $66,000 out of pocket – an enormous financial commitment, so we do think that they have the appetite and will be willing to pay for it … this is the most important thing in people’s lives.”

For those who have already had a baby and want to more knowledgably take care of themselves and their child when they go back to work, more women will be turning to products like Naya Health, which makes a connected breast pump and bottle.

Janica Alvarez, CEO and co-founder of Naya Health, said the tech industry is still catching up. While the breast pump and feeding market is huge – she put the industry at about an $80 billion opportunity for digital health companies to take – it hasn’t had much innovation.

“I don’t think people really talk about that; it hasn’t been innovated on in 30 years,” Alvarez said, adding that the increasing number of women who are full-time mothers and full-time workers adds to the need for digital tools.

“Today, 64 percent of women at work have a toddler or infant they are trying to care for. You have this growing workforce, you have all this research going on about the benefits of breastfeeding. … The awareness is growing, and we have a lot of pressures just as women going back to work. So, I think [the growing demand] is a little bit of a mix, the pressure, the awareness and then the market opportunity."

Women also want more information about how to best mix their work and home life, Alvarez said, so they’ll look to apps for insight.

“Getting to the data, two things: with the pump alone, we can start tracking user behavior. We know how much mom pumps, when she pumps and we can start informing her about how to best improve her experience,” she said. “When is the optimal time to pump? How does her lifestyle affect her milk production? This is something 83 percent of women want to know and they want to automatically track that.”
 
On the flip side, Alvarez said, women can also use the connected bottle to learn more about their baby’s behavior, which could inform user behavior and provide actionable insights in preventative health.

“As women are going back to work after having a baby, this type of information is huge,” Alvarez said.  “Eighty percent of women in the US start breastfeeding, but there is a steep decline when they go back to work, because there are not a lot of accommodations in the workplace, so only half of women get accommodation, 25 percent go back within two weeks. We need better solutions and we need the data, because without the data, we don’t really understand our own behavior and how we can create a better solution.”

The panel also discussed the future of digital tools for family planning well before any babies or IVF thoughts enter the picture. Tin was excited about putting data streams of molecular insights of the body into automated tools we have now, fueling the global market for period tracking.

“Data is going to change everything with women’s health," she said. "It’s going to change every single market. We see that combined will grow into a $200 billion annually addressable market.”

Tin said that the data has enabled her company to figure out when a woman is ovulating based on her heart rate. Tin said this metric is easy to get through the app’s data set and, when added to other data streams, they could eventually be at a point where an app informs a woman about her chances of getting pregnant.

“You can really enable a woman to take out her phone and know when she can get pregnant, so then you have a digital contraceptive, which is obviously a huge market opportunity in the world,” Tin said.

Moderator Buhr cautioned against that scenario, saying, “Well, I don’t know if I agree with that. I don’t think any woman is going to be using an app to prevent pregnancy.”

“Well,” Tin said. “We’ll talk again in three years.”

Tin conceded that we aren’t there yet, but said she believed the increasing sophistication and layering of sensor technologies (plus more biometrics) showcases a future where family planning through an app is totally feasible.

“The point is, people are using data to understand birth control across the board, no matter what method you are applying. And I think when you have a system that you trust, and that you know that AI and the algorithm on top of it is so strong that you actually trust the predictions, you will know which days you want to use a condom,” she said.

When it comes to women, there is a strong desire for valid, scientific knowledge, she said.

“You have to think, it’s about 30 percent of women who use the pill. So for a lot of other women, what are they doing? There is such a hunger for alternative methods of family planning … it will come. It’s just a matter of getting our AI good enough.”