Tackling taboos: How tech is taking on topics that were once unspoken

Industry players examined the intersection of sex, tech, health and pleasure at the Giant Health event in London last week.
By Leontina Postelnicu
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It’s no secret that the tech industry has a diversity problem. In June, a magazine featured an image of 15 male executives from Silicon Valley, who were meeting in Italy, in which two female tech entrepreneurs were photoshopped in after the fact.

While many in the industry are waking up to the issue, with some jumping on the bandwagon and others remaining behind, a number of innovators are working to dismantle the taboos around women’s health. They are working to change the conversation around health, sex, pleasure and technology, another area where women, and not only, have been underserved and overlooked – lest we forget the CES Osé incident from January

“Sexual dysfunctions like erectile dysfunction have received billions of investment, but yet 1.5 million women in the UK alone live with endometriosis, and we know so little about it, and we’re doing even less about it,” Dominnique Karetsos, investor, advisor and CEO of Healthy Pleasure Collective, an agency for sextech startups, said on a panel at the Giant Health Event last week.

About 10% of women worldwide are affected by endometriosis, which can cause debilitating pain and fertility problems, according to Endometriosis UK. It takes around seven and a half years from the onset of symptoms - although some women will have no symptoms at all - to receive a diagnosis, the organisation says.

Signs point to changes, however. After the BBC carried out research to shed light on the impact of endometriosis on careers, sex lives and mental health, MPs in the UK unveiled plans to launch an inquiry into women’s experiences of living with the condition.

The investor’s view 

In the tech world, industry players speaking at the recent event in London agreed that progress was driven by a stronger focus on education, the caliber of entrepreneurs entering the field, and a changing VC space that is becoming more open, realising the amount of untapped potential out there. 

Octopus Ventures, a seed and series A London and New York-based fund, invested in British startup Elvie before the launch of their first product, the Kegel exercise trainer. In 2016, Will Gibbs, an investor at Octopus, was based in the US, trying to get the Elvie Trainer into retail stores.

“I spent a lot of phones calls ringing up large US chains trying to explain what Kegel exercises were,” Gibbs recalled at the conference. “It was a really difficult conversation, it was actually not a category that existed on shelves, and in some ways that’s a kind of metaphor for how Elvie kind of went about and how it’s become such a successful business, (...) if I think then, having conversations where people just wouldn’t even engage.”

In April, Elvie announced that it had raised $42 million in Series B funding, having created and launched a second product, a silent wearable breast pump that even made into this year’s Oscars goodie bag

At Octopus, the team that looks at health deals has spent the past six months looking at taboo. “Personally, I think there’s an opportunity to build a whole fund just dedicated to taboo. The more we look into areas such as end of life care, menopause, the more you look, the more you see in terms of opportunities,” Gibbs said.

A lot of why we still consider these issues as taboo can be attributed to institutional biases, the investor added. “In many investment committees, in many large, billion-dollar plus funds, no one can really talk about vaginas without kind of laughing, and I think until that is really addressed, then it’s hard to imagine that the right funding goes to the right businesses to really drive this forward.”

Alma Ramirez, cofounder of Vibio, a sextech startup that has set out to challenge the discourse around sex and pleasure, said she encountered this attitude firsthand. “I’ve actually experienced this kind of meeting where everything you get is actually a giggle or a surprised face, but things are changing,” Ramirez said.

Innovators driving transformation

For Gibbs, some of the most exciting pioneers in health can be found within the taboo segment. “It might not be particularly glamorous areas, but so important (...).

“I think it’s quite interesting, in that it’s become a competitive differentiator for some funds to be the most open-minded and [have] the most diverse teams, because they are actually attracting the best entrepreneurs,” Gibbs told attendees. “And I hope that principle of actually, if you are looking to set up a new fund today, you probably want to be best in class in open-mindedness and being able to talk about loads of broad stuff. Because actually the type of deal flow and entrepreneurs you would talk to would just be so different to everyone else in the market.”

That is important for a variety of factors, not least because you also need to figure out how to make money out of this, the investor continued. In the US, online mail-order men's health company Hims, which uses remote consultations to prescribe cosmetic and sexual health products, reportedly landed $100 million in new funding in January. This put the company's valuation at $1 billion, following its launch of Hers, a similar offer that is targeting women. 

“It speaks to the latent demand in a lot of these markets, if you get the product and distribution right, because there is just such little innovation,” Gibbs said, talking about Hims. “And whether it’s the money side or whether it’s just the caliber of entrepreneurs driving it, or whether it’s kind of all of this together, I think, for us [Octopus Ventures], would we have been able to think about setting up a taboo fund five years ago? No.”

Education & consumers taking an active interest

Consumers are also becoming “more conscientious”, said Milena Bacalja, cofounder and chief innovation and research officer at the Menstrual Health Hub, a female health non-profit and social impact business.

“Consumers, particularly millennial consumers, they want a great product, but they want to feel something for the company that’s selling it to them as well. I think that in the femtech, the sextech space, that’s really critical,” Bacalja told delegates at the conference.

German company Clue, she said, known for its period tracker app, seems to have adopted this approach, creating a platform for sex education that offers “bitesized content” to help people learn more about their bodies, their health and wellness.

“This idea of education is becoming really, really central, to be able to teach your consumer how to use your product, but also [to] create more long-lasting relationships, and then open up your markets to other kinds of products,” Bacalja added.

Angelica Bolocan, head of healthcare at PR agency MSL The Practice, has worked extensively on campaigns trying to open an honest conversation about sex in Romania, where, she explained, many teenagers find themselves lost when wanting to start their sexual life. In 2017, figures released by Eurostat indicated that Romania, along with Bulgaria, had the highest number of teenage mothers in the European Union. 

To reach teenagers, who may be taking all their information about sex from pornography, distorting “their perception about intimacy and relationships”, it’s important to use their language, Bolocan added. “Let’s use apps to get them to open a conversation about sex, we use online platforms or gamification. Let’s use peer to peer education. I’ve realised that using influencers that have the same ages as the teenagers with whom we are talking with gets really good results, because they already follow their content,” she told communicators in the audience.

Changing the culture

Another area where there is still a lot of stigma is sexuality and illness, delegates heard. “There are so many different things that can happen in your life,” Ramirez, who was moderating the panel discussion, said. “I was just having a conversation with someone that basically treats cancer patients and how sex affects their life. I had never even thought about it, how does our body and how do we change our feelings or how do we adapt to different situations that we go through?” she asked.

When you are ill, sexuality is taken out of the discussion most of the time, added Virginia Sofia Cerrone, cofounder of pureeeros, an online shop for women’s sexual health, and editor in chief of the pureeros Edit magazine. “I really would love to see more doctors, when they are in front of a woman that has beat cancer, actually to help her get in the way on how you can get your life back after cancer,” she said. “That’s what we are trying to do [with the pureeros magazine] on the educational side.”

But ultimately, their efforts lead back to a much-needed change in culture. “And this is something that we are trying to do, [each and every one] of us in the industry is investing and pushing a lot on content and on education, because the reality is that there is still a gap,” Cerrone said.