While the femtech industry is still very much in the early years, the investor dollars have been pouring in. Last week, at Women of Wearables’ femtech forum, a panel of investors sat down to talk virtually about the state of female focused digital health.
“I don’t think it’s painting something pretty and putting makeup on it. It’s a true data gap we have,” Sophia Bendz, partner at Atomico, said during the panel. “We all know that we haven’t had as much research done on the female body as compared to the male body, hence we have poorer solutions for women, we have a lack of understanding and that leads to us getting some later diagnosis than men. I think it's still in the early phases. I think the more we understand, the more data we gather, the more precise and better products and services we can build. Many of these companies are the first builders of databases gathering intel on it so for me I feel like it is the beginning of the information era about the female body. And so, for me, that is a good starting point for building more and even smarter services.”
The data shows that women are heavily involved in making healthcare decisions, not just for themselves, but also for their families.
“One of the stats that I’ve been struck by is that women make 80% of the healthcare decisions in the U.S. So women are very much the decision-makers, but have been really underserved in healthcare. Some of the stats I’ve been really struck by have been about how research has been ignored and left women out until recently,” Marren Bannon, cofounder and partner at January Ventures, said.
While the so called “femtech” industry is on the rise, companies focused specifically on men’s health have historically had massive funding rounds, according to Bannon.
“Just in the last few years there have been a couple of companies that have reached unicorn status for erectile dysfunction, and menopause still is quite small and feels very underfunded,” Bannon said.
Panelists stressed the femtech industry had a range of opportunities beyond what is traditionally discussed, namely fertility and menopause products.
“I think there are plenty of opportunities. Personally I’m especially excited about sexual wellbeing and the pleasure gap, and I’m also starting to see more and more companies addressing this problem, which I think is a real problem with a huge market opportunity,” Louise Samet, partner at Blossom Capital, said.
Over the years, topics surrounding sexual health have faced stigma, both in the investors space and in the public arena. However, Bendz stressed the importance of these tools for women’s health.
“It has been driven for men by men, all the things around sexual education and pleasure, and I think rather than sit around and complain about it, why don’t we create something that works for us?” Bendz said. “I think it’s kind of dangerous not knowing your body and not understanding how it works. I think it’s almost like a human right to understand your body, and get to know your body from a starting point within yourself rather than a boyfriend exposing you to porn as a teenager, that can set off the whole experience in the wrong way.”
But investing in tools that address sexual wellness isn’t always clear cut. Bendz said that as a venture capitalist, her firm will often have contracts with their licensing partners which restrict the venture firm from investing in products having to do with industries such as weapons and porn. However, over the years, sexual health products have gotten lumped in with the former.
“I think that is why it’s really important to talk about sexual wellness and that it’s wellness, not porn, because that can sometimes be a scary area for investors because of some of the agreements with LPs,” Bendz said.
Another space which is seeing an increase in interest is contraception. For example, the FDA-certified app Natural Cycles, which scored $30 million in 2017, has made a name for itself in the digital health arena.
“I’m also passionate about contraception. I think that’s an area we have been so underserved,” Bendz said. “I did more research on my home insurance than the contraception I choose because I had 15 minutes with my Ob/Gyn ... it is very poor access to gynecologists. And when they have very limited time, they serve you with a folder from a medical company. They think it's good, and it’s a very under-researched decision that affects us incredibly with the hormones and everything.”
But investing in women’s health isn’t just about addressing unmet needs, it’s also about seeing a financial return.
“The expected returns in each space [are] highly correlated with the magnitude of the problem being solved and the number of users experiencing the problem,” Samet said. “So basically, like the addressable market. If we take female contraception as an example, it is a painful problem that persists for years and affects half of the world’s population – so clearly a market where there is definitely an opportunity for returns. Same with pleasure, same with menopause, same with all these problems that are global where the number of people experiencing the problem is high.”
The venture capital space is heavily male. In fact, Rock Health reported that women accounted for just 12.2% of digital health investors in 2018. The panelists said that this can sometimes cause roadblocks for femtech companies, because men may not be as aware of the health problems women are experiencing.
“Generally when you speak to investors, in many cases ... the person you are speaking to understands the problem you are solving,” Samet said. “And that connection happens probably much more often when speaking to someone who has experienced the problem themselves. That’s an instant connection that happens when you are either speaking to the target user or someone who has spent a lot of time in the space.”
Samet said that it is the job of the investor to expand their horizons and try to invest in companies who have a different end user than themselves. She also noted that many of these companies have a big reach – at least 50% of the population – and that can translate to dollar signs long term.
“That doesn’t mean they are going to happen, and that they are going to happen in the next couple of years, because this is a really long-term play, and being in the venture capital business is a really long-term commitment before you see any results. And it takes a long time to drive change, especially when it comes to [a] natural contraceptive versus [a] hormonal contraceptive, which is driven by users expecting something else, which we are seeing by how natural cycles [are] really taking off,” Samet said. “There is clearly an amazing opportunity for several of these,”