Is ‘femtech’ the next big thing in healthcare?

Women make up half of the world’s population. Nevertheless, technology companies that address their specific health needs represent a minute share of the global technology market.

According to PitchBook, a financial data and research company, in 2019, the femtech industry – software and technology companies that address women’s biological needs – generated $ 820.6 million in global revenue and received $ 592 million in venture capital investments. That same year, Uber’s driving sharing app alone raised $ 8.1 billion in the initial public offering. The difference in scale is staggering, especially when women spend about $ 500 billion a year on medical expenses, according to PitchBook.

Taking advantage of this expendable power, a multitude of applications and technology companies have emerged in the last decade to respond to women’s needs, including monitoring menstruation and fertility, and offering solutions for pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause. Medical startups have also been involved in the prevention or management of serious conditions such as cancer.

“The market potential is huge,” said Michelle Tempest, a partner at London-based healthcare counseling Candesic and a training psychiatrist. “There’s definitely a growing appetite for anything in the world, which is technology, and the realization that women’s consumer power has arrived – and has arrived in healthcare.”

She said one of the reasons why women-related needs were not focused in the field of technology was that life science research was largely “tailored to the male body”. In 1977, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration excluded women of reproductive age from participating in drug trials. Since then, women have been underrepresented in drug trials, Tempest said, because of the belief that fluctuations caused by menstrual cycles could affect test results, and also because if a woman becomes pregnant after taking a trial drug, the drug can affect the fetus. As a result, she remarked, “we lag behind men.”

The term “femtech” was coined by Denmark-born Ida Tin, founder of Clue, a period and ovulation tracking app founded in Germany in 2013. In an article on Tin’s website, she recalled having the idea for the app for the first time. In 2009, she found herself holding a cell phone in one hand and a small temperature gauge in the other, and would like to connect them to track her fertility days, instead of manually recording the temperature in a spreadsheet.

Clue allows women to do just that with a few touches on a smartphone. Today, the company has a lot of competition in the field of period monitoring and fertility. And many other tools specific to women have appeared on the market. Elvie, a London-based company, has launched a portable breast pump and trainer and pelvic exercise app, both using smart technology. Another part of femtech known as “menotech” aims to improve the lifestyle of menopausal women by providing access to telemedicine and the information and data that women can access.

Finally, there are medical technology companies focused on cancer that affects women, such as cervical and breast cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer among women around the world. In 2018, it had about 570,000 women, and as many as 311,000 died. In November, the WHO announced a program to completely eradicate the disease by 2030.

MobileODT, a startup based in Tel Aviv, Israel, uses smartphones and artificial intelligence to detect cervical cancer. The smart colposcope – a portable imaging device that is 1 1/2 times larger than a smartphone – is used to photograph a woman’s cervix from a distance of about 1 meter. The image is then transmitted to the cloud via a smartphone, where artificial intelligence is used to identify normal or abnormal cervical findings.

The diagnosis is delivered in about 60 seconds – compared to the weeks it takes to get the results of a standard smear test (which in developing countries extends to several months.) In addition to this examination, doctors still use smear tests.

The technology was recently used to screen 9,000 women during a three-month period in the Dominican Republic as part of a government campaign, the company announced last month. Another 50,000 women are expected to be examined in the next six months.

Leon Boston, CEO of South Africa-born MobileODT, said the privately owned company sells in about 20 different countries, including the United States, India, South Korea and Brazil, and is going into a fundraising circle to upgrade its initial seed money of $ 24 million.

But the leading cause of cancer among women around the world is breast cancer. One French startup is focused on tackling its consequences. Lattice Medical has developed a 3D printed hollow implant that allows tissue to regenerate and be absorbed by the body over time.

How it works: After a mastectomy, the surgeon removes a small cover of fat from the area around a woman’s breast and places it in a 3D printed bioprosthesis. This piece of tissue grows inside the implant and eventually fills it. Meanwhile, the 3D printed shell completely disappears 18 months later.

So far, animal testing has been encouraging, said Julien Payen, co-founder and CEO of the company. Clinical trials on women are expected to begin in 2022, with the goal of placing the product on the market in 2025, he added.

Asked why the global femtech market is so small for technology companies, Boston said it was partly because of the “high level of regulation” involved in medical technology.

“If your technology is wrong and the wrong result occurs, a woman who thinks she’s not positive for cervical cancer is actually positive,” he said. As a result, “the world of medical technology is moving slowly.”

Still, the outlook is favorable, Boston said. “It’s rare to have a completely barren market open to the full potential we have today in medical technology,” he said.

Data forecasts seem to support this. According to a March 2020 report by Frost & Sullivan, a research and strategy consultant, revenue from femtech is expected to reach $ 1.1 billion by 2024.

Payen explained that in order for the femtech market to expand and develop, there must be many more technology companies offering true health benefits for women, not just welfare apps that push the market and add little in terms of health or medical value. He cited the example of Endodiago, a French medical technology company that enables early diagnosis of endometriosis and better management of the condition.

In any case, Payen said, the industry has promised.

“Over the last 10 years, thanks to #MeToo and other movements, women have been listened to and heard more than ever before,” Payen said. And “more and more women are running companies and investment funds,” he added.

“In 10 or 15 years, as the new generation reigns, things will change even more radically,” he said. “Femtech is obviously ready to grow.”