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The future of women's health: unlocking innovation

Image of panel discussion from Giant Health 2022
Photograph by Giant Health

The global population reached 8 billion this year. With more than half of the population being women, it remains paramount to address gender discrimination when it comes to research and development within the technology industry. During an enlightening panel at Giant Health 2022, the women founders and advocates were incredible and passionate about their cause and it was an honour to be present for such a panel. They didn't just talk about themes of the FemTech sphere but took us to another level in terms of the advocacy for systemic change and addressing the unjust reality of the world. These issues are close to our heart at Thrive as we’ve been fortunate enough to have collaborated with companies that are striving to create wearables that can support women’s health, for example, through pain management and non-invasive alternatives to detecting breast cancer. Our goal as a company is to continue to support this growth in FemTech by collaborating with even more female centric companies.

Read on to follow the panel which was led by Ada Omoruyi, Doctor at NHS England, and featured Tatiana Klimanova from Femtech Lab, Octavia Wilks, Medical advisor at Flo Health, and Valentina Milanova, Founder of Daye.

What does the word FemTech mean to you and do you think it’s the right term to use when describing this space?

Wilks explained that as a clinician she knows the healthcare system is “systematically discriminating against women” as women are more likely to be misdiagnosed with symptoms of a heart attack and also less likely to be prescribed pain relief after procedures. Wilks highlighted that it takes on average 7-8 years for women to get diagnosed with endometriosis. It is evident that there is a lack of research into women's health and that women’s health conditions generally aren't as well understood.

There have been criticisms of the word FemTech as it perpetuates this idea that “women are the other” and men are the “norm” and that women's health is an afterthought. However, Wilks explained “we need the word FemTech” as it highlights technologies that strive to reduce health inequalities for women and it allows us to bring it up as an issue that requires attention. “FemTech requires understanding, funding, and one day I hope we get to a point where there is gender equality and FemTech as a word becomes obsolete but for the time being we need to use it to build societal pressure to challenge the status quo.”

Klimanova agreed with this statement and went on to say that “FemTech is a movement and with any movement, we need a brand for people to rally behind”.

Milanova added that “FemTech is a fair reflection of what we do, we are building technology for the female population.” Milanova however, found that investors that invest in healthcare have said they don't invest in FemTech. “Unfortunately, in my experience in the market, it has become somewhat of a ‘bad brand’ in investor conversations but I don't think the word is to blame. It's the attitudes and the stigma that persists around female healthcare, gynaecological health, and investing in this space.”

Omoruyi highlighted that erectile dysfunction affects 20% of men but there is five times more research in comparison to premenstrual syndrome which affects around 90% of women. This also reflects in investment across the health tech sector, only 3% of investments go towards women's health.

What are your thoughts on what we can do to address this? And what needs to be done in the future?

Milanova began to answer the question by adding more context “erectile dysfunction receives fives times more investment in comparison to anything to do with women's health, not just PMS. 2.5% of public funding goes towards gynaecological health as a whole even though 1 in 3 women experience chronic reproductive health conditions in their lifetime.” These statistics reflect the conditions of scarcity within which most gynaecological health companies are built today.

Klimanova explained that “the FemTech sector is still in its nascent stage and we have seen the funding quadruple since 2015.” The FemTech sector has grown from $600 million to almost $2.5 billion in the last year and will continue to go from strength to strength with the market size expected to grow to USD $103 billion by 2030. The sector is continuing to grow but unfortunately, there is still a lack of funding.

“50% of FemTech companies and funding are in the US but Europe is catching up.” Klimanova predicts that the next 2-3 years is the perfect opportunity to invest in women's health and to invest in future “unicorns.” With the majority of FemTechs being startups, it's important to support them in their early stages, if FemTech sees an influx of funding, the sector will be flourishing.

What do you think clinicians can do either daily, or just in general, to help support health tech companies, and is it important for them to be involved?

Milanova explained that the most important thing to do is to get educated and to get involved in gynaecological health so clinicians can adequately support their patients. 41% of UK medical universities do not have mandatory menopause education in their curriculum despite the fact that there are 13 million perimenopausal or postmenopausal women in the UK (Menopause Support, 2021). Melanova went on to highlight that menopause will affect a woman, on average, for a decade of their life so it is “imperative that we start talking about specialists in areas such as menopause, endometriosis, and so on.”

“I also think it's important for clinicians to get involved in health tech companies,” stated Wilks, as clinicians can contribute to the product development process and contribute their knowledge of being at the frontline, experience working with patients, and knowing what kind of products can bring value to healthcare. “Clinicians can also represent a credible voice - they are an ambassador between digital health companies and doctors” as they know the culture and vocabulary.

The panel addressed previously how FemTech can be difficult to find investment for, as what they’ve seen is that the first thing investors look for is credibility from medical advisors and clinicians. Klimanova concluded the discussion to confirm that they “absolutely add validity” for investment and play a crucial role in the process.

Reflecting back to the covid-19 pandemic it was quite a life changing period for a lot of people, we never expected a time like that and it highlights the central need for health tech companies. Were there any changes or trends that you’ve noticed since the covid-19 pandemic or anything else you can comment on regarding that period?

Milanova identified that there’s definitely been a rise in at-home diagnostics, which is interesting for gynaecological health as every year in the UK millions of gynaecological exams get missed due to their invasive nature. As health professionals, she believes we need to recognise the reality that women find today's diagnostics “inadequate to serve their needs” and we need to proceed accordingly.

Another one of the biggest developments post-covid is that PCR technologies are now a lot more affordable which allows for at-home tests for infections on a wider scale.

The panel also highlighted that there’s a greater demand to take your health into your own hands through diagnosis and self care. There is a much stronger appetite for accessible and credible information that can allow people to learn about their own body signals through technologies like wearables. These wearables can assist people in knowing when to potentially contact a doctor through predictive and preventative healthcare.

What kind of challenges have you noticed when it comes to the development of new health technologies?

Milanova began by saying that “the biggest challenge is access to funding because in order to develop innovation in gynaecological health you need to invest in clinical trials, regulatory approvals, and frequently need your own manufacturing facilities.” All of these factors require significant cash investment and if this funding is not available FemTech companies are forced to exist in a state of scarcity. This scarcity forces these companies to take shortcuts and to do things less efficiently than they would have if they had access to adequate funding. “Until the funding challenge is fixed then companies that support women's health are built on an unstable platform.”

The panel agreed that this is the leading issue as well as data and research restraints. Availability of key data “is absolutely critical for conversations with investors” and we see the majority of research that's being done right now in the women's healthcare space is done by startups - there is a huge lack of data stated Klimanova.

Another challenge from a clinical perspective is the acceptability of these technologies by users - users being the general public or healthcare professionals. “Health professionals may be sceptical of new technologies, and for good reason. It’s our job to try and build trust and build credibility” stated Wilks. We can build credibility by ensuring that companies are clinically validated and all products are regularly adhering to obligatory, and regulatory guidelines; whilst being based on the best, most up-to-date guidance and peer-reviewed literature.

Where do you see the future of women's health going in regards to health tech and in general?

“The future is bright, the future is great for FemTech and there is so much we can do.” There isn't a single area of women’s health that doesn't need innovation. And even so called ‘saturated’ areas such as menstruation are still getting access for women to have those services, said Klimanova.

Milanova went on to add that “one of the things that excites me about gynaecological health and its future is that a lot more of these companies are started by women. As a result, we have an opportunity to reinvent business practices more proudly and reinvent how companies are founded.” Ultimately, this would lead to more opportunities for FemTech companies to collaborate in order to bridge data and care gaps. Collaboration will help expedite the speed to market for both companies and groups of companies by “supporting each other” through know-how and learning.

Wilks concluded the panel by expressing her excitement for more personalised care. She continued to explain that the growth in collection of health data by health tech companies, awareness of key body signals, and the support of wearables will accelerate the discovery of more insight about conditions. Specifically, startups like TUNNE, who are already providing personalised oral contraceptives by using questionnaires, will become the future for the personalised experience.

We want to ensure the future is bright for women’s health by collaborating with as many mission-aligned companies in health and wellbeing as possible; in order to create impactful wearables that make a difference. If you, or someone you know, would be interested in collaborating with us to create a FemTech wearable device please get in touch with us. We offer end-to-end services and we would love to hear from you. Read more on our services here.

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