We now live amid a femtech revolution. These are exciting times, with plucky start-ups, mainly started by women, filling big gaps left by Big Pharma and device makers. In areas like new mothers’ health, periods, pregnancy or menopause, just to name a few.
It was 2016 when Danish internet entrepreneur Ida Tin first coined the term to describe tech solutions that improve women’s healthcare either across female-specific conditions, or for general health conditions that affect women disproportionately or differently.
Three years before, in Berlin, Tin had co-founded an app called Clue, which lets women track their ovulation. She first created it just for herself. By 2018, this app had 10million users. Following in Clue’s footsteps there came a wave of start-ups. Like New
York-based Progyny – a tech company that manages fertility benefits for employers. It went public in 2019 and now has a valuation of about $4billion.
Ireland, with its large number of tech firms and supportive public bodies like Enterprise Ireland, has here too been a buzzing hive of start-up activity. The Irish face of femtech includes founders like Paula Newell, whose Galway-based company AVeta Medical offers a hormone-free, safe, affordable device that it says can change the lives of women who suffer from vaginal atrophy, a common condition that affects up to 80 per cent of women.
Or Rosanne Longmore, who after spending 15 years working in financial services, now as chief executive of Coroflo is developing a
breastfeeding monitor. In June, Health Innovation Hub Ireland (HIHI), the Government backed initiative supported by Enterprise Ireland and the Health Service Executive, launched Femtech @Health Innovation Hub Ireland.
The initiative hopes to provide access to clinical, research and business expertise through the Ireland South Women and Infants Directorate and UCC Innovation “to stimulate the creation of an ecosystem of experts and entrepreneurs, leading to more women founders in Ireland and attracting more investors” into the country.
HIHI is looking for entrepreneurs, patients, clinicians, researchers, mentors, funders, investors and advisors to become Femtech Champions to support development in this area, which has been historically low.
Globally, there has been unequal (less than two per cent) investment in women’s health research and an under-representation of women in clinical trials. Investors are also taking note of this current sea change, says HIHI.
Frost & Sullivan expects global venture capital funding and investments to go from $1.69million in 2019 to $9billion by 2024. By 2025, the global femtech market is expected to exceed $275billion, according to artizon.com.
Nua ideas in fertility There is also Deborah Brock, who after working in the non-profit and education sectors, became founder and chief executive of Nua Fertility, a fertility health company.
Like many femtech founders, her journey as a founder came out of a more personal journey. “Getting pregnant can be a very isolating experience and can take longer than expected,” she says.
Globally, one in eight couples experience infertility. But in Ireland, this is heading towards one in four. “Growing up, we are taught that getting pregnant was easy. It’s not. It’s hard and can take longer than expected,” she adds. “I know, because myself and my husband became a statistic, and we became one in four.”
She and her husband went through five years of trying naturally, and then what she calls three “gruelling, failed ICSI (Intracytoplasmic sperm injection), a form of assisted reproduction treatment.” This took time, too.
“It was our fourth cycle before we became parents to our beautiful daughter,” she says. It was after the third failed cycle she changed doctors. And this new doctor, she says, involved her more as a teammate. Together they “looked at our lifestyle, nutrition and overall health” and she realised “how important lifestyle changes, nutrition and our gut microbiome is for fertility.”
This includes “the wonderful world of microbes and how important they are for our fertility health” and it was from her own research on this that Nua Fertility was formed.
Since its launch in 2020, the company has brought to market two products, NuaBiome Women and NuaBiome Men, to redress nutritional and microbiome imbalances to help fertility.
The products contain vitamins, minerals and probiotics selected by working with leading microbiome scientists, fertility specialists and nutritionists. Today they are selling online in 13 countries, and Irish chemists like Meaghers’ and health food outlets such as Evergreen Health Foods.
They’re also developing a digital health platform, which she says includes a subscription service giving people contact with experts.
And nua challenges for femtech founders
Fertility health “is still seen as a taboo area” says Brock. And “we are using our brand to normalise this taboo topic.” Her start-up is trying to move “the conversation that typically happens in private and shift it into a more open discussion.”
Infertility is hardly about to go away. Factors here include lifestyle, diet, age and an average sperm count among Western men that has more than halved in the last 40 years. Researchers now believe that all men and women will need some form of assisted reproductive technology by 2045, she says.
The biggest challenges, she says, have included finding a global manufacturer to make their products during lockdown. Another challenges, she adds, is fundraising. Especially as a female founder.
“Only two per cent of women entrepreneurs receive venture capital funds,” Brock was astonished to discover. This is “both alarming and disappointing for me” she explains. “It’s tough enough building and growing your business without having to navigate a fundraising gap because of my gender.”
But balanced against these challenges have come successes. For one, their NuaBiome Women product won the Best Women’s Product at the over-the-counter retail and pharmacy awards. They are looking forward next to fully launching into the UK market, and are raising seed funding to further develop their product pipeline.
And as one Irish femtech founder, at least, Brock is optimistic. “Knowing I turned my struggles into developing products that have now helped other couples is all the motivation I need,” says the Nua Fertility founder.