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The rise of femtech in 2020: how startups are breaking taboos

By Eve Upton-Clark

Jul 16, 2020

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Human rights

Jul 16, 2020

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Being one of the top 10 words of 2019, as reported by The Guardian, the concept and evolution of femtech is one still shrouded in misunderstanding and controversy. While some argue that as its own distinct category it allows for dedicated attention to a historically under-prioritised sector, others point to the divisive and sexist nature of the term, with no comparative ‘mentech’ industry.

Whether you are male, female or non-binary, chances are you text, call, FaceTime, use Google, Spotify and social media; technology is essential to our everyday existence in the digital age regardless of your genitalia. So why the need in 2020 for a designated ‘female’ technology sector?

With 49.5 per cent of the global population as its target audience, femtech, or female technology, refers to software, diagnostics, products, and services that use technology to improve women’s health. From your first period and attempting to navigate a tampon, all the way to menopause, women’s health is complex, messy and can often lead to gaslighting or misunderstanding by doctors as a result of lack of research. The market is saturated with products that cater to the needs of men and their erections, underappreciating a potential customer base of half the population.

Regarding the issue of chronic pain, 70 per cent of those affected are women, yet 80 per cent of pain studies are conducted on male humans or mice. Another study has shown that women tend to feel pain more often and more intensely than men, with biology and hormones suspected to play a role in this inconsistency.

With this in mind, an era where the healthcare industry is making significant movements in the development of personalised care solutions that acknowledge the inherent biological differences between men and women is something to be celebrated. With $800 million of funding going into femtech startups in 2019, The Frost & Sullivan 2018 report estimates the femtech market potential as “$50 billion by 2025.”

With the opportunity for clinical diagnostics, bio-pharmaceuticals and medical device companies are tapping into this ever-growing market, with some established companies already making waves within the tech sphere. Some clear winners include OUI, a non-hormonal contraceptive technology for women developed by Copenhagen-based Cirqle Biomedical. The non-hormonal alternative to birth control is a capsule that once inserted, rapidly dissolves and releases the formulation for protection within a minute that lasts up to 1 day. This eradicates the toss-up between protection from pregnancy and the unknown, and often unpleasant, side-effects of hormonal contraception.

Another is Coroflo, a medtech firm based in Dublin that has created the first breastfeeding monitor, which tracks exactly how much milk the baby is getting, and directs the data in real-time to the mother’s phone. This allows a deepened understanding of a mother’s body and its capabilities. Also with the female body as its focus, Spanish startup Gazella has revolutionised the fitness app to sync with women’s menstrual-cycles, creating targeted training plans with women in mind.

Focusing on sexual wellbeing, the femtech startup Emjoy, founded in 2018, offers audioguides to help women explore and expand their sexuality through pleasure awareness practices and sessions of autoeroticism as an alternative to the often male-centred world of pornography.

As well as the obvious personal benefits these technologies promote, they are also proving to be hugely beneficial for the scientific understanding of women’s bodies, which historically has been grossly under-researched. Period-tracker app Clue has discovered from its data that women’s hormones differ in East and West Germany. As well as this, sexual health and wellness tracker Lioness has established three different types of female orgasms from their data collection, which they title ‘ocean’, ‘volcano’ and ‘avalanche’.

While all this sounds hugely positive, the femtech industry is not devoid of criticism and controversy. Accusations of sexism, issues of ‘pink-tax’ and trans-exclusion are among some criticisms that the industry has to contend with. “Welcome to the world of 21 st century technological advancements, where brand new innovations give us the chance to… create exactly the same stupid sexist divides all over again,” writes Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill.

Although these are valid and necessary concerns, it is easily arguable that the positives outweigh the negatives in this debate. Rather than evolving as a marginal sub-category, femtech is demanding space and attention to a sector that should have always been a major focus. Despite odds and resistance, the progression and possibilities of the femtech industry are opening up the conversation around the traditionally taboo topic of ‘women’s problems’ and giving them the attention and resources that they have always needed and deserved.