The rise of femtech
Smarter cycles, clever contraception and orgasm strength training: boy, is it a good time to be a woman. Welcome to the digital revolution
Technology is finally focusing on female health: from period and fertility trackers to pelvic-floor empowerment
How does this scene sound: it’s that time of the month and you’re just starting to feel mild irritation at, well, everything when a text from your boyfriend lights up your phone. He wants you to know he’s taking care of dinner tonight. He’s cooking your favourite pasta and has even picked up a block of dark chocolate for later. You smile, not a bit surprised or suspicious. After all, he’s this intuitive and supportive every month. Why? Because not only are
you tracking your cycle right down to your micro moods via a sophisticated smartphone app, he has access to your monthly data, too.
No, we’re not imagining a utopian future; as users of period-tracking app Clue will attest, this sweet scenario is already a reality. It’s just one of the many ways a new breed of female-focused digital health products, from apps to wearable devices, is aiming to enhance our everyday lives. In fact, the sector has snowballed so much that it has its own catchy name – ‘femtech’ – and Us-based research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts it will be a $65 billion market by 2025. Yep, women’s wellbeing is the next big thing in business. And no matter how you slice it, that means big things for women.
Wondering how we got here? We don’t blame you – innovations in women’s healthcare have been a little thin on the ground since the pill arrived back in 1961. That’s not to say we haven’t been hungry for it. When the digital health market exploded around 10 years ago
(hello, activity trackers, mindfulness tools and health-based apps – when it comes to the latter alone, there are a mind-boggling 325,000 to choose from), women welcomed it with open arms. According to Frost & Sullivan, we’re a whopping 75 per cent more likely than men to use digital healthcare products.
So, it’s kind of crazy to think that female-centred tech products (aimed at half the population, no less) are still considered a bit niche. That mentality is what prompted
Clue’s founder and CEO Ida Tin to give the sector an image makeover. “I was at Techcrunch Disrupt in San Francisco in the autumn of 2016 and was disappointed to see that products that supported female health were scattered around the exhibition hall, looking lost and out of place, while entire areas were dedicated to groups like fintech [innovations that improve traditional financial services] and cleantech [products designed to positively impact the planet],” Tin recalls. “I knew immediately that in order for these products to be taken seriously, the market needed to be defined, so I suggested that we should begin to call ourselves a ‘femtech’ company.”
The phrase hit just as a fresh wave of female empowerment (think Pussy Power and #Metoo) began encouraging women to talk more openly about their bodies and rights. Fast-forward to 2018 and femtech, including period and fertility trackers, sexual wellness products, pregnancy and nursing care, period care goods and more, is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the tech industry, Tin notes. “When it comes to the future, investing in and building femaleled, female-focused tech isn’t just a step towards gender equality, it makes business sense,” she says.
Body of work
If you have a period-tracking app on your phone, congrats, you’re already part of the femtech movement.
But keeping up with Aunt Flo is just the beginning. Sign up with Aussie start-up Liverpool St and you’ll get a personalised supply of tampons in the mail every month. New mums adore Naya, a smart breast pump that automatically logs sessions. Then there’s Bellabeat, a stylish necklace that tracks sleep, cycles and stress. And if you’re keen to come off the pill, meet Natural
Cycles, Kindara or Daysyview, apps that pair with sophisticated thermometers to help you pinpoint when it’s time to get baby-makin’ – or avoid it, depending on your goal.
After being overlooked for so long, women’s health is ripe for innovation. Take pelvic floor exercises, for example. You probably know you should do them, especially if you’ve had a baby or tend to leak a little when you box jump (more common than you’d think). But Kegels are hard to visualise, which makes it difficult to get into a routine.
Enter Elvie Trainer: a small, pebbleshaped device that’s inserted like a tampon and syncs with an app to give you real-time biofeedback on gamified Kegel workouts.
Elvie’s co-founder and CEO,
Tania Boler, says she developed the device for the one in three women who experience pelvic floor issues (stronger orgasms are just a bonus). “It can be difficult to exercise a muscle you can’t see, or even stay motivated without the ability to track your progress,” Boler explains. “We wanted to combine the best in medical technology with innovative design to create a product that makes pelvic floor training easy and fun, with results in just a few weeks.”
Even period tracking, which started well before the digital age, has scored an upgrade with intelligent algorithms that provide almost-uncanny predictions and expert health resources. For 35-year-old customer service manager Melissa Doran, Clue has been a game changer in managing her polycystic ovary syndrome.
“The app has helped me understand when my period is heavier than normal, what my hormones are doing and what side effects I have,” she explains. “It really helps to normalise things that happen during that time of month.” That’s mission accomplished for Clue. “Using data to understand [your cycle’s] patterns makes you feel more empowered, and consequently better equipped to make changes that best work for you,” says Tin.
Take a casual scroll through the flash websites for femtech products and you’d be forgiven for thinking they can do everything but cook you dinner. One thing they may be missing, says Dr Deborah Bateson, medical director at Family Planning NSW, is strong scientific evidence. “I think it’s fantastic to be looking to the future and seeing how we can make a difference to people’s lives, but we need to make sure there’s good evidence behind them,” she warns. And that’s where the femtech bubble starts to burst. When it comes to fertility trackers alone, a 2016 study published in
Obstetrics & Gynecology found that just three of the 33 apps tested by researchers accurately predicted the fertile window in an average 28-day cycle (give it up for Clue,
Mydays and Period Tracker).
Accuracy might not be a huge deal if you just want to keep a cursory eye on your mood swings over the month. But if you’re using an app as birth control, it quickly becomes a KPI. Natural Cycles, the first app to be approved for contraception in Europe, claims its predictive algorithm, based on basal body temperature readings, puts its reliability on par with the pill –
Women are 75 per cent more likely than blokes to use digital tools for healthcare. Source: Frost & Sullivan
around 93 per cent under normal use. But it hit headlines earlier this year when a Swedish hospital lodged a complaint after 37 Natural
Cycles users sought abortions.
While Natural Cycles says this failure rate is in line with its promises, it was a wake-up call for women who have put blind faith in technology.
“There’s a false sense of security in it – women need to know there are those inherent failure rates,” says Bateson. “What Natural Cycles doesn’t come with is a tutor, so if a woman and her partner wanted to take up one of those fertility awareness methods, I would always refer them for specialised training.” (Check out a directory of training services over at the Australian Council of Natural Family Planning’s website, acnfp.com.au.)
Bateson agrees that, used perfectly, Natural Cycles and similar products such as Daysyview or
Kindara have impressive efficacy rates. But the catch? They require next-level dedication. You’ll need to take your temperature every day, resist unprotected sex on fertile days and in some cases get intimate with your cervical fluid. Natalie
Kavo, a 27-year-old skin therapist who recently swapped the pill for
Kindara and its Bluetooth-enabled thermometer, admits it’s not for everyone. “This would be such an effort for some women, but I’m super committed to my health and I knew I would be consistent and stick to it,” she says of her decision. “I’ve felt a little confused [about whether] I’m ovulating or not and what my cervical fluid is doing, as it’s so foreign to me to track this stuff, so my boyfriend and I have to be careful. But the more months that pass, I’m becoming more in tune with my body and I find that really liberating.”
Every time you download an app and start tapping in personal details, you create something of huge value: data. Exactly what the makers of femtech products are doing with this precious resource varies wildly. Brazilian think tank Coding Rights recently warned users of period-tracking apps that their personal details may be sold to third parties, so skip the fine print at your own risk.
There is potential for your data to be used for good, however. Clue is sharing its users’ info – stripped of any identifying factors – with a range of academic institutions to research female reproductive health, while Elvie uses anonymised data for similar internal research purposes. This, says Tin, is where everyday women can make a real difference. “The more women there are using these apps, and generating unprecedented amounts of data, the more we can learn about ourselves and our bodies,” she argues. “When we look at past studies on women’s health, the sample size has been very limited. Now that we have massive amounts of data, we can look at trends on a much larger scale and really help move the field forward.”
And that’s exactly what makes femtech so exciting: mind-blowing developments are coming in hot. Just one case in point: Stillbirth Foundation Australia is currently developing a wearable device with US company Bloomlife that will monitor babies in utero, not only to slash stillbirth rates but to map a detailed picture of pregnancy that will provide valuable insight for women and their healthcare providers.
The biggest femtech breakthroughs, however, may just be happening closer to home. “For many women, using Elvie Trainer is the first time that they’ve really thought about their intimate health, and that opens the door for them to start having honest conversations about their bodies and experiences,” says Boler. “We hear all the time from our users how it has changed their relationships with their bodies and themselves.” True pussy power, indeed.