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

Women's Health Australia - - NEWS - By Penny Car­roll

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.

Ladies first

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.

Los­ing track

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.”

Data dan­ger

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.

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