Femtech: Right time, wrong term?
The meteoric rise of the label “femtech” to describe technology products, apps and hardware addressing women’s health and wellbeing issues divides opinion.
While some say it helps the sector secure vital funding from male-dominated venture capitalists, others argue that it unnecessarily pigeonholes women’s health.
So, does it help or hinder?
I’m sitting in a trendy meeting room in central London, holding in my palm a little device that looks like a pale green egg with a tail.
It’s a smart pelvic-floor trainer from Elvie – a vaginal device that syncs with an app via Bluetooth, so you can follow work-outs on your phone.
The start-up’s chief executive, Tania Boler, reels off a list – which will be familiar to many women – of all the things that can go wrong if you lack a strong pelvic floor.
“I mean, one in three women deal with bladder problems,” she says.
And then, she adds, there’s “prolapse problems, lower-back problems, sex problems…”
I shift a little in my chair.
The British start-up has become a poster child for the rise of femtech.
From period trackers to breast pumps, the term encompasses menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, breastfeeding and fertility – one often-quoted report predicts femtech could become a $50bn (£40bn) industry by 2025.
You could argue: what’s taken so long?
And $50bn sounds like a lot. But when you consider that it’s a sector that, in theory, targets almost four billion women – roughly half the world’s population – suddenly it seems quite modest.
Facebook alone, for example, has a membership of just over two billion people and is worth more than 10 times that figure.
“I think in the future when historians look back, it will seem crazy that until [recently] there had never been a technology term for women,” says Ms Boler.
Femtech has only caught on as a term in the past few years. And not everyone is convinced it will be beneficial in the long run.
Suw Charman-Anderson is the founder of Ada Lovelace Day. It marks its 10th anniversary this Tuesday and commemorates the woman who many consider to be the world’s first computer programmer, as well as celebrating others who have been successful in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths).
She fears femtech could become a double-edged sword.
“If it evolves into just being tech, that’s fine,” she says.
“It only becomes a problem if it becomes something that only female VCs [venture capitalists] invest in, that only female entrepreneurs work on, that only women buy.”
But Ms Boler is convinced the term opens up opportunities – not to mention purse strings.
“People thought we were completely crazy. I mean, this is an intimate device,” she says, recalling the early days.
“And obviously, we’re mostly pitching to male investors. And it’s a women’s health issue that nobody talks about. So everybody said, this is going to be impossible – you’ll never get celebrities to talk about this. You’ll never get it into retail.”
Well, you can now get the trainer in department stores, and Elvie’s other product, a silent wearable breast-milk pump, made it into the 2019 Oscars’ swag bag.
In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez recounts the story of Janica Alvarez, who was seeking funding for a breast-pump device in 2013.
“I’m not touching that; that’s disgusting,” she was told by a male investor.
Would the word “femtech” have broken down that barrier?
While Ms Boler is enthusiastically on-message about the femtech brand and has certainly benefited from it – Elvie has raised $42m this year – she does also have some reservations.
“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need femtech because 51% of the UK population is women,” she points out. “It’s definitely not niche.”
Femtech and fertility
Critics of femtech also cite the inclusion of fertility issues under its brand as a problem.
According to the NHS, one in seven couples face fertility problems. And while 25% of issues remain undiagnosed, the cause can lie with either men or women.
“If you’re looking at having babies and helping people figure it out, then that is not just a female problem, it’s a family problem,” says Carolina Milanesi, an analyst from Creative Futures.
“Why should it just be labelled a female solution?”
“To be honest with you, just saying femtech makes me cringe a little bit,” she adds.
“When it’s about men and men’s health, it’s not mentech, right?”
Melanie Hayes is an investor whose firm, Bethnal Green Ventures, avoids the term.
“My biggest concern with femtech as a label is that it is used for people to say, ‘Oh, I don’t do that’,” she explains.
Ms Hayes cites an example of one of her own recent investments – a social network that helps people in casual work source better working conditions, pay and flexibility around commitments such as caring and childcare.
“While those kind of products are not femtech, and were certainly never pitched to us in that way, we can’t ignore the fact that the users of the services that benefit disproportionately are likely to be women, because they are most affected by those issues,” she says.
“I’m really interested in technologies that are around healthy lives, a fairer society, and a more sustainable planet. I think femtech could easily touch on each of those things.”