Femtech: Right time, wrong term?

BBC Technology 07 Oct 2019 11:23
By Zoe Kleinman Technology reporter
Tania BolerImage copyright Elvie

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.

And then, she adds, there's "prolapse problems, lower-back problems, sex problems..."

Image copyright Elvie

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.

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.

"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.

She fears femtech could become a double-edged sword.

"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."

"People thought we were completely crazy. I mean, this is an intimate device," she says, recalling the early days.

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.

"I'm not touching that; that's disgusting," she was told by a male investor.

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.

Femtech and fertility

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.

"Why should it just be labelled a female solution?"

"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.

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.

"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."

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Tania BolerFemtechfemtechMelanie HayesZoe Kleinman