With an estimated potential market size of about $50 billion by 2025, femtech is only just hitting its stride, as investors and entrepreneurs realize the value of a nascent industry serving the needs of half the population — in particular, the chronically underserved half of the population. Yet what even constitutes femtech? How does femtech permeate across vastly differing regions and cultures, and to what effect towards respective startups and solutions? The answers to these questions in many regards reflect the progression of women’s rights itself: highly sensitive to regional differences, yet driven by universal struggles and values embedded within these budding ecosystems.
What Is Femtech?
The word “femtech” was coined by Clue founder Ida Tin in reference to companies dedicated to technological solutions for women’s health issues. It encompasses solutions provided via platforms such as apps and websites, deep tech that includes machine learning, big data and AI, and wearable devices such as temperature recording devices. While this meaning has been universally accepted, the interpretation often differs across regions and even among researchers within the same locales. For instance, Frost and Sullivan includes several segments including menstrual health, menopause, fertility and general health and wellness, yet it does not include pharmaceutical drugs and cancer treatments. On the other hand, in the Japanese market, even wearables such as period underwear and biodegradable pads/tampons are considered femtech. Femtech Focus includes all health problems that affect women disproportionately, exclusively or differently when defining femtech, thereby including pharmaceutical drugs and cancer treatments, brain health and cardiovascular problems.
Subsequently, the actual market size of the femtech industry has been a cause for debate at Femtech Focus, a non-profit organization that seeks to create awareness regarding the femtech industry, with wider definitions estimating the market to reach about $1.2 trillion by 2027. The fuzziness of femtech goes beyond mere forecasting of the market size, as the industry adopts divergent characteristics on a regional basis regarding the solutions offered and how it intersects with the rest of the tech world.
Femtech And Feminism Across Regions
The Global North easily leads the femtech trail, as North America hosts 51.9% of femtech companies in the world, while Europe hosts 23.5%.
Source: FemTech Analytics
This should come as no surprise considering Europe and North America have by various statistical indicators made the most progress in gender equality. Yet with surface-level progress comes deeper issues: in North America, for instance, progressives question the inclusiveness of the industry when considering different gender identities. Alternatively, some view the term “femtech” as boxing the sector in as a niche industry unworthy of investment.
Femtech in the Global North often espouses feminist goals of getting women into boardrooms and leadership positions. Yet applied through a global lens, the focus on getting women in leadership positions is likely to empower a few women while still excluding a majority of them. This has manifested in the array of femtech solutions in North America catering to a specific group of people who are primarily white and affluent individuals.
However, regional and sociocultural variations of feminism only explain half the story. The primarily white target audience could also be attributed to normative systemic failures in the health system of the recent past. As Brittany Barreto, founder of Femtech Focus, tells Mondato, there were no billing codes for women’s health issues historically, despite there being a requirement for doctors to bill insurance providers. Without these billing codes, doctors were not motivated to use the tests and technologies provided by femtech solution providers. Thus, entrepreneurs in the femtech industry took the direct-to-consumer route, requiring out-of-pocket payments from users that resulted in high-priced solutions that excluded many. The D2C phenomenon is seen across different companies, including Flo Health, a menstruation tracking app that is subscription-based and requires out-of-pocket payment, and fertility treatment solutions from companies like Modern Fertility that American insurance providers fail to cover. More inclusive femtech companies are emerging, including those aimed specifically at marginalized communities, like Health In Her Hue which targets people of color in North America.
On the other hand, Asia’s different history and approach to feminism has impacted the shape of femtech to have very different areas of focus. Asia’s more prolific history of women in power hailing from political dynasties failed to produce equal gains for remain, which has encouraged Asian femtechs to take a more inclusive approach. In contrast to North America and Europe, Asian femtech solutions are often at affordable cost and tend to target the less affluent in society. Nabta Health, a platform that seeks to help women living with non-communicable diseases, targets women in low-income regions including East Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
In the Asian context, reproductive health and other women’s health issues are often viewed as taboo topics far more than it is in the Global North. Many individuals often learn about their bodies from experience or through hushed conversations with others. A radically different approach to introducing femtech in the region is subsequently required, with solutions more focused on education and creating awareness to help desensitize the masses, as well as discreet options of women-focused healthcare. For instance, Bangladesh’s Maya, a health and wellbeing assistance app, connects users with experts to get advice on their health.
Cognizant of cultural dimensions, many Asian femtechs use language like ‘stigma-free’ on their website, catering to a crucial pain point in the target audience. India-based Niramai, which provides non-invasive technology to test for breast cancer, emphasizes the privacy their solution provides, adding that, “No one touches or even sees you.” Japan is slowly working to break the stigma around the topic of women’s health and wellness with pop-up stores that display products such as vibrators, menstrual cups and period underwear. Though one may find some of these items at a Walmart in the U.S., the pop-up store was described as a “jarring sight” by locals. Japan, after all, only adopted the use of birth control pills in 1999. If the fight for gender equality is culturally relative — so is femtech.
Yet when it comes to femtech business models, undeniable similarities emerge across different regions. They often follow what Brittany Barretto, Founder of Femtech Focus, refers to as the “Femtech Trifecta.”’
““[Successful femtech companies] have three things: They have a good product or service, a community and education… Community is important because oftentimes women feel like they are isolated in the conditions they are experiencing, like they have no one to relate with…[On education] a lot of times women are accepting things that are not normal because they don’t know what normal is.”
Brittany Barretto, Founder, Femtech Focus
This Femtech Trifecta is seen among numerous femtech companies. US-based Flo Health has the app product, a community in the form of a chat function that enables female users to talk with each other through the app, and they also include education by sharing tips and full-on classes delivered by experts in the field of sexual and reproductive health. On the other side of the world in Southeast Asia is Singapore-based Ferne, a company that provides self-testing kits for STDs to women in the comfort of their homes. Ferne has a blog, an FAQ section and an ‘Ask An Expert’ section on their website striving to educate their audience, and it hosts numerous events both in-person and virtually to foster community engagement. Australia-based WellFemme offers information and treatment for menopause-related symptoms and issues through a virtual consultation with doctors. Their website includes educational pieces detailing signs of menopause while describing personal stories on the site’s blog.
In essence, the trifecta combines profit-seeking inclinations with community-focused systems more typical of nonprofits, often utilizing language calling for female solidarity and invoking the shared experiences and struggles of women, as seen with the repeated use of words like “join the movement” and “take back control.”
The Future of Femtech
Investment in femtech has only started to pick up, with funding levels doubling in two years to $2.5 billion in 2021. Yet a major limitation that keeps startups from receiving funding is what Barreto refers to as point solutions for single symptoms to larger issues. For instance, there is no one solution to menopause symptoms, but one may find solutions for different symptoms provided by multiple companies. With a severe lack of research on women’s health, startups end up spending huge amounts of resources on studying single components of different health issues faced by women and how to solve them, resulting in products that inadequately cater fully to women’s needs. However, as research progresses and market leaders emerge, comprehensive solutions will follow.
“There’s going to be horizontal acquisitions. Over the next few years, we’re going to see mergers coming together, and they will [succeed] because they will have multiple solutions under one roof.”
Brittany Barreto, Founder, Femtech Focus
Horizontal acquisitions are already underway early in cases like Ro, a digital and telemedicine healthcare provider, acquiring Modern Fertility, a reproductive health firm, as the early building blocks for robust solutions.
Apart from acquisitions, B2B business models are emerging through partnerships with tech companies outside of femtech. Cleo, a platform that provides coaching on parenting and uses a B2B model, exemplifies the possibilities existing at the intersection of HR and femtech. Cleo works with employers to provide the service to their employees, with the employer benefitting in the form of higher worker productivity and lower turnover rates.
These partnerships with other tech companies often take a regional iteration. For North America, insurtech companies may partner with femtech to make the use of the solutions more affordable and accessible to users. Partnerships to facilitate payments through more inclusive means are also underway. Offering alternative credit to people looking to start families, Future Family provides loans for fertility treatments. Carrot targets employers to supplement traditional employee benefits to also fund fertility treatments, employing a mix of fintech and femtech under a B2B business model.
Surely, femtech has a long way to go before it overcomes the many obstacles that have long gripped women’s health and other areas. Shaking off stigmas from potential users and investors alike, femtech won’t be taking a straight-line path to mainstream acceptance and ubiquity. Like feminism itself, the road to equality and applicable solutions may take quite a few shapes and characteristics along cultural and regional lines. However, anyone who dismisses femtech as merely niche is missing the forest for the trees: a sector potentially catering to the needs of 4 billion people — and at times in the most intimate and liberating ways.
Image courtesy of Christina Wocinternet
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