The Startup
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The Startup

The femtech start-ups women are talking about

Recently, one sector I have been particularly intrigued by, and has begun to come up in conversations with female friends frequently, is the female technology industry. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the term Femtech was “coined in 2016 by Ida Tin, a Danish entrepreneur who founded Clue, a period- and fertility-tracking app”. It now broadly refers to “electronic devices, software, or other technology relating to women’s health”.

Setting the stage

Before we dive into the specific start-ups, it’s worthwhile to set the stage.

The key stats:

  1. Global femtech industry is expected to be worth $50 billion by 2025
  2. Just four per cent of all healthcare R&D funding is spent on women’s health, yet it represents a yearly economic burden of $500 billion
  3. Despite the above, with more than $1 billion in funding between 2015 and 2018, Femtech is expected to disrupt the women’s health industry in the coming years

Some of the cultural revolution and social trends can’t be captured by the statistics and so I think it’s important to contextualise with the conversations I’ve had with female friends which highlight the demand-side opportunities for femtech start-ups.

The current conversations:

  1. Awareness of the ‘tampon tax’, which means women pay high tax rates on personal hygiene period products is creating a space and demand for sustainable, affordable alternatives — although worth noting that consumer pressure has finally led the UK government to scrap the controversial tampon tax and abolish VAT on all women’s sanitary products from 2021
  2. Health and environmental concerns from chemical and non-biodegradable ingredients in existing products are fueling the demand for sustainable, chemical-free, organic and biodegradable raw material-based products
  3. Alternatives to standard sanitary products, in terms of functionality and reusability, are increasing as women demand better quality and greater choice to suit their individual needs
  4. ‘Gaps’ in innovation for female health, such as pregnancy and breastfeeding products, which have seen little dramatic progress in the past few decades

Creandum, a venture capital advisory firm with offices in Stockholm, San Francisco and Berlin, has a more comprehensive view of the development in the Femtech space thus far, as well as the broader scope of opportunities that exist beyond the focus on sanitary and personal healthcare products.

Overall, however, products which cater specifically to women’s health (including sexual health) and personal care are generating more attention after being overlooked for decades, creating space for truly innovative brands to flourish and cater to a previously underserved market.

Fifteen years ago, when I first started looking for sanitary products, I would never even have considered discussing the options available with anyone I knew, but now, my friends and I regularly debate pros and cons of new alternatives coming to market.

The start-ups

So, now that I’ve laid out the trends in (very) high-level terms, the below lists some of the start-ups which are making waves in the femtech field and which I particularly like. As a disclaimer, this is based primarily on my personal experience and my discussions with friends, family and classmates at Harvard Business School.

1. LOLA

What it does: The company provides a subscription service for period and sexual health products (though it has also recently added multi-vitamins and essential oils) and proudly states that it uses “100% certified organic cotton” with “No toxins, dyes, or synthetic fibres”.

Most recent funding round: the company raised an estimated $24 million of Series B venture funding led by Alliance Consumer Growth on April 30, 2018, putting the company’s pre-money valuation at $80 million, according to Pitchbook.

Strengths: the company is certainly aligned with the trends noted above, and its flexible, subscription-based model allows consumers to adjust the products and frequency they want while creating consistent revenue for the company. The clean branding and transparency on ingredients work well with its DTC model, and at $28 for its ‘Period Bestsellers’ subscription set (12 x pads, 12 x liners, 18 x tampons) it seems to be reasonably priced for its offering, if rather on the high-end of products currently on the market.

Jury’s out on: I am not quite sure how the company’s foray into multivitamins and essential oils complements its current products. Yes, they are related, but my conversations convinced me that not many people think “multivitamins” at the same time as they shop for sanitary products. The company has also focused on creating a ‘better’ version of the current sanitary products on the market rather than reinventing the wheel (as some of the other companies below are doing), so it is questionable whether they will be able to protect their business and brand from the likes of Always and Tampax (owned by P&G).

2. Elvie

What it does: the company uses smart technology to develop products such as an app-connected Kegal trainer to strengthen the pelvic floor with real-time biofeedback and a silent, wearable breast pump.

Most recent funding round: the company raised £32 million through the combination of debt and Series B venture funding in a deal led by IPGL on March 29, 2019, putting the company’s pre-money valuation at £66.45 million, according to Pitchbook.

Strengths: the company is truly utilising tech to revolutionise the breast pump and kegel exercise equipment market and its products have been widely recognised and lauded for their tech and novel features. Also, the Insights app feature for Elvie Pump, which tracks the total time spent pumping, aggregated milk volume pumped, and the rate of milk expressed for each breast is helping women better understand and evaluate their pumping data, empowering them to address any changes they may need to make.

Jury’s out on: the price is definitely out of range for many mothers and the product is very dependant on each woman’s specific needs. A few of my friends who are mothers noted that the pump was sometimes a little too weak to be appropriately used, so perhaps the tech has some way to go to be truly refined. On the Kegal trainer, the main barrier to adoption is education — despite the millennial move towards understanding our bodies better, few women are well-versed in the importance or need of pelvic exercises. The direct-to-consumer distribution channel is also up for debate and my friends noted they often go with the doctor’s recommendations on these, and so perhaps a doctor-led distribution approach would be more appropriate.

3. Thinx

Before we dig in on this, I must confess that I am a bit biased on this one as we recently studied it in our strategy class at Harvard Business School and I promptly spent $150 on “period underwear”, for the want of a better phrase, for me, my sister and my mom.

What it does: Thinx offers period-proof and pee-proof underwear. The website states that “Every pair is made with a patented design that’s moisture-wicking, odour-controlling, super-absorbent, and leak-resistant.” The company offers products in three ranges: Thinx (BTWN) (for younger girls and teens), Thinx (the standard range), Speax (for older women).

Most recent funding round: Pitchbook states that the company received $25 million of Series A funding from Kimberly-Clark on September 17, 2019, putting the company’s pre-money valuation at an estimated $75 million.

Strengths: As far as I can tell, it is the only period-proof underwear on the market and several friends are die-hard fans.

Jury’s out on: the cost — the underwear is prohibitively expensive for many, and I also hesitated before spending $40 on a single pair of underwear. To become mainstream, the trialability of the product needs some work. The company hasn’t quite sorted out their international distribution as I still need to pay customs and other charges when getting the product delivered to London.

4. Billie

What it does: offers shaving supplies and premium body care products for women, with a focus on quality, toxin-free products. The company offers a subscription service for razor blades and a ‘Pink Tax’ rebate focused on giving women the opportunity to ‘earn back’ the tax they pay on products which are the same as those for men but marketed to women.

Most recent funding round: the company had raised $35 million to date before it was acquired by Procter & Gamble for an undisclosed amount on January 8, 2020.

Strengths: the mission-driven approach to body care products, including the ‘put body hair on-screen’ project has won the company accolades by magazines and millennial consumers everywhere. The product is also well designed and the subscription service, which you can choose, helps with the ‘recurring’ revenue model all investors love.

Jury’s out on: whether this is a ‘company’ or a stand-out product. P&G’s acquisition certainly put Billie on the map and with a solid brand behind it, the company is well-placed to grow, however, the rest of the products (including body lotion, face cleansing wipes etc.) in the range offer little differentiation or unique target market appeal. There is also little focus on becoming a truly one-stop-shop for all women’s shaving needs, like Harry’s (the men’s shaving and grooming products start-up with unicorn status) has done.

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Asha Tanwar

Asha Tanwar

Growth investor and HBS grad, writing about all things tech, startups and post-MBA life. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @ashatanwar_