From menopause to anxiety: the new tech tackling women’s health problems

Apps tracking hormones and a gadget combatting hot flushes are some of the latest innovations in the femtech market, which is predicted to be worth $60bn by 2027

When lifelong worrier Louise Stevenson asked her husband whether her anxiety was damaging, his answer stopped her in her tracks. “He said it had a negative impact on absolutely everything.” It was the prompt she needed to seek help.

Diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, she searched for tech-based tools to complement her therapy. “But I couldn’t find an app that offered what I wanted,” she says. “I was literally scribbling down my worries on backs of envelopes.” So the 41-year-old mum from Herefordshire ditched her job in financial services, created Worry Tree – one of 15 approved mental health tools in the NHS app library – and entered the flourishing femtech sector.

The app, which helps users notice and challenge their worries, is available to anyone, but 75% of her users are women. It turns out they’re twice as likely as men to experience anxiety. Stevenson has now won a place on a new dedicated accelerator, the London-based Femtech Lab, billed as the first in Europe to focus on this sector.

The term femtech, referring to products addressing health or wellbeing issues experienced by women, was coined about five years ago, however “we’ve barely scratched the surface”, according to Pauliina Martikainen, investment director at the venture capitalists Maki.vc. For example, it’s estimated that 1.2 billion women worldwide will be menopausal or postmenopausal by 2030 and almost no one is happy with the care on offer, she says, “creating a massive opportunity to provide better products and services. It has so much potential.”

So what’s new, or on the horizon? For menopausal women, there is a range of tech to assess and treat symptoms – from a bracelet (currently in development) that sends cooling sensations to the wrist to combat flushes, to digital services such as UK companies Stella (an app launching this summer) and Alva which offer consultations, specialist advice, even a virtual menopause coach, and doorstep delivery of treatments. “Companies that manage to build feedback loops can tap into valuable data that can be used in research and to create and validate new treatments,” says Martikainen.

Funding for the sector has soared around the world, she says, rising 171% in the three years to 2019 to reach just under £1bn (£949m/€1.1bn), with particularly strong growth in the UK, where many startups are bidding for their first slice of cash.

Femtech has moved on from the early days when it mainly focused on periods and fertility. Today it incorporates everything from hormonal awareness and personalised fitness to sexual empowerment and the racier “sex tech” – think vibrators designed by women who understand their own physiology, and science-informed sex therapy advice apps. By 2027 the market worldwide is forecast to be worth $60bn, and is expected to grow 16% year-on-year.

Karina Vazirova and fellow femtech evangelist Katia Lang, the team behind Femtech Lab, say fertility, menopause and hormone health (tracking hormones and what that means for how you exercise and what you eat), are some of the fastest-growing areas in this space. “Women are more than half the population, yet we have unmet needs,” says Vazirova. “Many products aren’t designed for women, and many clinical trials favour men.”

But there are risks. Femtech (a term disliked by many) gathers highly personal information about women, their bodies, lifestyles, sex lives, pregnancies and parenting worries. “That is an unimaginable amount of data,” says Jo O’Reilly, deputy editor at digital privacy advocates ProPrivacy. “Insights that would be priceless, but it’s also not the sort of data any woman would want to be shared.”

As internet lore goes, Google knows before you do that you’re pregnant. Only this January one of the most popular fertility and period tracking apps, Flo, settled with US trade authorities (the Federal Trade Commission) over allegations it had been sharing health information with third parties including Facebook and Google. Apps that track intimate health data are “a privacy gamble”, says O’Reilly. “And this is especially true of the free ones.”

However, Helene Guillaume, founder of the startup Wild.AI, which analyses women athletes’ data, from sleep and vital signs through to how they are feeling, says the business is fiercely protective of users’ information. “We are born post-GDPR and data privacy is built in at our core.” Ultimately, privacy is something that consumers can vote on with their virtual feet.

Is there a danger that a growing reliance on sharing-platforms will mean that serious health conditions are missed because women rely more on peer information and remote advice, and become less likely to see their doctors?

Consultant obstetric physician Dr Lucy Mackillop, who’s also chief medical officer at Sensyne Health, argues that more accurate information about conditions and the sense of control that women gain can be empowering for both patient and doctor: “I see the potential – the ‘nirvana’ of an alliance between patient and clinician, with secure data sharing.” She’s not a fan of the term femtech, but says the label does help call out the inequality in investment and research in women’s health.

And remember, say Vazirova and Lang, that most products are created for savvy western consumers, while in rural parts of the developing world, some girls and women still lack basic knowledge about their own bodies. One startup on their programme addresses just this – Aurat Raaj is a tool for girls as young as eight, which provides education about menstrual hygiene and reproductive health – via a local language chat bot. This has already been launched in Pakistan with a view to scaling up.

“In some parts of the world, girls are made to sleep outside when they have their periods – they’re seen as dirty,” says Vazirova. “It’s easy to forget we are in a privileged situation in our lovely progressive techie London bubble. Any tech that can empower women in these situations will do wonderful things.”

Contributor

Helena Pozniak

The GuardianTramp

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