Technology trends for 2018: Femtech

Would you trust an app to be your contraceptive? From period tracking to Kegel muscle training, femtech is set to make the lives of women easier…

Technology has become a staple of modern health and wellbeing. Wearable devices measure our heartrates and chart the calories we’ve consumed and burned, while apps patiently remind us of our next doctor’s appointment and even send scathing notifications when we neglect our squat routine.

Despite this, specific aspects of women’s health have been underserved by tech – until now. More and more entrepreneurs are launching intelligent products which innovate the way women address contraception, periods, maternity, fertility, sexual health and more – creating a new sector known as femtech.

The earliest glimmers of femtech were seen in 2013; among the first to appear were US-based Glow, an app that tracks fertility and offers community discussions on pregnancy and parenting, and Denmark-founded Clue, which tracks users’ menstrual cycles and whose founder, Ida Tin, is said to have coined the term “femtech”.

Since then, the global start-up landscape has seen an influx of apps and products designed to make women’s lives that little bit more streamlined by plotting out periods, delivering products such as tampons and condoms directly to their doors (start-up L. is leading the way in on-demand ethically-made products), telling them when they’re fertile – Swiss company Ava, for example, has released a smart bracelet which measures nine physiological factors to gauge this – and helping them through pregnancy and nursing.

Today, femtech has expanded to include products which improve sexual wellbeing, target specifically female biology and more. The Fiera, for instance, is a device which aims to increase women’s sex drive, while the UK-founded Elvie is a small gadget which, when paired with an app that tracks progress, helps women train and strengthen their Kegel muscles – and counts Gwyneth Paltrow and Khloe Kardashian as fans.

Even contraception, which previously seemed black and white, has been re-worked at the hands of femtech entrepreneurs. While issues surrounding traditional methods have been hotly contested in the media, Sweden-based entrepreneurs Elina Berglund and Raoul Scherwitzl suggest we replace them altogether with their app Natural Cycles – the first app to be certified as a contraceptive in Europe.

Using a morning temperature reading, the app can decipher hormone levels and reveal whether or not the day ahead is a fertile or infertile one. With perfect use, the method boasts a similar efficacy rate to the contraceptive pill.

Though there are plenty of products out there, the market is by no means saturated, and finance – which has historically been all but unobtainable to many female-centric innovations – is only getting easier to attract. CB Insights has estimated that, since 2014, over $1.1bn has been raised by around 45 start-ups in the femtech sector.

In fact, in March 2017 Chiaro, the company behind Elvie, raised a $6m Series A, taking its total finance to over $11m. At the time of the deal, the business was operating across 59 countries and had grown its customer base by 50% per quarter.

Championing long-overdue innovations that target roughly half the world’s population, femtech is on the rise, encouraging a more open and practical discourse around issues typically regarded as taboo. And with potential applications in less economically developed countries where traditional contraception and feminine products are difficult to obtain, this is one vital trend that promises to boom on a global scale.

How femtech works

Apps which track periods and fertility are typically based on algorithms that learn each user’s unique cycle, giving the added benefit of helping women to learn about their bodies’ processes and better understand how they work as a whole.

According to Natural Cycles, the app’s algorithm uses basal temperature – which indirectly indicates hormone levels – to detect cycle stage and measure whether there is a risk of getting pregnant that day.

Continued use enables the algorithm to learn patterns, and it becomes able to predict when the user will be ovulating, when their period will come, and more. Importantly, factors such as sperm survival rates, temperature fluctuations and cycle irregularities are taken into account, though the start-up says it may not be suitable for those with constantly irregular cycles.

Ava’s smart bracelet has a contrasting purpose – to help women conceive by calculating their fertile window – but similarly uses an algorithm which learns its user’s cycle based on physiological measures.

Ava’s bracelet, which is worn overnight, measures factors including skin temperature, bioimpedance, perfusion, heart rate variability and more; and even includes an accelerometer which measures sleep movement.

Lucie Greene, worldwide director of The Innovation Group at JWT, says: “Trailblazing female entrepreneurs are leading a new wave of fem-centric health tech, creating smart products designed around women’s physical needs.

“Why it’s interesting: For a long time, Big Tech giants largely ignored women as a consumer technology market, but that’s changing. As a market, women represent an opportunity bigger than China and India put together, controlling $20 trillion in consumer spending.

“This new wave of female-led start-ups is creating tech health products with a female-centric, empathetic lens and a refreshing design aesthetic to meet this powerful consumer group’s needs.”