Leading a femtech revolution w/Elvie
On the latest episode of the What’s NEXT podcast, I spoke with Tania Boler, co-founder and CEO of Elvie, about how women’s health has been neglected by the tech industry.
We discussed how a growing number of diverse founders are changing the status quo with the launch of a “femtech” revolution. This new segment of women-focused healthcare companies is predicted to be worth $50 billion by 2025.
Designed for women, by women
While women make up around 50 percent of the world’s population, only 4 percent of medical research is directed towards issues regarding their health.
In fact, Tania said that even after getting a PhD in HIV and teenage pregnancy and spending 10 years of working in the healthcare world, she did not truly understand the issues. It wasn’t until Tania became pregnant that she truly understood the impact a lack of medical research and healthcare technologies has on women’s health.
“So many changes happen to our bodies as women that nobody talks about, and there’s very little research, let alone any kind of technology or innovation to help,” Tania said. “So while I went on that journey, I was increasingly starting to realize that basically all consumer health design for women is dreadful when you compare it to products designed for men.”
In 2013, Tania decided to take matters into her own hands and focus on what she’d identified as one of the biggest needs in health tech for women: the pelvic floor trainer. “The pelvic floor is a key part of our body that’s important as a postural muscle,” she explained. “It’s important for health, for sex, and also for giving birth.”
Yet most women don’t even realize the pelvic floor muscle can, and should, be exercised, with one in three women suffering from pelvic floor issues, such as bladder problems or prolapse at some point in their lives. That rises to 80 percent with women who’ve had a baby.
Despite how common such problems are, the only training solution available at the time required a woman to go into a hospital and insert a painful medical device attached to some electrodes in order to get feedback from a monitor. Worse than inconvenient, for many women the experience was positively dehumanizing.
“For us it was about taking that kind of biofeedback device that existed in the hospitals, which relied on quite out of date technology, and replacing it with ideas from sports tech,” she explained. “So we used sensors like a tri-axial accelerometer, which can measure the motion of the pelvic floor, to miniaturize all this into the Elvie trainer, which is just a small organic looking pod.”
The portable device, which is about the size of a small battery pack, connects to a user’s smartphone via Bluetooth, and delivers real-time feedback on her current performance and progress – just as you’d expect with any other sort of fitness tracker or training regimen.
“Like everything that we do at Elvie it’s about changing the technology into something really cool and fun, so that users actually want to interact with it,” Tania said.
Despite the initial skepticism from many potential investors, the Elvie trainer was a huge commercial success. It received an endorsement from influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow, and was recently launched in 300 pharmacies across the United States.
It was also quickly adopted by the medical profession. The UK’s National Health Service, for example, is now prescribing the trainer for certain patients.
“The success that we’ve had over the last couple years has obviously been bolstered by the fact that there’s so many other players in this kind of feminist technology movement that’s going on,” Tania explained. “Five-year- ago, the word ‘fem-tech’ didn’t exist. But now there’s more female investors who understand more that this is a real issue for consumers, and we’re beginning to see things snowballing.”
This shift in the tech industry’s focus leads to something of a virtuous cycle, as the growing number of fem-tech companies like Elvie are able to both seek and attract female technologists. “We’re a majority female company, and what we’ve done, which has worked quite well, is to draw from a pool of women who maybe haven’t got a background in tech,” she said. “But as long as we think that they’ve got the aptitude to learn, we’ll bring them in and train them.”
The world’s first silent breast pump
Tania’s next challenge was re-inventing what she describes as one of the worst pieces of technology designed for women – the breast pump.
“It was like something from the Dark Ages. It’s this horrible architecture with this huge motor, so it’s very very noisy,” she said. “So what we managed to do with the breast pump again is to start with a completely blank piece of paper. We asked ourselves, ‘what would the dream breast pump look like if you just ignored what currently exists?’ What if it could just be so small and silent that you just put in your bra, you let go, it does the work for you, and you can control it through an app?”
Given the size of the market for breast pumps, expected to reach $3.5 billion worldwide by 2024, the real surprise is not so much that Elvie managed to achieve all this in the creation of the world’s first silent wearable breast pump – but that no one had bothered to try before.
In a vivid demonstration of Elvie’s aim to free women from the constraints of bad design, the device launched at one of the last places you might expect to see a breast pump: on the catwalk of London Fashion Week last September, worn by model and new mother, Valerie Garcia.
“Women are just using it in so many different ways,” Tania said. “We have doctors who literally operating in theaters while they’re pumping. We have women running marathons. It’s empowering women to be the mother they want to be and be the woman they want to be which is always been our aim.”
To learn more about the rise of female-focused health tech, and the challenges of innovating in the healthcare space, you can listen to the full episode in the embedded player above, or subscribe through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, RSS, or your favorite podcast app of choice.