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Do You Know What Femtech Is? I Didn’t

February 10, 2021
by Ke'ala Akau

A recent Forbes article introduces three woman-owned startups that are innovating in the world of women’s health by “bringing the next generation femtech products to the market.”

Quick quiz! Do you know what femtech is? Me neither.

Here are some clues about the three companies highlighted in the story:

  • Breathe ilo, according to Forbes, sells “the world’s first fertility tracker that uses breath analysis to identify a woman’s ovulation pattern and fertile window …”
  • OCON Healthcare created the IUB Ballerine, advertised as the first 3D intrauterine device (IUD) to provide a “long-term, reversible, hormone-free contraceptive method replacing 2D traditional T-shaped IUDs” that may also be used to deliver other drugs or substances to the uterus non-invasively, with the potential to treat other health conditions.
  • Eli is a startup developing “a hormone-tracking product designed to be used at home” that the company says will provide a user with their hormonal profile and fertile days with precision.

As I read the article, I noticed that all three startups have something in common. Did you notice it too? I was struck by how each product catered primarily to women’s reproductive and sexual health as opposed to any other aspects of women’s health or the health of women more generally. I wondered if all femtech products focus on women’s reproductive and sexual health. To determine that I first had to answer: What in the world is femtech? Well, as you likely deduced, femtech, short for female technology, is a rapidly expanding industry at the intersection of technology and female health. As defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, the term “femtech” refers to “electronic devices, software, or other technology relating to women’s health; for example, software that records information about menstruation and fertility.” Ida Tin, CEO of Clue, a fertility tracking app launched in 2016, is credited with originally coining the term and described femtech at a 2018 panel as “any technology geared toward improving women’s lives.” By 2024, global femtech market revenue is expected to reach $1.1 billion.

Sounds good, right? But one look at a breakdown of product categories shows the femtech market currently dominated by products that cater to reproductive and sexual health. You may be asking yourself, “So what? Femtech products can improve the lives of women, can’t they?” Sure, and this is a worthy goal! Tin and other industry leaders in the femtech world assert that their technologies aim to give users more control over their health and lives while also advancing scientific knowledge and research about women generally. One supporter argues that this technology also “helps to destigmatize women’s reproductive and sexual health, whose gender-specific needs have long gone underserved.”

I noticed that all three startups have something in common. Did you notice it too?

I agree! But hang with me here. What does it mean when femtech and the money and attention these companies generate become synonymous with reproductive health?

Now, I am not contending that femtech companies and products are less valuable. Only that the current context of femtech limits our understanding of what “women’s health” means. Because, while reproductive and sexual health are vitally important aspects of a woman’s health, there are many other concerns about the health of women that must be addressed, including issues tied to broad swaths of biology, psychology, and medical treatments. For example, women are more likely to develop depression and anxiety, die following a heart attack, and to relapse into substance addiction after a quit attempt. Furthermore, women remain underrepresented in studies of cardiovascular disease and cancer, the two leading killers of women in the United States. These are just a few examples of why WHRY supports research that seek to improve the full spectrum of women’s health needs, as well as to addresses sex-and-gender differences that create unique health concerns for women and men alike. We are making steady progress, but medical knowledge specific to women still trails behind knowledge we have about health process in men.

This knowledge gap exists due to policies that perpetuated the historical exclusion of women from many important scientific studies. It was not until 1993 that Congress passed a law that required National Institutes of Health-funded projects to include women in their study populations. Today, a stark example of the ongoing challenge to include women in experimental trials can be found in the lack of guidance for pregnant or lactating women regarding the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

So, yes. Let’s celebrate and support efforts to expand treatments and products concerning women’s health. But we need to look beyond limitations suggested by the current marketing opportunities described as femtech. By continuing to equate women’s health solely with reproductive or sexual health, we lose sight of many other important health issues women face every day. As the field of women’s health continues to grow, we must ensure that we investigate and support all of it.

Ke'ala Akau is a fellow with Women's Health Research at Yale and a junior in Branford College majoring in the History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health. Read more on her blog: "Why Didn't I Know This?"

Submitted by Rick Harrison on March 31, 2021