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Why we need femtech

Women’s health and wellness needs are unique, and often under-represented in mainstream healthcare. A few companies are changing that

Conversations around feminine hygiene, sexual wellness and female-specific disorders are often off-limits in many parts of the world
Conversations around feminine hygiene, sexual wellness and female-specific disorders are often off-limits in many parts of the world (Bloomberg)

Siddhi Pandey, an assistant professor of economics, always had a regular period. Then, in March last year, it all changed. “I started experiencing irregular periods after the covid-induced lockdown and work from home began,” she says. So, she turned to My Calendar, an application that helps women track their menstrual cycle, including ovulation and fertile days. “I wanted to assess the extent of irregularity to determine whether there was reason to worry,” says Pandey, who has never used an app to track her period before this one.

Period apps like My Calendar are perhaps the best-known segment for femtech, a relatively recent umbrella term for products and services that use technology to cater to women’s needs, specifically those concerning health and wellness. While mobile phone apps that keep track of fertility and pregnancy account for more than 50% of the femtech market, the term, first coined in 2016 by Ida Tin, co-founder and CEO of menstruation-tracking app Clue can be applied to multiple tools, wearables and applications that focus on general health, wellness, fertility, pregnancy, sexual health, female pleasure, feminine hygiene, diseases, and more.

A September 2020 report, published by Dublin-based market research store, Research and Markets, points out that the global femtech market generated a revenue of $820.6 million in 2019 and is estimated to grow at CAGR 12.65 per cent, reaching over $3.04 billion by the end of 2030. Currently, there are over 200 femtech start-ups globally, most of which are run by women, points out the same report. However, “despite having huge potential, the femtech industry is still immensely underfunded, accounting for only 1.4% aggregated capital that flows into healthcare.”

Dr Shubhra Jain, who is on the advisory board of the FemTech Collective, one of the largest global networks for people in the women’s health tech industry, points out that femtech companies are often perceived as niche with a relatively small market. “This is not true. It is close to 50% of the world’s population; that is far from niche,” says the San Francisco-based Dr Jain. One challenge the industry faces is this: considerable gender imbalance in the investor community. “It is hard to pitch a femtech opportunity to a bunch of old men in the room who don’t understand the need for the product,” says Dr Jain, a physician and active investor in global healthcare technology companies, adding that this speaks of a broader inequality and underrepresentation of women in workplaces.

Another big challenge—and this one is consumer-driven—is a lack of trust in digital health products. “Building trust in the digital world is very difficult,” agrees Rajan Navani, Vice Chairman and Managing Director of JetSynthesys that recently launched Woloo, an app that helps women locate the nearest Woloo-certified washrooms. Some of these worries can be justified; countries worldwide are waking up to the power of technology and the need to regulate it. Femtech apps, too, rely on highly sensitive data, a breach of which could have serious consequences. In 2019, for instance, the health tracking app, Maya, came under scrutiny when British-based privacy watchdog Privacy International claimed that the app was sharing confidential information with third parties. The claim was refuted; however, the fact remains that data protection laws aren’t universally strong.

A Woloo Women's Powder Room developed by the company in Thane
A Woloo Women's Powder Room developed by the company in Thane

“Data collection practices play an important role in providing better app performances through analytics, in innovation, research and is a necessary component of the technological industry,” points out Shefali Mehta of The Dialogue, a Delhi-based research and public policy think tank. However, in India, the data governance frameworks are at a nascent stage. “At present, in the absence of a functional personal data protection bill, this control is rather limited owing to scattered and insufficient legislation in the area,” she says.

In India, personal data is governed by the Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011. A Personal Data Protection Bill, which could change the way data is viewed and handled in India, is currently under consideration by a parliamentary committee, says Mehta. “Developing and promoting strong certification standards for data security infrastructure can also help win back the trust of the consumer while facilitating widespread digital awareness programmes can create more educated and informed users of femtech apps,” she adds.

If trust is one challenge, fighting taboo is another: conversations around feminine hygiene, sexual wellness and female-specific disorders are often off-limits in many parts of the world, including in India. “Awareness about sexual wellness and feminine hygiene is very low,” agrees Vikas Bagaria, the founder of Gurugram-based personal hygiene and wellness brand, PeeSafe, who has been part of this industry since 2013.

Not being able to talk about products to the larger community limits companies in multiple ways, says Dr Jain. “You are restricted in how and where you can market these products, which hurts the ability to reach the broader population and customer base,” she says. “We are just scratching the surface of this industry and market.”

The need for more and better femtech products is incontestable. Right now, the focus is disproportionally skewed towards period and fertility tracking apps; this negates or fails to acknowledge the other conditions a woman goes through, says Evelyn Immanuel of Bengaluru-based femtech startup My Ava, an app that helps women deal with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). “Women go through a plethora of conditions from puberty to menopause and beyond. We are biologically very different (from men),” says Immanuel, who holds a degree in biomedical engineering, adding that women’s health has largely been ignored through the ages. Most drugs, for instance, are tested on men but not women.

The period and PCOS-tracking app developed by My Ava, a Bengaluru-based startup
The period and PCOS-tracking app developed by My Ava, a Bengaluru-based startup (Google Play Store)

Technology products that acknowledge this would go a long way towards helping women lead a better life. Pandey, who has been using My Calendar for 8-9 months now, admits to being satisfied. It is pretty easy and intuitive to use, she says, adding it allows space for taking notes on overall health, energy levels and moods right through her cycle. “Things have significantly changed since I started tracking my period,” she says. For instance, her anxiety about her period has reduced significantly. “I can measure the irregularity, and it is usually very low: 1-3 days on either side of the expected date,” she says. It also helped her manage PMS better, she says. “My mental health has improved,” she says, adding, “I wish I had started tracking my period earlier.”

Preeti Zachariah is a Chennai-based educator and storyteller.

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