Does femtech have a place in Southeast Asia? (Deeper #29)

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In honor of International Women’s Month, this edition is dedicated to half of the world’s population—the alleged better half.

Just (half) kidding.

Jokes aside, being a woman is hard. You get cramps, you go through regular hormonal changes, and you’re the only human subset that can perpetuate the species. All of these things simultaneously define you and are used against you.

Growing up a woman is a journey I can only define as confusing and filled with contradictions. And the mysteries of womanhood are only made more bewildering by the taboos that shroud it. That’s why I was extremely heartened to find out that there was such a thing as female technology—femtech if you will.

Femtech refers to technologies that cater to our unique needs. Imagine that, an entire vertical dedicated to eliminating my period cramps!

Of course, femtech is so much more than that. The sector is still young; parallel with the growing recognition of our differences and needs. While there’s still room for development, especially in Southeast Asia, I thought it would be good to do a deep dive on the more-than-just-a-trend of femtech.

TL;DR

  • What’s femtech?
  • The femtech opportunity
  • Women’s health solutions
  • The women-driven startups leading the charge in Asia
  • The bumpy road ahead

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Femtech is the application of technology to women’s health. It addresses health issues unique to women, such as periods, menopause, sexual wellness, reproductive healthcare, and breast and cervical cancer. Some conditions also affect women differently and more commonly. For instance, more women suffer from Alzheimer’s and exhibit signs of depression and anxiety as compared to men.

Some applications of femtech include period-tracking apps, AI-powered chatbots-slash-fertility gurus, and subscription-based gynecological health kits.

Most consider femtech as a subset of healthtech, but the category is continuously expanding into other domains like workplace regulations and gender-bias advertising. This means that the future of femtech may one day encompass a broader description of women’s needs.

Now, I know what you’re thinking—why single out females?

While it might seem counterintuitive to single out females and effectively exclude non-females from the picture, it’s important to note that the goal here is not to exclude but to empower. While women make up half of the global population, we’ve long been left out of the conversation on health and wellbeing.

In the US, women “of childbearing potential” were not allowed to participate in clinical trials until 1994 because there was a chance of causing birth defects. While companies were developing Viagra to address erectile dysfunction, women’s health issues were considered taboo. In fact, even menstruation continues to be described in euphemisms rather than straightforward language to this day.

It’s only recently that we’re beginning to understand that there are sex-and-gender-based differences when it comes to disease. For a long time, heart attacks were perceived as a predominantly male affliction—but research shows that an equivalent number of men and women die from heart disease. Fewer women are treated for it because women actually experience heart attacks differently, and there isn’t enough awareness among communities of this fact.

Ida Tin, the founder of period tracking app Clue, coined the term femtech to start the conversation on women. This terminology creates more visibility on important social issues in a sector that has historically been overlooked.

Placing the focus on women also doesn’t make non-women less important. Just think of when people were trying to override the #BlackLivesMatter movement with #AllLivesMatter.

And while there’s still a lot to be said in this regard, FemTech is starting to gain traction.

The global femtech sector is still relatively young, underserved, and grossly underfunded. A 2020 study by data and research company PitchBook found that women spend an estimated US$500 billion in gender-specific medical expenses every year. And yet, only 4% of total research and development targets women’s health issues.

In 2019, the sector received US$592.1 million in VC investment. Compared to the overall healthtech sector, which accrued around US$7.4 billion in 2019 (and has since ballooned to US$14 billion in 2020), that’s a small chunk.

The lackluster funding can be attributed to the lack of sizable exits by femtech companies, but it’s not all bad. Total funding for the femtech industry since 2014 crossed the US$1 billion mark in 2019. There were also six femtech exits that year, with the total exit value increasing 64% since 2018.

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The US also saw its first femtech company go public in 2019. Fertility benefits company Progyny raised US$130 million and exited with a market value of US$1.3 billion. The company’s stocks doubled within eight months after its IPO.

The growing number of women in tech, increasing awareness of women’s unique health needs, and the rise of gender-specific ailments are driving the industry forward. The global femtech market is estimated to reach a market value of US$53 billion by the end of 2027.

Some speculate that Covid-19 may serve to accelerate femtech, as it prompted people to take better care of their health and wellbeing. People are also less inclined to visit hospitals during this time and are becoming more comfortable with remote healthcare. This is evident in the rise of telehealth. Women will likely continue conceiving during this period, which opens up doors to femtech solutions that can help them manage their pregnancies remotely.

Is femtech viable in Asia?

In Asia, there’s a huge opportunity for femtech considering women’s health is still stigmatized in many parts of the region. In very conservative societies like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, sex is still considered taboo, and women get little to no sex education throughout their lives—even until they’re married. This makes reproductive health a huge issue. Pakistan, for example, sees some of the highest rates of unsafe abortion in the world.

Even in Singapore and many parts of Southeast Asia, sexual health still isn’t something you can bring up at the dinner table—maybe especially at the dinner table. This is concerning when you think about the number of women who have unwanted pregnancies or contract sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) because they didn’t know how to prevent them. Both scenarios are easily preventable with the right resources.

Technology has the capacity to address these issues and better serve women’s needs. There are typically three types of femtech solutions:

  • Diagnostics. Technology that can help detect symptoms of deadly diseases in an innovative way, whether through software, hardware, or wearables.
  • Therapeutics. These are evidence-based interventions to manage health issues, disorders, and diseases.
  • Digital health. This includes the use of computing platforms, connectivity, software, and sensors to create medical apps and software to improve our ability to deliver healthcare.

These can be applied to a number of sub-verticals:

Reproductive health

These are technologies that can help women take better care of their reproductive health. Applications like period trackers can help women understand their cycles and keep track of their fertility cycles. It can also alert them of any potential abnormalities, like polycystic syndrome.

Pregnancy and nursing care

This refers to new technologies that aid women in pregnancy and nursing. For example, smart hygienic breast pumps that can help women track pumping and feeding sessions.

Pelvic and uterine health

These are innovations that can help women alleviate pelvic and uterine-related pain, such as cramps, vaginal bleeding, nausea, and dizziness. There are tools that also help women strengthen their pelvic floor, such as guided kegel trainers.

General wellness

There are a number of startups that provide a holistic approach to empowering women, particularly when it comes to their reproductive health. This can be anything from a blog to an online platform to help bring women together.

While Southeast Asia still lags behind the West in femtech adoption, startups are emerging in the region to tackle these challenges.

Maya: Bangladesh and Singapore

Maya, a Bangladesh- and Singapore-based telehealth startup, is using natural language processing and machine learning technology to power a digital assistant. This digital assistant can answer basic health-related questions and determine whether a user needs to be redirected to a doctor.

Founder and CEO Ivy Huq Russel created Maya as a response to the lack of sex education in Bangladesh. The stigma attached to reproductive health made it difficult for women to seek help and ask questions. According to Maya’s website, its digital assistant answers over 10,000 queries everyday, including those from men.

The startup recently raised US$2.2 million in seed funding, which is reportedly the most funding received by a Bangladeshi healthtech startup. And the company is looking to expand its platform to accommodate a global audience.

HPV screen kit | Source

Ferne Health: Singapore

Ferne Health is reportedly the first online sexual platform in the country that offers at-home health screening kits for women to test themselves for common STDs. Users also have the option of dropping an anonymous question regarding sexual health, which will be answered by one of the company’s doctors. The company is fully bootstrapped.

Niram.AI: India

Niram.ai stands for “non-invasive risk assessment with machine intelligence.” It created a software-based medical device called Thermalytix that can detect breast cancer at much earlier stages compared to existing methods. It also doesn’t use radiation for its imaging methods, unlike mammography, which can be painful. The company claims Thermalytix can be used to detect other diseases as well.

The company was also the only Indian company to be included in a 2019 round up of promising AI 100 startups by business data intelligence platform, CB Insights.

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In 2019, the company raised US$6 million in a series A funding round led by Japan-based VC Dream Incubator.

Nyra: India and Singapore

Nyra is a personalized women’s health app created by healthtech platform Vivant. Similar to Clue, Nyra offers women an all-in-one health app to track their menstrual, mental, and overall health. Data harnessed from the app offers insights into the reproductive health of its users, which the app uses to provide personalized health, hygiene, and fertility advice.

Nyra is the first business-to-consumer (B2C) product under Vivant’s women’s health brand. Vivant plans to expand to other femtech sub-verticals as well, including pregnancy and post-pregnancy care, such as re-entering the workplace.

Ease Healthcare: Singapore

Ease is an online platform where women can easily access contraceptives and have them delivered straight to their doorsteps. The platform also offers prescriptions and prescription renewals, emergency contraception, and sexual health consultations at an affordable price.

Founder Rio Hoe said the company has been seeing a lot of “positive feedback” and organic growth on their social media platforms. She plans on expanding Ease Healthcare’s services to at-home STD test kits, fertility, and other reproductive healthcare products in the future.

The startup is fully bootstrapped and seeking external investments to fund future projects.

Portable CTG | Source

Sehati TeleCTG: Indonesia

Sehati TeleCTG is a Jakarta-based maternal healthcare startup that provides medical assistance to mothers and children in remote areas through low-cost and portable cardiotocography (CTG) devices, a tool for recording fetal heartbeats and uterine contractions during pregnancy.

Unlike traditional CTG devices that are usually expensive and only usable by licensed practitioners, Sehati TeleCTG’s devices are simplified, cost-effective versions that enable real-time data capturing. The output data from the machine is routed to a gynecologist at a hospital, who can then analyze the data and provide feedback to the midwives.

The company hopes to empower midwives across the country to digitalize their practice and deliver better healthcare to mothers in remote areas. Sehati TeleCTG raised US$50,000 in 2016 from California-based Pegasus Tech Ventures.

Hannah Life Technologies: Singapore

Hannah Life is an at-home fertility treatment that can help infertile couples naturally conceive. Their proprietary technology guides more sperm towards the ovum through microenvironment optimization, and serves as an affordable alternative to fertility treatments available today such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IVI).

The company is backed by Y Combiator—the American seed startup accelerator famous for backing Strip, Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit—and has received US$2 million in seed funding. It has yet to launch its product.

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While femtech is a promising sector, driven by the sheer need for better women-focused health products, services, and technology, the path naturally won’t be easy.

The VC funding scene is largely still male-dominated, and pitching to male investors who do not personally identify with women’s health issues will remain a challenge. KrASIA reports that only 12 active VC firms out 34 in Southeast Asia had one or more female partners in their investment teams. Golden Equator Ventures (Singapore) and RHL Ventures (Malaysia) notably have three female partners each.

There are also apprehensions about femtech products and services receiving “pink tax,” which is a strategy of private companies to market their products to women at higher price tags compared to generic counterparts.

However, the forecast for the femtech industry is still optimistic. There is a growing awareness on women’s health, not just by women but by men and other non-gender-conforming communities as well. And as healthtech continues to grow and more female-driven companies exit, it will naturally demand the attention of investors the world over.

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