MUNICH — Most investors just don't understand what it's all about — and so the scenario almost always plays out the same: Sophia Yen enters a room full of venture capitalists, almost all older men, and starts to explain to them something about a woman's period. "They find that a bit disgusting," she says. "Viagra companies, on the other hand, get five million."
The Californian doctor goes to such meetings to raise capital for her young company Pandia Health. The pitch for Pandia Health goes like this: After a quick online examination, birth-control prescriptions go out and the contraceptive is delivered to the customer's home. "No more worrying about not making it to the pharmacy in time," says Yen. "It's a huge market."
Her startup belongs in a market dubbed: Femtech, that is female technology, innovations specifically aimed at women, which are often health products for the female body. For years, startups and venture capital were dominated by men and were therefore mainly concerned with men's issues, the sector is waking up and discovering the needs of women.
Femtech was one of the themes discussed at this year's South by Southwest festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. And according to investor Tracy Warren, who was among the speakers in Austin, Femtech is already a $200-billion market. Warren's fund, Astarte Ventures, exclusively finances companies that concern themselves with the health and wellbeing of women and children. "It's a billion-dollar opportunity."
Graduation ceremony for FemTech in South Africa—Photo: FemTech/Facebook
For years the industry lay fallow. There are many reasons for this. One of them is that Femtech companies are often founded by women. And women found startups much less often than men. Also, once they have passed the first threshold and decide to start a business, it's much harder for women to get venture capital than for men.
Most investors are men. In 2017, start-ups run exclusively by women raised just $1.9 billion of the total $85 billion raised in venture capital — that's 2.2 %. And when it comes to such topics as menstruation, it becomes even more difficult to find some funding.
"Health products for women can be a delicate matter. You have to talk to investors without them feeling uncomfortable," Warren says. "How do you do that when a lot of men already can't handle it when the word vagina comes up?" Her advice is to argue with numbers: Market size, growth opportunities and so on. Female startup founders must also prepare themselves extremely well and should only approach investors who have already financed similar products — and keep doing it. "Frustration regarding financing kills many good companies," she adds.
We're telling them when to have sex.
Still, there are real signs of change, even among the largest venture capital firms. The fertility app Glow, by Paypal co-founder Max Levchin, has received funding in 2013 from prominent Silicon Valley investors Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund. The specialist for artificial insemination and other fertility services, Prelude, has raised $200 million, while Lola, a tampon subscription service, has received $11 million.
There are now companies that sell breast pumps with Bluetooth and Internet connection or tampons equipped with sensors that tell you when it is time to change it. Over the previous three years, a total of $1.1 billion in venture capital investments went to Femtech companies, the market researcher CBI had found in mid-2017.
Still, many challenges remain. Advertising for Femtech products, for example, is not easy, says Lauren Constantini. Until recently, she was head of Prima-Temp, a company that helps women with contraception or getting pregnant. Prima-Temp continuously measures the customers' body temperature and sends them an alert on their smartphone when they are most fertile. "In principle, we're telling them when to have sex," Constantini says. "This leads to surprising hurdles as far as marketing is concerned."
Google's ad service Adworks bans several words that Prima-Temp needs to explain its business model. And investors also declined as soon as they heard the idea — it sounded like a niche product to them. "It's just a female thing," she was told. "A female thing?" she replied. "We're half the population."