(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)
What if a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle could be turned into a diagnostic tool that warned of potential medical problems or even fatal diseases? That’s what one young company is trying to prove. One of a new generation of “femtech” companies that are finally attracting serious attention, and money.
Nextgen Jane, an Oakland, California-based startup, is using its technology to determine whether a woman has endometriosis (a medical condition of the uterus that affects millions of women and causes pelvic pain which could in some cases lead to infertility) as well as cervical cancer and other potential medical problems. The company raised more than $9m this past April to fund the further development and clinical testing of what it calls “smart tampons”. The custom-made product – assuming it can one day get Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval – would be worn for about two hours and then placed inside a test tube that’s part of a home kit sent to a lab for testing.
“Every single month during your period, your body is providing you with a natural biopsy when it sheds your endometrial lining,” the company says on its website. “What could we learn if we had the tools to listen? That’s what we’re developing at Jane – a way to listen to the molecular messages from the tissues of your body.”
Nextgen Jane is one of many new “femtech” startups that aim to help solve a multitude of medical issues that have historically challenged women. According to two reports earlier this year in TechCrunch, companies such as Dadi, Extend Fertility and FertilityIQ are among a growing list of startups that are addressing fertility problems such as sperm and egg freezing and storage as well as – in the case of FertilityIQ – providing data-driven research to help their customers find the right solutions, treatments and doctors for overcoming their infertility challenges.
Other startups like Cora, which makes organic tampons and Elvie, which develops “hardware” such as silent, wearable breast pumps and a “smart” pelvic floor exercise, have together raised almost $50m in the past few months.
“In the last three to six months, it feels like investor interest has gone through the roof,” Jake Anderson-Bialis, co-founder of FertilityIQ and a former investor at Sequoia Capital, told TechCrunch. “It’s three to four emails a day; people are coming out of the woodwork. It feels like somebody shook the snow globe here and it just hasn’t stopped for months now.”
Although some market research firms are expecting the femtech industry to reach $50bn by 2025, unfortunately for Ridhi Tariyal, a co-founder of Nextgen Jane, treating female medical issues has taken a backseat to opportunities related to infertility and reproduction. “We wish we could go out there and say we just want to diagnose women’s diseases,” she told Technology Review. But investors have responded with “Where’s the money in that?”
There’s a reason for this ignorance: most venture capital firms are run mainly by men and, according to Lexology’s Emily Gilmore those male investors are still “struggling to understand the value proposition of women-orientated products or even finding themselves too embarrassed to ask further questions around technology based on ‘taboo’ subjects such as breastfeeding or periods.” As venture capital firms continue to diversify and bring on women as partners, will that mean a potential boon for the femtech industry? I bet it will. In fact, I think we’re already seeing it, slowly but surely.