Focus on femtech: New journey towards women’s health

Several platforms are coming out with tech-enabled, consumer-centric solutions to address women’s health issues.

Focus on femtech: New journey towards women’s health
One example of telemedicine making a real difference in the lives of people living in remote areas is in the hilly state of Uttarakhand. (File)

It took five years, four medical examinations and several painful scans for Mumbai-based Yogita Singh (name changed on request) to undertake the road to recovery after being detected with breast cancer. Singh was 49 when she first started experiencing severe headaches followed by fatigue. Initially, she was being treated for bacterial infection and indigestion, but a mammography later confirmed breast cancer.

Singh had one of her breasts removed last year. She still takes therapies—physical and mental—and prays for a longer and happier life. “The treatment is very painful and emotional, but I found happiness in a storm,” says the mother of two teenage boys. She will turn 55 next month.

Timely screening can keep women informed about their health issues and even help in the detection of life-threatening diseases like cancer, just as in the case of Singh. Today, women’s health is no longer considered a niche or a mere subset of the healthcare sector. The shift towards enhanced treatment has led to improved health outcomes and newer opportunities for investors as well as companies across the healthcare ecosystem to accept and innovate personalised diagnostics, smart tools, and evidence-based recommendations, which all come under ‘femtech’ or ‘female technology’.

Femtech companies are designated as largely tech-enabled, consumer-centric solutions addressing women’s health, excluding biopharma and incumbent medical devices.

From tracking periods to fertility, sexual wellness, reproductive system healthcare, hormonal disorders, and even screening of cancers, femtech platforms are offering a range of solutions to focus on women’s health.

Healthy growth

Bengaluru-based femtech startup Niramai is a unique blend of social cause and entrepreneurship. “Detecting breast cancer at an early stage and in an effective and safe manner using disruptive AI algorithms can solve massive global problems and Niramai does exactly that,” says Manish Singhal, founding partner of pi Ventures, one of the investors in Niramai.

Niramai has raised a total of $7million from institutional investors from India, Japan and Singapore including Dream Incubator, BeeNext, pi Ventures, Ankur Capital, Axilor Ventures, 500 Startups, and Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal.

The rise of femtech solutions shows a tectonic shift of the Indian consumer’s priorities and women’s increasing financial autonomy, especially during the pandemic, which caught more attention to self-care and self-love. “The focus is now on wellness with sustainability at the core of consumer choices. Social media, apps (such as for period tracking) and the right messaging are other factors which promote more women to shun the stigma related to intimate and menstrual hygiene and make better informed decisions for themselves,” says Deep Bajaj, founder and CEO of Sirona Hygiene, which operates in areas like intimate and menstrual hygiene.

While the sector focuses on solutions that benefit a majority of the world’s 4 billion women, it is also generating a massive market opportunity for venture capitalists and creating impact in the world from a business lens. “Women consumers account for almost half of the population and with women dissatisfied with the existing level of care available, there are countless chances for investors to not only support high-growth firms, but also create an impact as well as profit handsomely. They also have the chance to influence change and diversity in the global venture system by investing in exceptional female and male leaders who will inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs,” adds Abhay Tandon, co-founder, and partner, 3to1 Capital, and an investor in Sanfe, a startup focused on female hygiene products.

“About 71% of girls don’t know about periods until they get it and this statistic is just one example about the lack of awareness,” feels Prashant Mehta, partner, Lightbox, a Mumbai-based venture capital firm building consumer technology and the lead investor in Nua, a period management and intimate hygiene startup.

“Addressing stigmatised topics and talking about gender equality by pioneers in the field has helped create a safe space for women to talk about their personal care and understand how it affects their life. This in turn continues to further fuel femtech evolution because women-led startups not only focus on selling the product but also invest in building communities leading to wellness,” feels Anika Parashar, founder and CEO of The Woman’s Company, which makes an array of organic and biodegradable products ranging from organic sanitary napkins, panty liners, cotton tampons, stand and pee urination devices to medical-grade silicone cups and bamboo razors.

Finding solutions

“Access to information and products in the feminine hygiene market in India is witnessing an unprecedented growth because of rapid urbanisation, rising female literacy and disposable income, awareness and advocacy on issues like menstrual health and hygiene, and access to high-speed Internet. Women are looking for services that make their life easier, that make their menstruating years comfortable and safe,” says Parashar of The Woman’s Company.

Agrees Geetha Manjunath, founder of Niramai, which has an innovative solution called Thermalytix that uses high-resolution thermal sensing device and a cloud-hosted analytics solution for analysing breast thermal images in a completely noninvasive manner. “Healthtech startups focusing on female health issues are now addressing both these issues, thus more impactful,” says Manjunath, whose startup has conducted over 43,000 screenings since its inception in 2016 and has over 50 installations at hospitals and diagnostic centres across 14 Indian cities in partnership with diagnostic chains in India such as Apollo Clinics, Healthspring and HCG Cancer Hospitals. among others.

However, in a country as diverse and unique with different sets of ethos, values, culture and tradition, marketing feminine hygiene products is a challenge of its own. “Menstruation is still a stigma in Indian society,” Parashar feels. Data suggest that less than 50% of rural women use sanitary pads while in urban areas the percentage is higher at around 77%. There is a lack of an empowered and enabling environment in rural communities where women can participate and get relevant information on menstruation, their health and hygiene.

According to a survey conducted by Statista in 2021 among founders and CEOs of femtech firms and organisations globally, three-quarters of femtech founders and CEOs stated period tech, fertility and pregnancy tech as some of the major trends driving the femtech industry. “With innovative technologies targeting menstruation issues, pelvic health, fertility and birth control, sexual wellness, chronic conditions, and general healthcare, the market is poised to grow at a healthy rate,” says Harry Sehrawat, co-founder of Sanfe, a feminine hygiene and period care brand.

Tread with caution

While women-centric products which include at-home diagnostics, trackers, and wearables help women take greater charge of health, a clinical diagnosis by an expert is integral. “In recent times, we’ve ushered in an exciting era of new developments in non-invasive screening for women’s health including reproductive health and cancer. Screening tests play a pivotal role in the early detection of disease onset to facilitate timely intervention and mitigate the risk of complications. Researchers are also developing novel tests measuring certain small molecules found in saliva samples or menstrual blood that can confirm an endometriosis diagnosis. But femtech cannot replace a physician’s diagnostic evaluation and management strategy. It can be used synergistically with personalised preventive health screening to facilitate the early detection of chronic disease onset and progression,” says Dr Sathya Sriram, CEO, Preventive Health Checks, Apollo Hospitals Group.

Therefore, digitalisation helps to an extent, as it can bridge the gap with patients and facilitate the rapidly increasing medical evidence coupled with a decreasing supply of medical experts.

Recently, the ministry of health and family welfare stated that India’s doctor-population ratio is 1:834. So, technology may reduce the hospital burden and help women to know when they need to consult the doctors. Take, for instance, software-based solutions for the early detection of breast cancer. The portable cancer screening tool attempts to replace traditional self-examination methods by being completely automated, accurate, and low-cost. Similarly, CervAstra, an AI-powered point-of-care device for cancer screening, analyses pap smear samples to quickly identify abnormal cells. A mobile colposcope uses a smartphone for cervical cancer screening. It offers an alternative screening modality to the current standard of care, with improved accuracy and speed—returning results in under 60 seconds.

“These can be useful to some extent for awareness and remote virtual consultation with the doctors. This technology may be of some help in spreading awareness for prevention of cervical cancer in the population at large having digital knowledge. These have been used in the western countries in urban populations. The technologies aim to give control back to women by enabling them to get more intimate knowledge of their own bodies,” says Rama Joshi, principal director and head, department of gynae oncology and robotic surgery, Fortis Gurugram.

However, femtech apps are not governed by legislation as they are not run or owned by healthcare providers.

Joshi feels such products of large corporations are free to mandate their own policy subject to minimal regulation. “Such lacuna in the law makes it convenient for these apps to continue their use of data without facing any legal repercussions. Most of the apps are not registered as medical devices. They are also unregulated. So these technologies should be used under the guidance of doctors after checking proper authentication of the app/products. These technologies cannot be a replacement for screening, diagnosis and treatment by doctors,” adds Joshi.

BOX ITEM 1

GLOBAL FEMTECH MARKET

* How big is the femtech market?

The global femtech market size was estimated at $5.1 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $5.6 billion in 2022

* What is the femtech market growth?

The global femtech market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.1% from 2022 to 2030 to reach USD 13.1 billion by 2030

* What are the factors driving the femtech market?

Evolution of the smartphone industry; rapidly improving internet connectivity; growing health consciousness; awareness of the unmet healthcare needs of women

(Source: Grand View Research)

SOME NOTABLE PLAYERS

* Sirona Hygiene: Founded in 2014 by Deep and Mohit Bajaj, Sirona makes intimate and menstrual hygiene products

* The Woman’s Company: It makes an array of organic and biodegradable products ranging from sanitary napkins, panty liners, cotton tampons, stand and pee urination devices, medical-grade silicone cups and bamboo razors

* Niramai: It has developed a novel software-based medical device to detect breast cancer at an earlier stage than traditional methods or self-examination

* Tia: New York-based Tia is a platform offering both brick-and-mortar services and virtual women’s health tools

* Always You: It is a menstrual health brand founded by Ariana Huffington’s Thrive Global. The app is designed to help you track your periods each month and features health advice and expert-backed articles, videos, and activities

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.

Photos