In early May, Giant held an event which focused on tech innovation for women’s health, bringing in a wealth of female entrepreneurs. Those assembled took the opportunity to create an open and forward-thinking space to discuss the future of femtech. Among the activities of the day were a series of panel talks, illuminating everything from driving inclusion in health tech to personalised health.
Policy and Funding for Women’s Health Tech
The first panel was ‘Policy and Funding for Women’s Health Tech’, which shed some light on the recent advancements in health tech, and the areas where culture is the biggest threat to innovation.
The panellists listed six of the most exciting advancements in health tech:
The panel also discussed the challenges surrounding areas that are considered socially taboo. It is an uphill struggle to achieve any advancements in areas that people are extremely reticent to even talk about, such as incontinence and infertility. However, that does not make these areas any less important, meaning that as a culture, we need to break down these barriers and start the difficult conversations, so that effective health tech can grow and help the people effected.
Big tech opportunities in advancing patient care that were highlighted during the talk were mental health areas, in particular those pertaining to women; such as postpartum depression. The reason this is such a large area of opportunity is because it is currently so woefully underserved and underfunded.
Exploring smart technologies for the ageing population is also an interesting area of potential growth in healthtech. Smart technology provides a plethora of tools for enabling better out patient care, however, there is a large portion of the population who do not know how to interact with this kind of tech. Therefore, looking into how to make this tech usable to elderly people is a big problem to tackle.
Epigenetics and Personalised Health
The second panel discussed ‘Epigenetics and Personalised Health’, explaining how the unique differences in our genetic code can impact our reaction to treatment, and how our code can effect fertility health.
The panel highlighted the importance of putting your genetics together with the other factors which could be affecting your health, such as your environment, and building a more holistic view of health and wellbeing.
Epigenetics can help practitioners and patients to understand why some individuals are more predisposed to certain conditions than others, and by establishing these differences in genetics, treatment can be more effectively tailored to the patient, instead of applying a one-size-fits-all policy to medicine.
Overall the panel stressed that health should not be separated. For example, we talk about mental, fertility, lifestyle, and physical health and having a healthy environment, as if they are all separate entities. But this approach is very limiting. To get a clear picture on an individual’s health, everything must be taken into account, from their genetic code all the way to their lifestyle.
Diversity in the Data Set
The next panel, titled ‘Diversity in the Data Set’ examined the importance of diversity in data and how diversity – or rather the lack of it – effects the scalability of the data collected, and the relevance of the data collected then has to apply to specific communities.
By taking a data set, generalising it, and then attempting to apply that to a specific community, you are setting yourself and your data up to fail, because the odds are high that the generalised data does not actually reflect the community. Without diversity in race, age and gender, the algorithm will not work properly for any community that does not reflect the data set used. Overall, there needs to be a huge amount of input for the best, most accurate results.
For example, heart attacks look extremely different in men and women, so if the data to recognise a heart attack has only been taken from male participants, then this data is not actually helpful to women. In fact, it can often be actively harmful to women, as things that should be recognised as symptoms of a heart attack are not, thus causing medical care to come too late.
This point was expanded on as the panellist then highlighted that these problems in diversity start at the very beginning of testing and data collection, as clinical trials are extremely lacking in diversity – even the mice are all male!
Driving Inclusion in HealthTech Solutions
‘Driving Inclusion in HealthTech Solutions’ was the fourth panel, which presented a conversation on the necessity for health tech apps to be accessible to a wider audience than simply the western world. Apps need to not only work to break conversational taboos in cultures, so that important health conversations can be had, but also to tackle environmental and connectivity issues for the hardware and software involved.
For example, an app that works perfectly in London, might not even be able to boot up in the far less connected parts of the world, if the network and connectivity infrastructure simply isn’t there. A consideration also needs to be made for the hardware, as dust-heavy environments can often damage and even break smartphones.
It is a design dilemma then, of how to best tackle creating health care apps that can be used by anyone anywhere. Beyond the issue of connectivity, there is also the barrier of language to consider. AI is not yet competent enough to reliably translate entire apps accurately, especially when trying to communicate important medical advice. Translating apps is often thought not to be cost-effective to companies who are focusing primarily on a western audience, thus there is a huge swathe of the world that barely has access to medical information and help.
When developing an app, is it then best to focus on the differences or the similarities in communities? By focusing on the differences, the tech is more specified and relevant to the intended audience, but less accessible to people outside of that immediate audience. On the other hand, by focusing on the similarities the end product will have a broader reach and be accessible to a wider range of individuals, but it would also lack any real specificity to the individuals interacting with it.
An interesting debate that it’s difficult to draw a single conclusion or clear answer from, but regardless of the difficulty of finding an answer, the question of diversifying health tech is real.
Inclusion can also be driven by diversifying the way that health tech delivers itself, be that via audio, visual or haptic means.
The Rise of the Feminvestor
Up next was ‘The Rise of the Feminvestor’ panel, which, slightly disappointingly, was comprised entirely of men. However, the event on the whole was dominated by women and the panel discussed the importance of diversity in teams and how to continue to close the gap for both the number of female driven startups being invested in, and the number of female investors.
One focus of the panel was the difficulties of getting an investor to invest in a product that has no relevance to them personally, such as femtech to a male investor. However, instead of looking at this from the point of view of the startup, the panel examined the problem from the other side of the table and asked; what can male investors do to better understand a femtech product, instead of simply discarding the pitch.
Interesting points were brought up as one panellist explained that an investor does not need to have dementia to understand that a product which improves the quality of life from dementia patients has potential. Therefore it becomes an issue of education, of investors taking it upon themselves to educate themselves on women’s health tech when it is being presented to them, to keep an open mind, and to speak to the women around them before deciding whether or not to invest.
Along this same vein the panellists discussed how the very language used in investing alienates female investing. By using words such as exceptional, extraordinary and outstanding when describing what investors are looking for in startups, it can estrange women from applying in the first place. The panel observed from their experience that men attempting to start a business never lack confidence and tend to think that they are all of those adjectives and more, but culturally, women are less likely to carry the same kind of aggrandising self-image, despite being just – if not more – competent as the men. Because of this, investors should instead use words like hardworking, motivated and driven, which are less likely to alienate women from the conversation.
During the discussion, stats were referenced from the Boston Consultancy Group, which highlighted the fact that female led startups only receive half the funding of other startups, despite the data showing that female-led startups massively outperform startups that are only run by men. When everyone is thinking the same way, businesses fail, so diversity is vital in business, and then by extension, bringing more women into the sector can only mean good things.
Tech Innovators in Women’s Health
The final panel of the day was ‘Tech Innovators in Women’s Health’, which spoke about the dilemma of collaboration versus competition, and the gender difference in investors.
The panellists shared a number of personal experiences, the majority of them having been inspired by being unable to get the healthcare they needed when they needed it, inspiring them to go on to develop startups to help people like them.
For example, Shardi Nahavandi, Co-Founder and CEO of Pexxi, shared her story of being unable to get a proper diagnosis or treatment for polycystic ovaries, driving her to create Pexxi and develop a way to help other women. Polycystic ovaries affects one in ten women, a huge number of the population, so the fact that it was so difficult for Nahavandi to get proper treatment is outrageous. However, riding in on the wave of female empowerment currently gripping the west, is a host of femtech products making their way to market – Pexxi included – so there is hope that tech innovation, and women in tech, are finally being given the space they need to fill this massive gap in the market.
The panellists also shared their experiences in pitching, explaining that when pitching a femtech idea, it is always made easier by having a female investor on the panel – unfortunately something which is still not very commonplace – however, there are some issues that fall under femtech which transcend gender divides. For example, fertility issues may well have effected the wives, sisters or daughters of those on the investment panel, giving it the personal weight that is sometimes needed to garner belief in the product.
However, it was also discussed that one of the problems with male dominated investing circles – especially when pitching femtech – is that there are always men who, as the problem does not directly affect them, do not think that there is a big enough market for the idea. But this is a problem that investors need to address themselves, as from a business point of view, they are throwing away valuable and potentially lucrative opportunities.
Over the course of the morning, these panels spoke illuminatingly about a range of innovations and sectors in women’s health, providing a stimulating and thought provoking centrepiece to a day filled with pitches and workshops in health tech.
The major takeaway from the day was definitely this: femtech is coming, get onboard or get out of the way.