When it comes to periods, menopause or a myriad other female health issues, most people’s instinct is to keep mum. No longer. The Internet has democratized everything from driverless cars to vacuum cleaners.
Now–finally–it is opening up a market for companies dedicated to female health. And, thanks to them and their products, centuries-old and unjust taboos are being broken.
In recent years women’s health issues have become among the most politicized in the US and beyond.
It was repeatedly pointed out during the global Women’s March on Washington, on January 21, that while male-focused products like Viagra and Rogaine are tax-exempt, tampons and sanitary pads are not. Issues such as contraceptive pills and abortion have risen to the top of cultural-political trenches worldwide.
That alone speaks to an economy led, first and foremost, by men. But it is also redolent of centuries-old taboos surrounding periods, PMT and menopause, among other topics, that have endured religions and cultures for millennia.
It might surprise you, for instance, that women in Japan are still prevented from becoming sushi chefs because of a belief their periods alter their tastebuds. Or, that one of the principle reasons politicians gave to oppose Britain’s suffragette movement, was that menstruating women would vote irregularly.
Now, though, with tech transforming almost every aspect of modern life, a generation of entrepreneurs are aiming to break those taboos–and create sustainable businesses doing so.
In 2011, when Maxie Matthiessen was graduating from Copenhagen Business School, she noticed a significant shortfall in natural, environmentally-friendly products for female health.
Tampons, for example, are usually coated in chemicals and sourced using fertilizers and other products deemed harmful in many other industries.
Inspired, Matthiessen founded Ruby Cup, an eco-friendly menstrual cup company which donated cups to women in Kenya for every product sold. The brand quickly took off. But last year Matthiessen wanted a new challenge.
“After five years I realized there was such a big demand in Germany for more natural products for the female cycle, I decided to start my second company,” she tells Red Herring.
Last October Matthiessen and co-founder Emily J Casey founded Femna, a Berlin-headquartered firm offering “natural products for every stage of a woman’s life.” The pair opened with 50 products–most of which are herbal teas and oils–which Matthiessen admits was “crazy.”
But the need is huge. “Knowledge about herbs is being lost, and in the western world it’s called ‘alternative medicine’,” Matthiessen says. “But 80% of the entire world population uses that for medications.”
Danish research linking the contraceptive pill to depression has confirmed the need for more products catering to women’s health needs. Fortunately, help is at hand.
CBInsights recently released a report detailing over 45 companies in the “femtech” field–a term coined by Ida Tin, founder of period tracking app Clue (also based in Berlin).
Together they have raised over $1.1 billion. That includes big deals by Kleiner Perkins for fertility platform Progyny ($49m) and NEA’s $23m investment in Nuelle.
Flex is a disposable tampon alternative that lasts up to 12 hours. Its founder and CEO, Lauren Schulte, received seed money from Y Combinator, and has become one of the industry’s foremost entrepreneurs.
For her, Matthiessen and others, it is as much about breaking taboos, as disrupting for profit.
“We’ve learned that many women are still “grossed out” by their own menstrual fluid,” she says. “That said, when tampons were introduced, the idea of putting something inside of your vagina was also extremely taboo.
“This shows us that attitudes can change over time. With enough education, I think our society will overcome the deeply ingrained feelings of embarrassment pertaining to our own bodies.”
Matthiessen agrees–and argues that one reason so little change has been made in the past is because of the lack of women at the top of the corporate world. Generating investment, too, has been made tougher by having to explain the benefits of products to men who will never use them.
“Only if we start talking about it, will there be room for innovation,” she says. “What was astonishing to me was why there hasn’t been any innovation within the menstruation industry in so long. Why are there only two products, pads and tampons? There could be much, much more.
“I’m not sure if that’s because, until recently, a lot of men have been heads of these industries…and plus it’s a huge taboo. And part of Femna’s mission is to break the taboo.”
Thankfully, in the Internet companies like Flex and Femna have the perfect taboo-breaking tool. Women can access information about periods and other issues directly and without consulting anyone else.
“If it weren’t for the Internet, a company like Ruby Cup would never, ever have survived,” says Matthiessen. “Because traditionally you would have to get into retail to make the product available. How do you create awareness about a product that’s only in retail?”
Schulte, a former Silicon Valley marketer who plays down any sense of rebellion in her mission, says that she learned to be a lot more direct in how she marketed Flex’s products to young women who were socialized to accept just one or two options for menstrual health.
“I’ve never had to get so personal when selling a product in Silicon Valley,” she says. “In my current role, I’ve had to publicly and frequently talk about my 15 year battle with yeast infections, and how my vagina was out of commission for 50% of my life.
“I’m not a particularly bold–or vulgar–woman, but I learned that if I wasn’t specific, our messaging was too vanilla. “A safer and more convenient alternative to tampons” doesn’t cut it.”
It should come as little surprise that Matthiessen is already looking to expand Femna’s product range. She is looking specifically to menopausal remedies, which are chronically lacking.
Being based in Germany should help, too: it is the biggest market in the world for medicinal herbs, at 36% of the market and $1.6bn in size. “The Internet gives great opportunities to smaller businesses that want to bring more alternative or innovative products into the market, that are not so super-traditional.”
Now that femtech is no longer an unknown, the possibilities for disruption are varied. Celmatix recently unveiled a genetic screening for reproductive health, so women can be informed about their ability to conceive.
Sexual health and wellbeing is another area that is moving beyond the traditional sex-shop trope. Unbound is a subscription-based toy service. Nuelle and Sustain both provide a range of stimulants and lubricants.
All of which means that not only is there a greater awareness of products like Flex and Femna–but that women have a chance, for the first time in centuries, to take full control of their menstrual cycle, and tailor products to suit their specific needs.
“There are certainly different obstacles that a founder will have to overcome if she’s selling a taboo product,” Schulte says. “But in my experience, if your market opportunity is huge, and your business is strong, it’s not difficult to attract top investors.”
Femtech is here to stay. Talking about the female cycle will not remain taboo for long.