Lots of tech companies are born out of inconvenience — not being able to download a decent film, order a good takeaway, or hail a cab — but Elvie was born out of rage.
The startup, which sells consumer-friendly medical devices for women, was co-founded by Tania Boler after she became frustrated by women let down by bad tech in healthcare.
“I was driven by a sense of anger,” she told Business Insider. “Five years ago, so much femtech (technology aimed at improving women’s health) was badly designed. Previous breast pumps were painful and difficult to use. Some women have told me that, when they used them, they felt like cows.”
Boler holds a PhD on teenage pregnancy and HIV in South Africa, plus degrees in experimental psychology and international educational policy. Her background is in campaigning for women’s health, and she was previously the global director of research and innovation at Marie Stopes International.
Boler has channelled her rage productively, with Elvie announcing a $42 million funding raise on Tuesday. The startup was founded in 2013 with Jawbone founder Alexander Asseily, and has raised $50 million in total. In a nutshell, Boler said “Elvie creates products to improve the health and lives of women everywhere, at all stages of their lives.”
Currently, Elvie sells two products. One is the Elvie Trainer, a pelvic floor trainer and app that is now used by the NHS. The wearable device enables women to undertake daily five-minute exercises that strengthen their pelvic floor muscles, with the accompanying app providing feedback in real time.
The other is a silent, wearable breast pump, which Elvie claims is a world-first and makes it possible to pump anytime, anywhere. A companion app lets women monitor pumping progress and pause pumping when the bottle is full.
But for Boler, products are not simply solutions to technical problems. They are also solutions — or, at least, partial solutions — to societal problems. “Because there isn’t a broader conversation about women’s health, so many women are suffering thanks to bad tech,” she said. This is exacerbated by a lack of female founders, she added.
Boler explained: “In tech, if you’re creating a new category of product, as we are, you need to educate the market, especially when it’s taboo. Women can suffer from embarrassment around these issues, especially in the UK. One study [by the UK government in 2016] found that 80% of British women who wanted to breastfeed had to stop before they were ready to do so, and now feel miserable about it.
“As a society, we’ve struggled to accept the duality of womanhood. When it comes to womanhood, there are two sides of the coin: Sexuality and motherhood. That’s why public breastfeeding is so taboo. Our society struggles below the belt, too, with vaginas. Even now, women can’t go to certain places if they’re menstruating.
“We live in such a PC world that we don’t want to talk about the fact that men and women are biologically different; women have periods and menstrual cycles. But because lots of tech startups are led by men, they lack awareness of what it’s like to be a woman.”
Startups, in general, remain startingly male-dominated. Less than 1% of venture capital funding went to startups run exclusively by women, according to a report by the British Business Bank for the UK government. Or to put it another way, for every £1 pumped into the tech industry by VC companies, less than a penny went to female-run firms.
These stats are especially incongruous when compared to femtech’s rapid growth. According to market research firm Frost and Sullivan, the femtech industry is expected to reach a market size of up to $50 billion by 2025. Elvie’s own annual revenue run-rate has tripled over the past six months, and it is expected to grow a further five times by the end of the year. Yet, for Boler, femtech’s boom is no surprise.
“When I was with the UN, some of the governments I worked with were frustratingly slow to innovate,” said Boler. “Pelvic tech, for example, was awful and barbaric — it was only used in hospitals. My idea with the Elvie trainer was to turn this horrible hospital equipment into something that can be used at home. As soon as you offer something decent, it can go viral.
“The world is seeing a feminist surge. If you can bridge the gap and turn something neglected into something cool, your business can move forward very quickly. Our breast pump was featured on the catwalk at London Fashion Week 2018. The female consumer has a strong multiplier effect, too, because she tends to care for both children and the elderly.”
What about Elvie’s future, then? How does Boler plan to keep it surfing the feminist wave? And, more immediately, what will it do with that $42 million?
“We want to use a lot of the new funds to scale up our research and development arm. We’re also planning to launch four new products over the next two years — the details of which I won’t yet provide,” she said. “What I can say is that the products will cover early adolescence all the way through menopause.”
The US remains a key focus for Elvie, given that half the company’s global revenue comes from the country. “Ultimately, though, we want to be the go-to company for women’s health,” Boler added.
She concluded: “You need a deep understanding of womanhood to go into femtech. We’ve had to ignore a fair amount of sniggering from the predominantly male tech community. But Tuesday’s funding is a game-changer for the industry. It’s a real milestone. And, frankly, if investors can’t see the importance of femtech and women’s health, it’s their loss.”
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