Brittany Barreto, Executive Director of FemTech Focus, is dedicated to improving women’s health through her work by supporting investment and innovation in the FemTech sector. She sees the women’s health space as ripe for investment due to historical underfunding and underrepresentation in medical research and product development.
Through her three-year-old nonprofit and the venture fund Coyote Ventures that sprang up 10 million dollars from investors incl Bank of America, the Ph.D. in Molecular and Human Genetics is helping to create an ecosystem dedicated to treating conditions that are unique to women, women and girls, or that affect them disproportionately or differently.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MedTech Dive: What exactly is FemTech?
Brittany Barreto: The term was coined by Ida Tin. She is the founder of Clue, a period tracking app. She said it at a conference in New York City in 2016 because she was trying to describe how there are these unique barriers to innovation in women’s health. And just calling it health tech is a disservice because we face so many unique caveats and roadblocks that other medtech companies don’t have to contend with. Essentially, she said, it’s FemTech.
At FemTech Focus, we actually set the definition in 2020 as solutions to conditions that exclusively affect women, women and girls disproportionately or differently. And so with that definition you now include things like heart disease, which manifests differently in our bodies, or autoimmune diseases, which affect us disproportionately.
Why is the time right for innovation in women’s health technology?
We believe there are three main reasons why FemTech is on the rise now. First, over 90% of our founders are women. And that’s a really interesting statistic because it’s not a requirement to be a woman to start a women’s health business. But it is mostly women who start these companies.
What we’re finding is that the rise of women in STEM and finance has led to an increase in the number of women’s health companies founded. Most of our founders are engineers or software programmers or medical professionals, or investors or business professionals, women who are fed up with the status quo and now have the skills to do something about it.
And then the second reason, COVID has really shown us all that not everyone gets the same healthcare based on your race, your zip code. Then when we add things like gender or sex, people started saying, “Oh, I heard about that,” and so it’s easier to talk about the fact that you can go to the same hospital, but depending on who you are There are various health services available to you.
And then, historically, women have been excluded from scientific research and healthcare innovation because they failed to balance their hormones. But now we live in a world with AI drones on Mars and are able to take hormone fluctuations into account.
What is FemTech Focus doing to solve this problem?
We have two missions. The first is to raise awareness of the need for gender-responsive innovation in healthcare. and [the second] is to support the founders with innovations in this area. We do this through four main mechanisms. We have a podcast, virtual community, market research reports and events. We have an annual summit. I’m often asked to contribute some thought leadership around the markets. And we have the largest database of FemTech startups and exits and publish reports on market size, activity and trends.
Part of our mission to help founders innovate in space is to connect them to funding opportunities. Therefore, these heartfelt introductions, educating founders on fundraising strategies, assisting with their pitch decks, and also the market research reports we publish are helpful to founders in fundraising. And then also useful for investors to convince them that they should invest in FemTech.
Are there many grants for FemTech startups?
No, it is very limited. Less than 4% of all VC dollars went to women’s health. Less than 1% of all life science investments have gone into women’s health. So does the government: Less than 11% of the NIH budget is dedicated to women’s health. Similarly, of pharmaceutical research budgets, less than 4% is devoted to research and development for women’s health. And that compares to 2% of the total R&D budget going into prostate research. So overall female health is 4% but just the prostate alone is 2% to give a sense of the inequality there. So yes, the funding is pretty abysmal.
Why has women’s health been overlooked and underfunded in the past?
At least among investors, decision-makers are predominantly male. Investing is part logic, financial models, valuations, etc. But it is also part intuition. It has to be a deal that investors are genuinely excited about and personally believe in. Society has essentially discouraged women from speaking out about their health issues, labeling them taboo or inappropriate. We can’t talk about our periods, we can’t talk about our urinary incontinence, we can’t talk about breast milk leakage, all these things are meant to be kept secret. It has resulted in male investors, to some degree, never having heard of these things. So if they think a problem doesn’t exist, they wouldn’t necessarily invest in a solution to that problem. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t get funding from VC.
And for the government, we don’t have an institute for women’s health. So when you try to do research on women’s health, you often turn to these institutes [to] for grants say you need to include men in your study or “why only focus on women?” They see it as limiting.
What about the big medical and pharmaceutical companies?The trend we’re seeing now with Fortune 500 pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device companies is that they’re essentially waiting for the founders of FemTech to get FDA approval, and then they’re going to acquire that asset. They’re not really innovating in-house anymore, they watch and headhunters and then acquire that drug, device or diagnostic at the time of FDA approval, which is actually pretty cool because it leads to faster femtech exits. If you’ve started a FemTech business in the last 10 years, your average time to exit is only four years. The national average for a technology company exit is eight and a half. The reduction in time to exit is because our biotech companies do not also need to have a go-to-market or commercialization strategy.
What product innovations are there under the FemTech umbrella?
One is called Bloomlife. It is a motherly home monitoring device. Instead of women having to go to their obstetrician during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester, when they only have to walk 15 minutes at a time to have their blood pressure checked. Instead, it’s a home monitor that can track fetal heartbeat, maternal heartbeat, blood pressure — all that good stuff.
Another is called the Kegg, which is a cervical fluid monitoring device. In women trying to conceive, one of the signs of fertility is thickened cervical fluid, or mucus. When the woman wakes up, she will insert this little device into her vagina and it will scan her mucus. The app displays results related to their fertility. They have been very successful.
Another, Bloomer Tech, wanted to study women’s heart health and created what looks like a sports bra with sensors inside. When women may have problems with their heart, they can wear this bra to collect all data about their heart while living their life. Increasing the amount of data we have on women’s heart health will greatly contribute to new solutions in the future.
What other challenges need to be solved in the field of women’s health?
We have some problems. One of them is who will pay for this? Because there has been such a dearth of solutions, there is a dearth of billing codes for solutions. What we find is that our founders often ask the government to create new codes.
About a decade ago, due to the lack of billing codes, founders brought their products directly to the consumer. [but] all branding was aimed at wealthy white women because that was the only person who could afford it. So, there’s this really big push in FemTech right now, so are you innovating for the Medicaid patient? Are you innovating for the Black woman? Are you innovating for the rural woman? Billing codes play a big part in this. So we need the government and our insurance companies to pay for this stuff.
Another issue we have is censored ads. Erectile dysfunction can happen anywhere. But you can’t say vagina, breastfeeding. It is based on the platform’s ad policies. What is happening is that our founders, companies and all of their social media accounts are being completely wiped out. Their years of content, years of followers, just deleted overnight, or they create this huge PR plan and then they go out and it gets blocked. So we have a big problem with censorship.
Last, but not least, is research. If you look at cell lines that we use in basic scientific research, 75% of our cell lines are male cells. And most scientists don’t consider sex as a variable in their experiments. We have this systemic problem of training scientists not to question the gender of their experiments and what we might be missing. There are potential drugs that might work in women that we are not promoting. Then when you move on to the next phase of research, it’s animal models. It’s even worse. Now 95% are exclusively male animal model studies.
What are the prospects for the FemTech sector?
These are such good prospects. It’s an industry guided by passion and fantastic values like inclusivity, diversity and accessibility. It’s just burned right into their DNA, which is what makes me so excited about our success. I don’t expect this to be an industry where we need to retroactively innovate for black women or retrospectively innovate for brown women. We’ve made that a priority from the start. Women’s health is not a niche. We are 51% of the population. We now control a lot of financial capital and are big decision makers in the healthcare system and in our families. We have calculated that by 2027 the women’s health market will be worth $1.1 trillion. It is this huge untapped market that has the potential for huge capital gains. I see it as the next wave of healthcare.