Women’s Health - Finding Cures to Gender Health Gaps and Biases
FemWealth Issue #4
For centuries, and even millennia, medical practice and research excluded women. Until recently, doctors regarded a woman's body as a derivative of the male one. The female reproductive system was a territory to conquest. Female body parts, such as the fallopian tubes, are named after their discoverers. These perspectives still influence medical training and women's access to healthcare.
Biases and stigma around the menstrual cycle, pain perception, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and mental health persist. The hypersexualization of the female torso often hinders the performance of life-saving cardiac massages for cardiac arrest. Misdiagnosis and clinical negligence affect more women than men.
Fortunately, things are changing for the better. Regulators and decision-makers in public health have gained more knowledge of the issues that affect women's health. More women entering healthcare professions also brings more awareness and empathy. FemTech is becoming mainstream.
When Ida Tin coined the term FemTech, she started a revolution. What initially was considered a niche is estimated to be a $50B global market. No surprise, given that roughly 50% of the world population identify as female, FemTech and women’s health are largely untapped. Women make 80% of buying decisions around the health of their families., yet only 13% of CEO of healthcare companies are women. Venture-backed companies also have a representation problem.
In particular, aspects related to women’s health that go beyond the uterus have an enormous potential: cardiovascular health, endocrinology, mental health and wellbeing, and rare diseases. Moreover, FemTech is not only for women. When women are healthy, their partners, families, employers, and society also benefit.
This week’s profiles in STEAM + :
Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009, Distinguished Professor Emerita, Salk Institute
In 1980, Elizabeth Blackburn and her then-graduate student, Carol Greider made an important discovery while studying ciliates and yeast: the telomeres. Similar to the aglets of a shoelace, telomeres are the protective ends of a chromosome - the structure that houses DNA in a cell - that prevent it from wearing down during cellular division. Four years later, they discovered telomerase, an enzyme responsible for maintaining the telomeres' length. While telomerase plays an essential role in healthy longevity, too much causes cancer cells to proliferate ad infinitum.
Professors Blackburn and Greider, together with Jack Szostak - with whom Dr. Blackburn proved that the telomeres' DNA prevents chromosomes from being broken down - were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009.
More recently, Professor Blackburn focused on advancing the healthspan, the length of time a person is healthy, active, and disease-free, not just alive. Together with Dr. Elissa Epel, a clinical psychiatrist, Professor Blackburn studied chronically stressed caregiver mothers of children with chronic diseases. They concluded that chronic stress wears down telomeres by lowering telomerase and reducing a cell’s ability to replenish itself. They also developed strategies based on genetics, epidemiology, and social science research, to counteract these effects, and included them in the book The Telomere Effect. Healthy eating, exercising, meditation, and good sleep are top of the list.
Agnes Binagwaho, former Minister of Health of Rwanda, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity
Professor's Agnes Binagwaho family moved to Europe from Rwanda when she was just three years old. She grew up and did her medical training in Belgium. In 1996, two years after the war that devastated her country ended, she and her family moved back to Rwanda. Facing a broken medical system, she contemplated returning to Europe, but her desire to contribute to reconstructing her country prevailed.
Specializing in emergency pediatrics, neonatology, and the treatment of HIV/AIDS, Dr. Binagwaho has more than four decades of experience in medical practice, academia, and public health. She served in the public sector in different positions, including Minister of Health, and spearheaded the transformation of Rwanda's health system.
She co-founded and is Vice-Chancellor at the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE), an initiative of Partners In Health. Its mission is to change how health care is delivered worldwide by training global health professionals who strive to provide more equitable, quality health services for all.
She is a Senior Lecturer at Harvard and Senior Advisor to the Director-General of the World Health Organization, a member of the United States National Academy of Medicine, and a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.
Ida Tin, Co-founder, and Chairwoman of Clue
From a young age, Ida Tin traveled the world on motorcycles with her parents. She aspired to become an artist, but life led her on a different path. In her 20s, she started a motorcycle-touring company leading groups in Cuba, Mongolia, the U.S., Chile, and Vietnam. She even wrote a best-selling book about her adventures - Direktøs.
With the advent of smartphones, Ida Tin was struck by the absence of innovation in birth control. Led by curiosity and the desire to know her own body, she started Clue in 2012. Since then, the company grew to serve 14+ million users in 190 countries. As a mission-based company, Clue wants “women and people with cycles to make good choices for themselves, and live full lives not in spite of their biology, but in tune with it.”
In March 2021, the company achieved a significant milestone toward its big vision. Their product Clue Birth Control, the first 100% digital contraceptive app, has been approved by the FDA and cleared for use in the United States.
Ida Tin stepped up to become Chairwoman of Clue, built a stellar leadership team with Audrey Tsang (formerly CPO) and Carrie Walter (formerly general counsel) as co-CEOs, and Lynae Brayboy as Chief Medical Officer.
In the long run, Clue aims “to be the go-to, scientifically-reliable source of information for women, addressing all aspects of their reproductive health – from their first period, through to pregnancy and menopause.” In the spirit of collaborative leadership, Ida Tin and her team want to “open up the conversation around this topic and aid in furthering research into this crucial aspect of female health.”
Tania Boler, Co-Founder, and CEO, Elvie
“Elvie is bringing women's technology out of the dark ages. Here’s the thing. Women shouldn’t have to make do with shoddy design or pink spin-offs when there are self-driving cars in the world. Our mission is to improve women's lives through smarter technology.” - Elvie’s mission
“Nobody really wants to talk about the inside of vaginas. We spend money on waxing and feeling strong on the outside, but actually, if we don’t focus on our core muscles and our pelvic floor strength, it can lead to a whole range of health and sex problems.” - Tania Boler, in an interview with Vogue
Before founding Elvie in 2013, Tania Boler built an impressive academic (she is an Oxford and Stanford graduate) and professional track record in women’s health, holding leadership positions in international NGOs and the United Nations.
During her pregnancy, Boler found out about the importance of training your pelvic floor - together with the brain considered a “last frontier”(underfunded and underresearched) in health sciences - from her pilates instructor, not her OB/GYN. One in three women experiences pelvic floor problems after giving birth. Surprised by the state of medical devices for strengthening the pelvic muscle, she set out to design a product that corresponds to women's needs. That is how Elvie Trainer came to life. It is a connected device that helps women do their pelvic floor exercises (a.k.a. Kegel exercises).
Elvie also tackled the stigma related to breastfeeding and breast pumping, launching Elvie Pump, a discreet and silent pump that “slips inside your bra”.
AI in Healthcare
Claire Novorol, Co-founder and Chief Medical Officer, Ada Health, Founder Doctorpreneurs
An accomplished medical doctor with a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge, Dr. Claire Novorol became interested in health tech and entrepreneurship and took advisory roles in several startups. That led her to found Doctorpreneurs, a global community for like-minded medical professionals.
Through this network, she met her future co-founders at Ada Health - serial entrepreneur Daniel Nathrath CEO, and AI expert Dr. Martin Hirsch (Chief Scientific Officer). Founded in 2011, Ada Health is a venture-backed startup based in London and Berlin. Their patient-facing app is an AI-powered health guide that helps people understand their health and navigate to the next appropriate steps in their care.
Dr. Novorol is also a member of the UK Digital Health Council and is an entrepreneurship expert at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
Health Tech Investor
Irina Havais, Partner, Atomico
Trained as a medical doctor, Irina Havais has built strong expertise and leadership in the healthcare industry.
At Atomico, a London-based VC firm, she leads the health tech and computational biology deals. She “looks for bold, mission and product-driven founders that use first principles to architect a version of the future that changes the status quo and tackles high-stakes problems.”
Irina Havais led the investments in and seats on the boards of companies such as Keiron Medical (its first product Mia™ helps in breast cancer screening) and HealX (it leverages the power of AI to discover treatments for rare diseases; its leadership team includes CTO Meri Williams).
Innovations and scientific progress in women’s health are flourishing. There are numerous leaders innovating healthcare: Ridhi Tariyal (NextGen Jane), Rory Tackles (Ro), Daphne Koller (Insitro), Lisa Suennen (Manatt Ventures, Venture Valkyrie), Alisa Vitti (Flo Living), Megan Jones Bell (Headspace), Nadine Nehme (Medicus AI), Kate Ryder (Maven). FemWealth will include more profiles of female leaders in healthcare in upcoming editions. What are the particular areas of women’s health that interest you most?
To celebrate Earth Day (April 22), Issues #5 and #6 will focus on female leadership in Climate Tech and environmental protection. Stay tuned!
FemWealth curated content:
WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2021 - the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the global gender gap by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years
Forbes released their 35th annual list of the World’s Billionaires (of 2755 names, 328 belong to women - 36% up from last year)
FemWealth recommended events:
Thank you for making it this far! If you would love to learn more about women’s health and women in STEAM fields check https://gobeyond.so/FemWealth. I’ll be sharing more women-focused resources there.
Wish you an awesome week ahead!