The time is now for women entrepreneurs in health -especially if you are over 50

The story of Ridhi Tariyal who invented the ‘tampon of the future’ (as the New York Times headlined it when they published it in 2016) tells us many things about the need for more women entrepreneurs, investors and scientists.  It took a woman to design a tampon that could capture monthly blood for medical testing without the need for needles- a brilliant idea which is now being explored to help women test for endometriosis and fertility.

This story reminds us of what Eric von Hippel, the MIT scholar of innovation, has studied intensely from an academic perspective: that people who suffer from a problem are uniquely equipped to solve it.  They persist in their quest to see their innovation succeed because they understand the need first hand and they have ‘skin in the game’.

Thanks to my friend Clare Delmar, I was invited recently to this incredibly funny but also hugely educational comedy show put on by Gusset Grippers (aka Elaine Miller, who is a physiotherapist specialising in urology) at the Sick of the Fringe festival which made me ponder over this idea of who best to solve some of the big health challenges of today.  For an hour Clare and I were entertained and taught by Elaine about the importance of pelvic floor muscles—essential to keep in shape to avoid incontinence (that haunts many women after childbirth and the menopause) but also to have a much better sex life…

The talk made me think and ask some questions.  Why aren’t we doing more to help the one third of women who suffer from incontinence at some point in their lives (that’s right, one third, 33%)?  This is a huge issue yet is one of the “hidden epidemics” that causes so much misery for so many women (men are not immune either…). Pelvic floor exercises are very simple and there is one UK company, Elvie, crusading about pelvic floor and using the latest design technology to help women ‘tighten up’.  It is no surprise that the entrepreneur behind Elvie, Tania Boler, is a woman.

There are other women too leading the way to designing more products for women. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas,  Willow, a new wearable breast pump, won Best Digital Health and Fitness Product.  CB Insights also recently published a great summary of some of the companies in 'FemTech' that together ave raised over $1.1 billion (see the map here , also published in an great article, Vive la Difference, by Medium).

But why aren’t there more women, including older women,  leading the way like Tania with the innovations desperately needed by society to address these and other big problems requiring urgent attention, especially with the growing ageing population- from the elderly suffering in hospitals who should be in their homes to those women suffering through the menopause - all the ills that add up to a lot of misery that we currently put up with?

There are some older pioneers like the amazing Mary Matthews who set up Memrica, a memory tool for dementia sufferers, and the inspiring Jackie Marshall-Cyrus who led Innovate UK’s Long Term Care Revolution, but we need more. I was heartened recently reading about the wonderful group of older women who set up the Older Women’s Co-housing  Group which is focussed on building communities for the over fifties to make living as you grow older more fun and less lonely (click here).  And I will always remember the start-up, Growing Old Disgracefully,  a network for older women who pitched at a recent Aging 2.0 global start-up search (I thought, I will have some of that when the time comes....).  

While this shows the trend changing with more women taking charge, there is still plenty of room for a lot more, and especially those looking out for older women.  At a recent talk the always incredible (and young) Maxine Mackintosh from HealthTech Women reminded us that women represent only 9% of the founders of health tech businesses at the moment.  If you look at the Apple Think Different video you will see it is mostly men who feature as the rebels and disrupters.   This has to change and women need to get noticed.  Calling all women provocateurs, innovators and entrepreneurs, especially if you are over 50, let’s get cracking!   I know Clare is busy with her idea….#BeBoldForChange.

Tina Woods