In 2014, Apple released its Health app with much flourish. But the tech giant had not at all thought about the needs of women. It took a whole year for Apple to correct that and update its app with a period tracking feature. Since then, the Cupertino‑based company has continued to expand its range of products for women. For example, the Apple Watch uses heart rate to more accurately predict a woman’s next period and fertility windows.
Apple now gives prominence to these new features because the market has exploded. The German company Clue, a women’s health pioneer, launched its menstrual cycle tracking app back in 2013 and claims to serve more than 12 million users. The Google Play app store currently lists nearly 250 period‑tracking apps. "Digital health is a booming sector, and the pandemic has only accentuated the phenomenon," says Marwan Elfitesse, head of startup programmes at Station F. "This has been especially beneficial for women’s health, because there was strong demand and a lack of available solutions."
As a result, digital health tools for women are flooding the market. One of these is the Zurich‑based startup Ava Women. Approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), its smart bracelet tracks fertility by measuring physiological parameters such as temperature and heart rate. The company claims to have helped more than 50,000 women become pregnant by using its device. In another field, British femtech company Elvie has launched a smart breast pump that slips into the bra of new mothers. The Bluetooth‑enabled device connects to a smartphone and monitors milk volume in real time. Finally there is the US startup LoonCup, which has developed a smart menstrual cup – currently available for pre‑order – that analyses menstrual blood to detect certain diseases such as endometriosis.
"The information we receive can advance scientific research"
Carrie Walter, co-CEO of Clue
All these companies collect a lot of data on their users, which goes towards developing new products. For instance, Clue has recently launched a new birth control software application in the United States to prevent pregnancy. In essence, the company’s algorithm predicts a woman’s "low‑risk" and "high‑risk" days of becoming pregnant, which are calculated based on information she provides about her menstrual cycle. These days, with hormonal contraceptives falling out of favour due to their side effects, this all‑digital form of contraception, which received FDA clearance as a medical device in February 2021, could take off. The Clue Birth Control app claims 92% effectiveness with "typical" use, and 97% with "perfect" use. This compares with 93% and 99% for the contraceptive pill and 87% and 98% for the condom, respectively. "No contraceptive method is perfect," says Carrie Walter, Clue’s co-CEO. "Women should have as much choice as possible and use the method that is right for them and where they are in life, with full information about the pros and cons of each."
And Clue doesn’t intend to stop there. Capitalising on its user data, the company plans to expand its services. In August 2021, the company partnered with the beauty giant L’Oréal to understand how hormonal cycles affect skin health. "There are so many things we can do," says Audrey Tsang, Clue’s co-CEO with Carrie Walter. "Our goal is to become an app that tracks women throughout their lives, from their first period, through contraception, and up to menopause, an area we’re starting to look into."
The fact remains that femtech firms collect intimate data (such as frequency of sexual intercourse, plans to get pregnant, or painful periods), and that is cause for concern. Especially as scandals are beginning to emerge. An investigation by the Washington Post in April 2019 revealed that the pregnancy‑tracking app Ovia Health was selling its user data to health insurers. Also, between 2016 and 2019, the period‑tracker Flo shared intimate details about its users’ health to marketing and analytics companies like Facebook and Google, according to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which filed a complaint against the company in January 2021. And these are just a few examples.
"We have never sold our users’ personal data to any company, and we never will," Carrie Walter says. "However, we believe that in de‑identified form, all the information we receive can make a historic contribution to advancing research on women’s health. That’s why we collaborate with some of the most renowned scientific research institutions around the world to push for better understanding of an area that is still way behind where it should be."