"Switzerland can become a leader in femtech"

Tech4Eva, a startup accelerator programme focused on women’s health, has supported 30 companies in raising 60 million Swiss francs. Interview with its director Lan Zuo Gillet.

By Bertrand Beauté

On 8 March 2022, the symbolic date of International Women’s Day, the startup incubator Tech4Eva will celebrate its first anniversary. Launched by the EPFL Innovation Park and Groupe Mutuel, this unique platform in Switzerland promotes technologies and solutions to improve women’s health. Just one year after its creation, Lan Zuo Gillet, Tech4Eva’s co-founder and director, draws up an initial assessment and outlines her goals for the years to come.

Why did EPFL launch an accelerator specifically for femtechs? Were the existing general ­ startup support programmes in ­Switzerland not enough?

Broadly speaking, women’s health technology, or the femtech sector, remains under-developed and under-invested. Why? Because men don’t think about it, and women themselves don’t usually talk about their health concerns. Menstruation, menopause and female sexuality are still taboo subjects.

But in recent years, these taboos have started to lift, especially with the creation women’s health startups. More than 80% of these companies are launched by women who want solutions to their own problems. Unfortunately, most investors are men who tend not to be interested in this sector, despite the high potential of femtech firms as an asset class. Frost & Sullivan estimate that the women’s health market will be worth more than $50 billion dollars by 2025.

By launching Tech4Eva, EPFL has tasked itself with raising awareness about women’s health. Our goal is to boost these startups and push innovation in femtech to the next level. With existing accelerators, femtech would have drowned in the mass. The startups would have lacked the visibility that we want to give them.

What is your assessment after one year in action?

The launch of Tech4Eva was officially announced on 8 March 2021. By mid-April, we had already received 110 applications. That was a nice surprise and shows that there is a real need for this structure. We selected 30 startups, 10 of which are from Switzerland, and we tracked them for nine months to develop their business model. Each "early stage" project had a personal coach to guide it, while "growth" phase startups had access to one of the experienced entrepreneurs and experts from the pharmaceutical industry, medtech and healthcare sector. These startups were also put in touch with investors through tours organised in London, Tokyo, Boston and Zurich. A total of around 100 business meetings were organised to help raise 60 million Swiss francs. So we’ve raised a lot of money in a short space of time. This shows one thing: by creating a complete femtech ecosystem that connects startups, potential customers and investors, we can contribute to the development of this new sector.

What do you think will happen next?

The 2022 call for applications from startups all over the world has already been launched. Any startup offering innovative solutions and technology to improve women’s health is encouraged to contact us, regardless of their nationality or level of maturity.

We also invite banks, venture capitalists and family offices to join our initiative. We need more investors. For the time being, startups active in high‑potential fields such as fertility are able to raise funds. But femtech does not only cover gynaecological problems! For example, menopause is often overlooked by investors, despite being a major health problem. By 2025, there will be 1.2 billion women aged 50 or over. Some of them will experience hot flushes so debilitating that they may even have to stop their careers. The potential of this market is huge. The US startup Embr Labs focuses on this issue and is developing a bracelet that reduces menopausal hot flushes. It raised $35 million in 2021, of which $22 million was through the Tech4Eva programme.

In the long term, Tech4Eva aims to become the national innovation centre for women’s health, showcasing solutions that cover women’s entire lives.

The United States is spearheading innovation in femtech. Where does Switzerland stand?

Switzerland is well poised to benefit from the development of women’s health technology. We have leading pharmaceutical groups, but also innovative medtechs. Switzerland’s Health Valley is made up of more than 1,000 companies. So far, these firms have not launched products aimed specifically at women. But they have the capacity to do so. On top of that, our country is home to top universities and research centres, so we have all the skills we need to make Switzerland a leader in femtech.

What role can research play in the development of femtech companies?

Women have long been neglected in medical research. For years, they were systematically excluded from clinical trials because researchers felt that their hormonal cycles could interfere with the results. Many treatment protocols and therapeutic solutions are therefore based solely on men. As a result, some solutions may be less effective on women. This needs to change. Feminist movements are fighting for equal pay for men and women, which is very good. There should also be equal treatment in clinical trials and medical research. Through the Tech4Eva platform, we also stress the need for gender‑specific differences to be taken into account due to the biological cycle of women, so that more targeted solutions can be developed.

An innovation expert

A graduate of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Lan Zuo Gillet holds a PhD from EPFL, performed post‑­doctoral work at Stanford University (US), and completed her MBA at HEC Lausanne. She then started her career in the R&D department at Rolex, before being named Head of China Business at Pictet. After working from 2008 to 2011 for ­Swissnex, Switzerland’s global scientific exchange network, in Shanghai, she returned to Switzerland to manage the Geneva Creativity Center. In 2014, she became deputy general manager of the EPFL Innovation Park, where she launched the Tech4Eva femtech incubator in 2021. In parallel, she has been an expert for Innosuisse since 2015.