Emerging from a chemistry-based dating startup with a Genetics PhD in hand and entrepreneurship bug in mind, Brittany Barreto fell in love with the FemTech industry around 2019.
But quickly, she realized that the resources available within the broader startup world didn’t exist for FemTech.
First, she thought, “Oh, I’ll get a job at a FemTech fund.” But in 2019, just one such fund existed.
O.K., she thought, she’d get a job at a FemTech accelerator. But there were no FemTech accelerators to be found in her then-home of Texas or elsewhere.
Her next thought: “O.K., let me go to a FemTech conference.” You can guess what happened next—no FemTech conferences to speak of.
Says the now-Raleigh based Barreto, “What I quickly realized was that the industry was so under-served, we lacked basic infrastructure for innovation to even happen.”
Barreto saw a multi-billion-dollar industry with no data, no guidance and no support network for founders, and saw an opportunity to combine her passion for science with her passion for entrepreneurship. The result: FemTech Focus, a Triangle-based non-profit that looks to raise awareness for FemTech and provide resources for innovators in the space.
But what is FemTech, why does it matter, and why do its founders need this kind of support?
FemTech, as defined by Barreto, means “solutions to conditions that solely, disproportionately, or differently affect women, biological females and girls.” These can include solutions geared towards menopause, menstruation, pregnancy, uterine fibroids and fertility.
FemTech doesn’t just serve the parts of the body included in “bikini medicine,” a misconception of women’s health that it only differs from men’s health in the parts of the body that would traditionally be covered by a bikini.
From comprising 90% of autoimmune disorders and 85% of doctor visits for headaches to displaying different symptoms than men in shared conditions, biological females have different medical needs than men that require different medical solutions, Barreto said. In the case of serious conditions—for example, heart attacks—the lack of medical technology tailored towards women can even become deadly.
“The current blood tests that you would get in urgent care if you think you’re having a heart attack is measuring a specific molecule that is dramatically increased in males during their heart attack,” Barreto said. “It does not work for females; that molecule does not increase when we have heart attacks.”
Misconceptions about women’s health, too, can be deadly.
“We also don’t have chest pain and a numb left arm, which is what everyone’s taught (as heart attack symptoms), Barreto said. “Instead, we have extreme fatigue. And so a woman is told, ‘Oh, you’re tired. I mean, you’re ladies, of course you’re tired,’ and then she ends up dying because she was having a heart attack all week.”
For Barreto, awareness about female-specific health needs matter, which is why awareness of feminine health needs is part of FemTech Focus’s two-sided mission alongside empowerment of founders who face those female-specific challenges.
Barreto and co-founder Julie Hakim look to address those goals through four prongs: an online community that over 2,000 FemTech founders and enthusiasts have joined; events including a virtual annual summit and regular job fairs; a podcast with over 65,000 listeners; and market research on the state of the industry, including a soon-to-be released annual report.
The research FemTech Focus does looks to address a crucial barrier faced by many FemTech founders, especially considering that male investors have trouble relating to a FemTech industry that is 90% female—lack of access to funding.
“Our first challenge is the gender of our founders, and number two is the lack of data,” Barreto said. “You need comparables. Investors are not donors, they are investors and they are trying to make tenfold their money. They need to invest on numbers, market sizes, and the FemTech market was not quantified until 2019.”
It is free for founders, students and others interested in FemTech to join the virtual community, although a premium subscription for $15 a month offers access to extra communication channels that include training webinars and specific industry data.
Move to the Triangle
In late 2020, Barreto moved her many pets and FemTech Focus from Houston to the Triangle. If you’re still skeptical of the presence of FemTech in the Triangle, the 75 FemTech affiliates Barreto hosted at an RTP viewing of FemTech Focus’ annual conference might change your mind.
Having been in Houston as its own startup boom developed, she sees similarities in the Triangle, and hopes that FemTech will join the many budding startup industries in this area.
“I do have faith in North Carolina,” Barreto said. “I do think RTP could be a hub for FemTech. We’re family-friendly. Most of my founders are moms. We can’t be asking these moms to move their families to New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. But we could raise the flag here and say, ‘Hey, this is a home base for FemTech companies.’”
Barreto hopes providing a network of support will attract more talented innovators to focus on the FemTech space. The work they will do isn’t just profitable—though it is most certainly profitable, as FemTech’s database of 126 FemTech exits shows. FemTech solutions can be life-changing and life-saving for women and girls who lack equal investment in tailored healthcare solutions, and FemTech Focus looks to create a space where FemTech solutions can thrive.
“It’s an activist move to work in women’s health because it’s so under-served,” Barreto said. “There is a historical and systemic exclusion of females from science and healthcare. FemTech is a trillion-dollar market. You can make a ton of money if you’re comfortable talking about periods.”