Home Editors' Picks For femtech startups, funding and faith pose challenge

For femtech startups, funding and faith pose challenge

By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

LACK of funding and deeply held religious beliefs are hampering the rise of femtech — technology-enabled health products and services for women’s medical needs — in the Philippines. 

“[Femtech] is a young industry and it remains underinvested, but there’s a huge growth potential as well,” said Maria Jessica J. de Mesa, co-founder and chief executive officer of femtech company Kindred, in a video interview with BusinessWorld.  

“Femtech” — a term coined in the United States — refers to the intersection of women’s health and technology. Examples of femtech solutions include period tracking apps, teleconsultation sites, wearable sensors, and patient monitoring technologies, which address various areas of female health, from menstrual and sexual wellness to fertility and pregnancy care.  

“Many women around the world including Filipinas have been challenging the status quo, and some of us are now discovering that we’re largely ignored and underserved — especially in healthcare,” said Ms. De Mesa, a registered nurse who co-founded Kindred in 2021 with Abetina E. Valenzuela.  

The Philippine-based startup, which seeks to destigmatize women’s health concerns and improve access to healthcare, provides monthly contraceptive packages (including emergency birth control), virtual consultations about reproductive health, and information on fertility, pregnancy, and even female oncology.  

“The increased awareness and early self-detection and better management of illnesses by women of all ages have resulted in an increased demand for tech solutions but unfortunately, as of now, this demand hasn’t been fully satisfied,” Ms. De Mesa said. “In the Philippines, we’re only at the very, very beginning.”  

A 2022 survey by Singapore-based consumer research firm Milieu Insight found that most women in Southeast Asia lack knowledge in menopause (54% of respondents) and fertility and infertility issues (51%).   

Women in the Philippines specifically admitted a lack of knowledge on pregnancy and postpartum health, a result of traditions and myths surrounding Filipino beliefs and practices and the tendency to stigmatize women’s health and treat it as taboo.  

“Full realization of female health in the Philippines may be a challenge due to its unique position as a predominantly Catholic as well as Asian country,” said Juda Kanaprach, Milieu Insight co-founder and managing director, via e-mail.  

“Despite a massive digital transformation wave, there still exists a lack of access to technology and consequently information that can answer questions on female health.”  

The study also found that this lack of access has led to 42% of Southeast Asian women not knowing what resources to look for, 40% being unsure of the credibility of resources, and 34% being unsure if their personal experience is even something to worry about.  

Given the socially taboo nature of female concerns, online resources are the number one option, with 54% of women saying they go online for answers. Health professionals are the second choice (50%) and parents are the third (36%).  

Ms. Kanaprach added: “We can begin by guiding women towards the right direction and bridge the knowledge gap for women to take the first step out and navigate resources.”  

For Kindred, which claims to be the first online-to-offline (O2O) femtech company in the Philippines, the lack of access to information and services is a daunting but necessary hurdle to overcome.  

“We’re the first of our kind which presents an advantage for our business, yes, but it’s kind of unfortunate to see that we’ve lagged behind,” said Ms. De Mesa.  

She added that the increased attention toward individual growth and self-care — because of the pandemic — has paved the way for the country to catch up.  

The Milieu Insight survey found that 44% of the 500 Filipinas interviewed already use femtech, with a focus on either period health (64%) or general wellness (53%).   

“We need more femtech companies in the Philippines to service various aspects of women’s health and we need more investors to see that femtech presents a viable investment opportunity that can be explained by an ongoing trend in diversity and recognition of the importance of preventive health,” Ms. De Mesa said.  

Women’s Health on Wheels, an initiative that responded to the devastation left behind by Typhoon Odette at the end of 2021, includes a mobile sexual and reproductive health clinic and birthing facility funded by the United Nations Population Fund.  

As of March 31, it distributed menstrual and hygiene kits to nearly 14,000 women in affected areas in Southern Leyte, supported more than 1,000 deliveries, and ensured over 1,700 family planning consultations.  

Still, the conservative leanings of Filipinos remain an obstacle when it comes to embedding this kind of care into the health system.  

Mona S. Diones, head of the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines in Iloilo, told BusinessWorld in a podcast that it’s difficult to improve sex education in schools and develop mass campaigns about sexually transmitted diseases.  

“The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act is not fully implemented or fully exercised … we still lack a lot of funds in order to have a full implementation of these projects,” she said.  

For Ms. De Mesa of Kindred, both online and offline initiatives from public and private institutions, with eventual collaboration and integration among various efforts, are key to ensuring the local improvement of sexual and reproductive healthcare.  

This year, Kindred will add digital payment modes for teleconsults, launch a mobile app, partner with employers and health maintenance organizations, and open its physical clinic in Bonifacio Global City — the first of many planned across the country.  

“For us to cultivate more active women’s health spaces in the Philippines, we have to provide a safe space online, encourage women to take charge of their health, help them understand their options so that they actually prioritize their health, and make it easy for them to take the next step,” said Ms. De Mesa.  

Supporting this are Milieu Insight’s survey results which found that 80% of Filipina respondents prefer in-person consultations, a high number compared to other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand where just 46% had a similar preference.  

According to Ms. Kanaprach of Milieu Insight, Southeast Asia’s tech workforce is 32% women, exceeding the global average of 28% in a 2020 study by the Boston Consulting Group.  

However, in boardrooms and in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), there remains a huge need for female talent.  

“The venture capital funding scene remains male-dominated, which creates the challenge of pitching to investors who do not personally identify with women’s issues,” she said, “But there is a remarkable increase in female-focused incubators, accelerators, and venture capital funds with a purposeful portfolio approach to supporting female-run businesses.” 

Spurring this is the prediction that the global telehealth market for women’s health may reach $215.7 million in revenue by 2027, added Ms. Kanaprach.  

In the Philippines, initiatives such as QBO Innovation Hub’s Startup Pinay and Unilab Foundation and the Philippine Commission on Women’s Pinays Can STEM Toolkit have laid the groundwork for cultivating the ideas of Filipinas and empowering women in the local startup and STEM industries.  

“We need to make female and male leaders and investors step up and see that investing in companies with social impact and women’s enterprises can also be a profitable business and a sustainable business at the same time,” said Ms. De Mesa. “It’s very early days for femtech in the Philippines, but I’m very happy to see that we’re starting somewhere.”  

Related B-Side episode: What women want: femtech in the Philippines