The Rise of Femtech with UH Clinical Innovators

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Day-long conference hosted by UH Ventures inspires caregivers to reimagine women’s health

Technologies and products aimed at improving female health and wellness – what professionals in the field call femtech — could meet the demands of a $1.1 trillion U.S. market as long as there is more investment and support from government, pharmaceutical companies and other investors. That’s just one of the takeaways from the recent “Innovation, Women’s Health and the Rise of Femtech” conference virtually hosted by the women team members of UH Ventures as part of its annual New Frontiers innovation program.

“Every year we try to do an event that engages both UH caregivers and entrepreneurial collaborators from our community,” says Patricia Colella, Innovation Strategist at UH Ventures and program lead for the event. “Most of the startups we support via our platform are female-led, so it was all the more special to make this year’s theme about women’s health and innovation.”

Track record of success: As it stands, the innovators leading femtech companies are already showing they can be successful, with start-ups being sold to larger companies at an ever-accelerating rate. “In femtech, our average exit is $100 million more than other tech companies, so it’s a good idea to invest in women’s health,” says keynote speaker Brittany Barreto, PhD, a geneticist and co-founder and executive director of Femtech Focus. Additionally, Dr. Barreto is co-founder and advisor with Coyote Ventures, a venture capital fund investing in early-stage startups in the women’s health and wellness space. “Over the past 31 years, the average time to exit has been 8.7 years. What’s very interesting, though, is if you’re a femtech company formed in the last decade, your average time to exit is four years.”

Overcoming obstacles: The success of femtech is occurring in spite of the deck being somewhat stacked against women’s health, according to Dr. Barreto: “In every stage of heath care and medical innovation, women have been left out,” she says. She points to NIH budgets that over-fund men’s health conditions relative to their disease burden – while under-funding women’s conditions. Less than 0.00001% of the NIH budget, for example, is dedicated to menopause, and just 4% of all pharmaceutical company R&D budgets is dedicated to all of women’s health.

Innovators moving forward at UH: Accessing this vast, untapped market for women’s health is what femtech entrepreneurs, health professionals, and companies are doing every day across America, including at UH. The event featured some of UH’s pioneering leaders affecting women’s health from two angles: They are both leading advances in women’s health in their professional work, but also serve as models for other women innovators.

  • Stephanie Teal, MD, MPH, Chair of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, is developing and testing contraceptives that are greener, have fewer side effects, are multi-purpose, can be self-administered and can be used by men. “For social, medical, economic and planetary well-being, there is really a lot of room to improve contraception,” she says. “It can be safer, it can be greener, and it can combine with HIV and other sexually transmitted infection prevention. It needs to involve men and it requires investment in basic and translational research and understanding the market and marketing of contraception. We cannot do it alone as scientists.”
  • Rebecca Flyckt, MD, Medical Director of the UH Fertility Center, Division Chief of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility and holder of the Lilian Hanna Baldwin Endowed Chair in Gynecology and Obstetrics, described a recent femtech first for UH and Northeast Ohio – the birth of a baby using the INVOCELL device. An intravaginal culture system for embryos, INVOCELL is carried in the vagina with eggs and sperm for five days. Afterward, physicians remove the device along with the embryos that have formed within it and complete an embryo transfer. After this first successful case, Dr. Flyckt and her team have had three more live births.​

“This process removes the cost, time, and staffing required for extended culture in the IVF lab, and it allows fertilization and early embryo development to happen naturally inside of the INVOCELL capsule, which is carried in the body until ready for transfer,” says Dr. Flyckt. “It reduces the cost by about half, which brings many of the benefits of IVF to patients who would otherwise struggle to come up with the thousands of dollars required for traditional IVF.”

  • Sangeeta Mahajan, MD, Chief of Urogynecology, Vice Chair of Clinical Af​fairs in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, described a new 10-minute surgical procedure she is able to offer patients as a treatment for stress incontinence. The procedure involves four tiny injections in each corner of the urethra. “I do it in the operating room with just a little sedation,” she says. “The patient wakes up they go home the same day and they’re instantaneously 60 to 80% improved with no recovery time.”
  • Sheryl Kingsberg, PhD, Chief of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, highlighted the innovative and pioneering role UH has played in advocating for a biopsychosocial approach to sexual health and medicine. “Every medical school and every teaching hospital should be offering what we offer, and that is not happening,” she says, “so that’s a major goal of mine.” She also highlighted UH’s pivotal role in the clinical trials for Addyi and Vyleesi – two medications now FDA-approved to treat female hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

Read more soon about the advice femtech entrepreneurs and women leaders at UH offered at the “New Frontiers: Innovation, Women’s Health and the Rise of Femtech” conference.

To watch the full conference, or go to specific panels and presentations, click here.​​

written by: Kelly Kershner, University Hospitals

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