By Shweta Gohil, Senior Analyst
With a clinical practice and public health background I am passionate about improving population health, specifically women’s health, through digital innovations. I am pursuing this passion as part of the digital health practice within Health Advances. The Rock Health Summit piqued my interest because of discussions led by women’s health focused VCs and experts.
This year’s prominent themes from the summit included diverse, equitable, and person- centered healthcare. While the conference didn’t solely focus on women’s health there were many applicable takeaways for those interested in this space. Digital health is not a silver bullet, but instead the belief that the right tech, in the right hands of underserved communities can make a large impact.
A digital women’s health investment pitch is twice as hard, if not more, than a traditional pitch:
- Women’s health companies are playing on an imbalanced field while seeking funding. The pitch is often more difficult, funding takes longer to secure, and there is overall more diligence involved because the solutions are targeting issues that few are paying attention to or are familiar with. To add salt to the wound, women led companies are 3x more likely to be bootstrapping.
- Women’s health companies need to reframe the unmet need and scale components of the pitch. Instead of a traditional TAM approach, women must frame conversations from the lens that women make 80% of the clinical and social determinants of health decisions. When it comes to defining scale, instead of a narrow focus of increasing the absolute number of patients scaled, think of an entire community (e.g., going through menopause) as the customer.
- Lived experience is a powerful story telling tool that can aid women’s health companies in securing funding but is still lacking acceptance. While lived experience doesn’t necessarily equate to evidence in today’s pitches, it should. Lived experience allows for recognition of a problem through direct immersion in the community/issue that is underserved. It just makes sense for a woman to speak about women’s health issues. However, VCs are not accustomed to hearing this personal story as evidence and therefore have trouble understanding the value and buying power of certain communities that exist outside of the traditional healthcare model.
- VCs cannot back all women’s health initiatives, thus early-stage women’s health companies should partner with disease organizations, academic institutions, community pharmacies, and large corporations to support evidence generation. For example, Walgreens pharmacy is ideal for real world evidence generation because 51% of the stores are in vulnerable areas where the underserved population resides. Individual women employees can also get creative and approach large employers to consider innovative digital health solutions as part of employer sponsored benefits. If adopted, this provides a plethora of data to analyze and potentially demonstrate effectiveness.
An economic downturn might be a blessing in disguise for digital women’s health:
- Funding is still available for digital women’s health solutions. However, funders have higher expectations, and the allocation of that funding has gotten more stringent. There is hope that even in this recession, companies can increase the measly ~2% of overall VC funding allotted to women’s health.
- Women’s health companies must operate effectively to drive the most outside facing value which in turn is going to set apart the cream of the crop. Recessions drive focus as companies are forced to choose doing a few things well and cutting out excess.
- The goal is not to invest in a company that is merely chasing revenue during a downturn but one that has chosen to take a strategic approach with tenable outcomes and long-term growth in mind. In other words, focus should be on velocity- driving with a google maps rather than speed- just pumping on the gas pedal without direction.
Post Dobbs ruling has increased the urgency for ethical digital innovations to address glaring disparities in maternal/reproductive and broader women’s health:
- The Dobbs ruling further marginalizes and criminalizes the most economically and racially vulnerable women in the country leading to a call for action. The political climate has caused women’s health investors to recognize the terrible US maternal health stats (55th in the world which is even behind rates of countries where women are publicly stoned) resulting in an all-time high investment of ~$2B, but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. For example, the ruling has had a negative impact on states that were maternity care deserts to begin with, but now have providers moving out in droves, further worsening the supply/access to critical care.
- The private sector should be leveraged in this space by empowering women through inclusive workplace policies/ providing coverage that supports reproductive healthcare. While many employers and health plans are still figuring out what to provide that is more expansive than travel reimbursement, Medicaid must jump on board to provide to the most marginalized. The impact of the ruling is much broader than abortion and extends to many aspects of prenatal and women’s health, as should the solutions.
- Companies need to understand the history of reproductive oppression in this country and maintain an ethical obligation to the patient. There is an ongoing emphasis and greater scrutiny for privacy and security as many of the digital health solutions do not have to abide by HIPAA.
While the digital women’s health innovation path has many hurdles, the future looks relatively bright, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we witnessed a boom of companies over the next few years. These companies have a unique opportunity to rethink their approach to requesting funding so that it works in their favor, especially as more VCs (Lux Capital, Rhia, SteelSky Ventures) zoom in on and understand the space. At the same time the current economic downturn forces the many early-stage women’s health companies (field is relatively nascent) to slow down and focus on what is important- strategic revenue generation that supports their mission and future scalability. Lastly, the political climate is unearthing and worsening many women’s health issues, so people are paying attention. There is a current opportunity to make a real difference in women’s health, and I look forward to following along.
Shweta Gohil is a Senior Analyst based in the San Francisco office with experience in product and portfolio assessment, competitive landscape, and diligences across digital health, biopharma, and diagnostics.