From corsets to jog bras: How innovation has propelled women’s health
September 13, 2022
This year my birthday, September 28, also happens to be National Women’s Health and Fitness Day. It’s a great chance to take a look at some of the innovation happening in women’s health, enabling women to stay healthy and productive. As a business owner and mother of 2 young kids, managing my overall health and creating a fitness and wellness routine is not something I have aced. I’m intrigued by the innovation out there as I try to balance the different needs in my life – my work, my family, and my self-care – let’s just say it’s definitely a work-in-process! In my work, this is a particular interest as we strive to help our clients work strategically to grow their business and to launch new products that meet consumers' expanding health needs.
Society hasn’t made it easy for women to take care of themselves. Just take women’s fashion - between the 1500s and the early 1900s, corsets were a fixture in women’s fashion in Europe and the U.S. However, this staple of women’s wear caused weakening of pectoral muscles and, even in some circumstances, fainting -- not exactly a great enabler to moving your body. As we move into more modern times when fitness activities like weightlifting became popular for men, this wasn’t encouraged for women over fear they would develop “masculine” muscles. In addition, it was not viewed as appropriate for women to work out in public as sweating was seen as uncivilized for women. If women wanted to stay physically active, it was usually done at home away from public view.
A major leap forward for women’s fitness came with the invention of the sports bra in 1977. Lisa Lindahl, a graduate student at the University of Vermont, ran 30 miles per week and was determined to create a bra that she and other women could actually run in comfortably. Her invention, which she branded the JogBra®, created a $43B global industry. It created a vehicle for women to comfortably participate in all types of sports they never had before, regardless of a woman’s size or shape. According to Runner’s World magazine, “The sports bra has had an immeasurable, cumulative impact in the lives of ordinary women. Without a garment designed to support our bodies properly, millions of [women] wouldn’t have taken up running.” Just last month,the U.S. Army, whose uniforms have always been designed for men, unveiled a line of bras that will integrate into existing body armor and give an added level of protection to female soldiers, to “improve the Soldier’s overall readiness and performance levels, allowing them to focus on their mission.”
For many years, women’s health was not a concern for marketers nor a focal point for innovation across most categories. The female founders of women’s health start-up Nanopath, who are developing novel technologies for women’s health screening, sum it up well: Women's health has been consistently overlooked, resulting in critical health decisions being made in the dark. As they rightly state, “Better healthcare for women is fundamental to universal improvement for everyone."
Fortunately, we now live in a world where innovation is transforming women’s health. The term “FemTech” was coined by entrepreneur Ida Tin (co-founder and CEO of the women's menstruation-tracking app, Clue) in 2016. It’s now a major innovation movement that addresses unmet needs in women’s health, with an array of consumer-centric products and solutions, enabled by technology. FemTech deals and funding have grown extensively over the past 5+ years.
According to McKinsey, estimates for FemTech’s current market size range from $500 million to $1 billion, from trackers and wearables, maternal and pre-natal health, to virtual care. Yet, there is a long way to go as funding for FemTech only makes up around 3% of all digital health funding according to Rock Health.
Among the FemTech success stories is Maven Clinic, a virtual clinic for women’s and family health, valued at more than $1 billion in a recent Series D investment. FemTech companies are taking on a range of historically stigmatized women’s health issues like menopause, which occurs at a key career inflection point when many women are moving into senior leadership roles. During the 7–14-year span of menopause, many women experience mild to severe symptoms such as depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation and even cognitive impairment. Visana Health offers a 12-week digital program to address another stigmatized issue, chronic menstrual pain, that can be debilitating to women for days and can make it difficult for women to be active and stay healthy. Back to more traditional consumer products, women now have products like Knix Leakproof Activewear that includes leggings and shorts so women can stay active during their periods. Turning to supplements, Binto markets a line of preventative, personalized supplements for core women’s issues like postpartum and menopause. The products are tailored to individual needs, and they also provide consultations with specialists in women’s health, with the goal of helping women prevent significant health problems.
There is still tremendous opportunity for innovation to address other issues that can benefit more women. The primary areas receiving most funding center around products and services for fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood, which primarily benefit younger women with insurance. Companies like Health in Her Hue are trying to address the fact that Black women die at three to four times the rate of white mothers in the U.S. The company connects Black women and women of color to culturally sensitive healthcare providers, evidence-based health content, and community support. Identifying unmet needs for a target group other competitors are not serving is among the work we do for our clients.
It’s an exciting time for women as more focus and investment is brought to products and services across the health and wellness ecosystem that are designed specifically for women. Core issues beyond fertility are being addressed, including those that affect women holistically, both mentally and physically. Identifying real insights around core problems women face remains a big opportunity in FemTech, and turning these actionable insights into new product innovation will result in more growth. This is an exciting time given the pivotal role women play in society, especially today, that will make for a healthier, more equitable world.
At Compass Marketing, we thrive by helping our clients identify and create opportunities in health and wellness that can really move the needle and make an impact. Please get in touch if we can help you build your health and wellness brands and create lasting value.
Lynda is a consumer marketing expert with a track record of successful U.S. and global product launches. She has created new product innovations across consumer wellness, from personal care to digital health. She is a founding partner of Compass Marketing.