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Women entrepreneurs are leading the charge to make Israel a femtech powerhouse

Fed up with gender discrimination, founders are offering solutions to improve women’s lives, and investors are taking an interest

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Gals Bio CEO and founder Hilla Shaviv with her Tulipon device. (Courtesy)
Gals Bio CEO and founder Hilla Shaviv with her Tulipon device. (Courtesy)

Five years ago, Israeli entrepreneur Daniella Gilboa showed a group of male investors a viral photo of a newborn surrounded by the 1,616 IVF syringes used by her parents in their prolonged fertility struggle. The investors had blank looks on their faces. None of them understood the meaning of the image, she gathered.

Nowadays, things are different. The landscape for technologies specifically focused on women’s health and well-being — or femtech — has grown significantly, and Gilboa, an embryologist and statistician, has succeeded with AIVF, a B2B (business-to-business) company she co-founded in 2018. AIVF developed the first-to-market platform for IVF clinics that applies data science and artificial intelligence (AI) to make the IVF process more accurate and efficient. The result is less money spent and less time to achieve pregnancy for potential parents.

“The ecosystem in Israel is changing. Femtech is becoming an interesting conversation, and VCs are looking for femtech opportunities,” Gilboa said.

Israel, known widely as the startup nation, is becoming a font of innovation for femtech. It is still an uphill battle to secure funding, but with women being half the global population and making 80% of healthcare purchase decisions, investors are starting to perceive the rewarding possibilities.

“Femtech is growing and expanding. You no longer have to explain to people what it is,” said Sharon Handelman-Gotlib, co-manager at FemTech IL, a community of 2,600 Israeli femtech entrepreneurs and supporters.

According to Start-Up Nation Central, an Israeli organization that tracks the local tech ecosystem, the Israeli femtech landscape includes about 130 startups and companies. In 2021, approximately $160 million was invested in Israeli femtech companies, down from about $215 million in 2020, but similar to 2019’s figures with $157 million in investments, according to SNC’s data.

AIVF CEO and co-founder Daniella Gilboa (Courtesy)

Illumigyn, a remote gynecological imaging platform, stood out with the $33 million it raised last year, enabling the company to deploy in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore, and South Korea.

“There has been huge progress made in recent years in raising the awareness for femtech and in reducing the stigma around it, but financing is still an issue. Many Israeli femtech companies are still in the seed and bootstrapping stages,” said Lena Rogovin, head of Digital Health & Life Sciences at Start-Up Nation Central.

Israeli femtech entrepreneurs’ struggles reflect the global scene, where only 3% of all digital health funding goes to femtech, according to a recent report by McKinsey & Company. Funding reached $2.5 billion by the end of 2021, with estimates for femtech’s current market size ranging from $500 million to $1 billion.

Israel’s current 130 femtech companies include 50 offering digital health solutions. About 40 percent of these 130 companies were founded by women or by men and women together, as opposed to just 16% of all Israeli companies.

Maura Rosenfeld, the chief business officer at MindUp, an Israeli digital healthcare incubator, said she was pleased to see femtech advancing in Israel, albeit not as quickly as she would wish.

“It’s about time. I am fed up with the inequality for women. There is a real gender bias in how healthcare is developed,” she said.

Sample EMA (AI-based digital embryology management platform) report from AIVF. (Courtesy)

Israel has the highest fertility rate in the OECD, and the state covers the cost of IVF treatments for women up to age 45. Therefore, it is not surprising that fertility, IVF, and maternal and baby care are hot areas for Israeli femtech startups. But other critical areas of women’s health are also being addressed.

One of MindUp’s portfolio companies is Gina Life, which is developing a platform applying data science and AI to a proprietary set of biomarkers, or proteins, in vaginal secretions for early diagnosis of deadly diseases such as ovarian cancer. Gina Life’s product is projected to be available to consumers in 2023.

Gals Bio, a company established in 2016 by biomedical engineer Hilla Shaviv, has developed a device to measure menstrual blood. A cross between a tampon and a menstrual cup, the biodegradable, patented Tulipon will also use biomarkers to monitor health and screen for diseases.

“Millennials are using apps to track their periods, but women don’t realize that their monthly bleeding is a natural biopsy that we can investigate,” said Shaviv.

“Aside from the biomarkers, just being able to measure the blood flow is important. For example, women may not even know they are heavy bleeders, and heavy bleeding can indicate iron deficiency, polycystic ovary syndrome, perimenopause, and more,” she said.

Gals Bio Tulipon prototype. (Courtesy of Hilla Shaviv)

Shaviv started her first company, GalMedics, in 2007 after she developed a tampon to treat primary dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain), which affects half of all women. The tampon worked by reducing the dynamic viscosity of the menstrual flow.

With little femtech awareness at the time, Shaviv was unable to raise sufficient capital to get the tampon to market, and GalMedics shut down in 2015.

A recent crowdfunding campaign helped Shaviv raise some money to bring Tulipon to the market, but she still has a way to go. She hopes that the recent recognition she and her company received at Israeli and international tech competitions will provide the required boost.

“Tulipon is a B2C [business-to-consumer] device, and there are few investors for B2C in Israel,” Shaviv noted.

Indeed, B2B is bigger in Israel in all spaces. Rogovin said investors are looking primarily for platform solutions, not devices and standalone apps. “They’re looking for things that are more sizable and scalable,” she said.

There is also a stigma surrounding female anatomy and physiology that has not been completely overcome.

“Sometimes I just want to say to the male VCs, ‘Deal with it, dude!’” said FemTech IL’s Handelman-Gotlib.

SafeUP CEO and co-founder Neta Schreiber (Yuval Weitzen)

There are more women venture capitalists in Israel and around the world than there used to be, but the majority are still men. One male investor grasped the need for SafeUP, an app creating a global community of women who serve as guardians for one another so they can feel secure. Users can call on other women nearby to accompany them by audio or video call or to come to their assistance in person.

“We have a top-tier VC in Israel behind us. He is the father of daughters, so he got what we were trying to achieve,” SafeUP founder Neta Schreiber said.

The company has snowballed since its launch in late 2020. It has 25 employees and 100,000 members globally — all carefully vetted for users’ safety. Features have been added to improve user experience, and Schreiber is preparing for the next round of funding as the app’s users continue to grow.

She isn’t daunted by the fact that SafeUP is not a typical startup for the Israeli ecosystem, including the femtech arena.

“Women shouldn’t have to wish for luck to be safe. We have created a situation where no woman ever has to be alone,” Schreiber said.

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