In her quest to become a tech entrepreneur, Stacy Chin has been an ace at tackling thorny intellectual challenges, mastering everything from molecules to manufacturing.
These mostly female leaders of firms with products addressing women's health concerns are winning in a big way, raising about $1.1 billion in startup funds over the past few years.
But the 28-year-old founder of HydroGlyde Coatings, based in Worcester, Mass., admitted to being momentarily stumped recently when pitching her product – a new kind of self-lubricating condom – to venture capitalists.
"Being a young female scientist and going into that sexual healthcare space, it was definitely a little bit challenging to learn how to navigate during presentations and pitches when there were a lot of older males in the audience," said Chin, whose product is of special appeal to older women suffering from vaginal dryness. "I eventually figured it out, but it wasn't easy."
Chin is at the vanguard of a new generation of "femtech" entrepreneurs heading companies with names like LOLA Tampons, Prelude Fertility, and Peach, bringing once-taboo topics like menstruation, ovulation, incontinence, breastfeeding, pelvic pain and, yes, female sexual pleasure to the highest chambers of finance. These mostly female leaders of firms with products addressing women's health concerns are winning in a big way, raising about $1.1 billion in startup funds over the past few years, according to the New York data analytics firm CB Insights.
"We are definitely at a watershed moment for femtech. But we need to remember that [it's] an overnight sensation that is decades in the making."
If the question is "Why now?", the answer may be that femtech leaders are benefiting from the current conversations around respect for women in the workplace, and long-term efforts to achieve gender equality in the male-dominated tech industry.
"We are definitely at a watershed moment for femtech," said Rachel Braun Scherl, a self-described "vaginepreneur" whose new book, "Orgasmic Leadership," profiles femtech leaders. "But we need to remember that femtech is an overnight sensation that is decades in the making."
In contrast with earlier and perhaps less successful generations of women in tech, these pioneers can point to mentors who are readily accessible, as well as more female VC and corporate heads they can directly address when making pitches. There's also a changing cultural landscape where sexual harassment is in the news and women who talk openly about sex in a business context can be taken seriously.
"Change is definitely in the air," said Kevin O'Sullivan, the president and CEO of Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives, who sponsored Chin and has helped launch more than a hundred biotech companies in his home state since the 1980s.
Like a pinprick bursting a balloon, the #MeToo social movement and its focus on the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault is a factor in the success of femtech, some experts believe, provoking heightened awareness about the role of women in society -- including equal access to start-up capital.
"If such a difficult topic is being discussed in the open, that means more and more people are speaking out and are no longer afraid about sharing their own concerns," said Debbie Hart, president and CEO of BioNJ, a business trade group she founded in 1994. "That's empowering the whole women's movement."
The power of programs that allow young women to witness successful older women in leadership cannot be overstated.
Observers like Hart say that femtech's advent is also due to a payoff from longer-term investments in a slew of programs encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers and women to be hired as leaders, as well as changing social norms to allow female health to be part of the public discourse.
The power of programs that allow young women to witness successful older women in leadership cannot be overstated, according to Susan Scherreik of the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
"What I have found in entrepreneurship is that it's all about two things: role models and mentoring," said Scherreik, director of the university's Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
One of Scherreik's top students, Madison Schott, is convinced that the availability of female mentors has been instrumental to her success and will remain so in her future. "It definitely is very encouraging," said Schott, who won the "Pirates Pitch" university-wide business start-up competition in April for an app she is developing that uses AI to guide readers to reliable news sources. "Woman to woman," she added, "you can be more open when you have questions or problems."
Programs that showcase successful females in leadership positions are beginning to bear fruit, inspiring a new generation of females in business, according to Susan Scherreik (at left), director of Seton Hall University's Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stillman School of Business. Her student, Madison Schott (right), is the winner of a university-wide business start-up competition for an app she is developing.
While femtech entrepreneurs may be the beneficiaries of change, they also may be its agents. Scherl, the author, who has been working in the female healthcare sector for more than a decade, believes in persistence. In 2010, organizers of a major awards show banned a product she was marketing, Zestra Essential Arousal Oils*, from a gift bag for honorees. Two years ago, however, times changed and femtech prevailed. The company making goodie bags for Academy Awards nominees included another one of her products, Nuelle's Fiera, a $250 vibrator.
"We come from so many different perspectives when it comes to sex, whether it is cultural, religious, age-related, or even from a trauma, so we never have created a common language," Scherl said. "But we in femtech are making huge progress. We are not only selling products now, we are selling conversation, and we are selling a comfort with sexuality in all its complex forms."
[*Correction: Due to a reporting error, the product that was banned in 2010 was initially identified as Nuelle's Fiera, not Zestra Essential Arousal Oils. The article has been updated for accuracy. --Editor]
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.