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]
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.