Women represent at least half of the world’s population and at a biological level they experience life-changing journeys from menstruation through to menopause.
The term “femtech” was coined in 2013 consisting of the words “Female” and “Technology”, and has since grown into a booming industry of technology companies addressing women’s health needs.
In 2019, the femtech industry generated $820.6 million in global revenue and received $592 million in venture capital investment, according to PitchBook.
From 2019 to 2020, fermata Inc. published femtech market maps displaying the year over year growth of companies that have entered the space. However, these companies are mainly from North America and Europe with only a few from other parts of the world.
fermata Singapore is the sister brand of fermata Inc., Japan’s largest femtech ecosystem that launched in October 2020. Our mission is to equip women with tools and knowledge about their bodies to achieve their career and personal life goals with femtech products and services.
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Fertility and Infertility
Startups offering services to improve a woman’s chance for conception, like IVF and egg freezing, as well as products that help women take control of their fertility goals. Luminous, for instance, offers online fertility coaching in Malaysia.
Femtech Startups in Southeast Asia (separated by health categories)
In 2021, there are 41 femtech companies in Southeast Asia – a small portion compared to the 318 global femtech companies in 2020. Singapore acts as the leading country with 24 femtech companies, followed by Thailand (6 companies). This comes to no surprise as Singapore is at the heart of the ASEAN region and holds the title as a world-leading technology center. Femtech startups are able to find talent, capital and support from the government more easily, while also benefiting from the region’s greater consumer purchasing power.
Is femtech considered late to arrive in Southeast Asia?
Femetch companies exist because women are not getting the proper care they need. A large reason for this is gender bias in medicine, which is entrenched in all countries around the world. There are studies suggesting that women are more likely to be misdiagnosed, ignored, or denied by doctors, causing well-documented harm. For instance, doctors and nurses prescribe less pain medication to women than men after surgery, despite reporting more frequent and severe pain levels. Moreover, there are five times the number of studies about male erectile dysfunction compared to painful sex in women.
fermata Inc.’s Founder, Dr. Amina Sugimoto, shares her perspective as a doctorate in public Health (DrPH), “When it comes to comparing Western and Eastern countries and how they should be, there is often a bias towards a western-centric point of view. Instead of comparing regions of completely different cultures, religions, and lifestyles, I hope we can take a localized approach to public health and assess what each country and its citizens need. Instead of asking whether femtech is late to arrive in Southeast Asia compared to its western originator, let’s ask what type of femtech products should be the focus in which country based on the population’s needs and readiness.”
Cultural and social taboos around sexual health
Openly discussing women’s sexual health and fertility issues are still heavily taboo in Asia. We believe this stems from uncomprehensive sex education programs in schools that do not prepare young adults to exercise their reproductive rights in present and future stages of life. Many counties in Southeast Asia also do not have a national sex education requirement, therefore each high school is at liberty to dictate how they teach about reproduction and contraception use, if they choose to teach about it at all.
Even in countries that offer sex-ed cirriculums, many institutions teach sex education from a perspective that emphasizes the negative consequences of sex and does not cover positive aspects or promote students’ critical thinking skills. In those that are centered on abstinence-only education, countries have experienced higher rates of unwanted pregnancies. In fact, Vietnam has one of the top five highest abortion rates in the world and the highest in Asia.
In Singapore, the Ministry of Education has recently updated their sex education cirriculum to go beyong abstinence and teenage pregnancies to be more inclusive; teaching topics such as consent and how to apply it as well as influences of online media and sexuality.
In Thailand, Unicef’s ‘Review of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Thailand’ elaborates that institutions stress topics related to the prevention of teenage pregnancy and STIs , while topics related to sexual rights, sexual development, and bullying are less often taught. Cases like these inadequate sex educaiton programs are also common in other countries, and they lead to young adults lacking the correct understanding of their own sexuality and unequipped with analytical skills to make safe and effective decisions for their sexual health.
2. Lack of education leads to myths and misunderstanding
Many popular myths have discouraged women from learning about their bodies and accessing better care. For example, the concept of abstinence before marriage is laser-focused in Asian cultures. That breeds a culture of hymen preservation, where anything that involves sticking something up your vagina is thought to damage your hymen – proof for unmarried women of their virginity. So even though virginity is a social construct and its meaning can vary from person-to-person, adoption of tampons or any products inserted vaginally is often socially rejected.
In some Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand, tampons are very hard to find whereas in other countries like the United States, 70% of the female population regularly use tampons.
In Singapore, we witness this resistance in our interaction with customers, too. In our recent online survey, 177 female respondents were asked, “Are you comfortable inserting a tampon inside?” to which 74% answered “no.” This aligns with cultural taboos around period stigma. If menstrual hygiene is a part of sex education programs in school, we believe the public would be more receptive to innovation in women’s reproductive health. 3. Stigma against vaginal health makes it harder to develop femtech further
Innovations in female hygiene care are less likely to be adopted if women are not taught how the basic female reproductive system works. This causes girls to develop anxiety and self-consciousness around their vaginal health because they do not have the knowledge and normalized discussion around personal care. Internal-use products like tampons and menstrual cups are harder to convince a woman to try than a sanitary pad; furthermore, high-tech pleasure toys and fertility trackers inserted vaginally also require the user to be familiar with her reproductive system and open-minded enough to give them a try.
Predictions for femtech in Southeast Asia
GDP of the ASEAN region has been skyrocketing for a few years now, reflecting the region’s thriving economy. With many femtech options available from around the world, all women should have the freedom to choose which reproductive health products they prefer. However, the limited availability of femtech products in Southeast Asia (as seen in Market Map) and the entrenched taboos around sexual health may act as deterrents for women to learn about the solutions that could improve their everyday lives.
Moreover, the related economic downturn caused by global crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic, can impact women more severely than men, which makes achieving gender equality and reducing stigmas against women’s health unseen and less of a priority. According to the World’ Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, women with children struggle more with stress, anxiety around job insecurity and difficulty maintaining work-life balance due to a longer “double-shift” of paid and unpaid work, especially with school closures and limited availability of at-home care services (GGGR 2021, World Economic Forum). On a national level, countries that enforce gender-positive recovery policies look towards these challenges and help improve employment prospects for women
On an individual level, women and even their partners can help themselves by learning how to build more resilience, prioritize their self-care routines and look towards brands that can help equip them with effective wellness tool and strategies.
fermata Inc. is bringing access to femtech products in Asia that empower women with knowledge about their bodies, starting with Japan and Singapore. Since 2019 in Japan, fermata has brought femtech to the mainstream. Fermata Inc.’s Global Business Manager, Lia Camargo says that “we at fermata inc. hopes to help more people throughout Asia take new approaches and ownership regarding their own health. We are hopeful as Southeast Asia continues its trajectory as one of the fastest growing economies, that femtech innovations and destigmatization of women’s bodies will follow, too.
Startup criteria for being featured in the market map:
Launched after 2000
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