Convincing the VC Bro-nopoly to Fund Female-First Companies
Miki Agrawal was sick of worrying about her tampon leaking. As a soccer player, you can’t say, Oh, ref, can you stop the game while I get a tampon? So she and her sister set out to create a new kind of women’s underwear that would absorb two tampons’ worth of menstrual fluid without feeling wet. After a few years of tinkering, they’d engineered a prototype that workedand still looked stylish. They called it Thinx.
One challenge remained: How to get investors on board? The vast majority of venture capitalists90 percent, by one estimateare men, and menstruation isn’t typically high on their list of concerns. It was incredibly challenging, because people didn’t get it, Agrawal says.
A decade ago that would have been the end of Thinx. But Agrawal had better options. She mounted a Kickstarter campaign that netted $65,000 and followed it up with an Indiegogo campaign that raised $20,000. In essence, she proved a market existed for Thinxand investors jumped aboard. The product launched a year ago, and she has already sold hundreds of thousands.
A fun success story! But it also heralds an interesting moment: Shifts in how tech is financed and, more crucially, how people talk about it, mean that we’re about to see a much-needed boom in products aimed at the needs of women.
After all, the appeal of Thinx ought to have been obvious, right? Feminine hygiene products are essential (even though most states don’t subsidize them or exempt them from sales tax).American women spend $3 billion a year managing their periods. It’s a ginormous market. Yet it had been mostly ignored in the slurry of health tech: We have a million step trackers and almost nothing for dealing with your period, says Tracey Lindeman, a fellow journalist and friend of mine. As my WIRED colleague Sarah Zhang has written, that’s what happens when you have a disproportionately male VC world. They don’t always notice the enormous unmet needs of folks outside their ambit.
That may not matter anymore. Crowdfunding allows startups to route around VC disinterest by going straight to the consumersthe more underserved the audience is, the more responsive it’ll be. Consider the case of Livia, a company making an electric-stimulation device that eases menstrual cramps. This spring it blew past its $50,000 Indiegogo goal to net over $370,000 (along with press raves: The best wearable I have ever tried, a reviewer wrote on The Next Web).
What’s more, research has found that women overperform on crowdfunding sites. Female-led tech projects have a 65 percent success rate on Kickstarter compared to 30 percent for those led by men, likely because women tend to support other women in online networks.
At the same time, social media has changed the conversation about women’s health. Younger people are more comfortable talking about this now, says Sandra Fiset, a biomedical engineering student at the University of Toronto. She coinvented Diem Pouch, an Internet of Things leather case that reminds you to take your birth control pillcrucial for a drug that’s effective only if taken regularly. Upstart tech only survives if it garners word of mouth among passionate supporters, and social media is an accelerant that gives products designed for women a better shot at thriving in the market.
Underserved markets are good for inventors, and the response to products like these means the space is only going to expand. Agrawal herself isn’t waiting. This year she created a new product: Icon, panties that wick away urine leakage, a common issue for women after pregnancy. The old solutions were grimly unfashionable Depend-style products. Icon has style. Now, Agrawal says, I get women coming up to me on the street, pulling their pants down, and yelling, I’m wearing Thinx!