This article was published on March 5, 2024

How femtech is closing the gender gap in health data

Elina Berglund, co-founder and CEO of birth-control app Natural Cycles, shares her insights

How femtech is closing the gender gap in health data

Historically, women’s health has taken a back seat to men’s — leaving a persistent gender gap in data, research, and clinical trials. A wave of femtech innovators may finally bring balance.

Among them is Elina Berglund, co-founder and CEO of Natural Cycles, the world’s leading birth-control app.

“We need more companies focusing solely on women’s health and women’s issues because that’s what is going to make up for the gender gap in the end,” she tells TNW.

Berglund is a Swedish particle physicist and entrepreneur. Notably, she was part of the team that won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle at CERN in 2013. In the same year, she co-founded Natural Cycles alongside her husband.

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The move from physics to entrepreneurship wasn’t an easy decision, Berglund says. It all started when she was seeking an active, hormone-free contraceptive method for herself. She then realised that there was a “huge unmet need” for such a product worldwide.

Elina Berglund Scherwitzl
Dr. Elina Berglund. Credit: Natural Cycles

Natural Cycles is the only digital method of contraception cleared by both health product regulators in both the US and the EU and recognised as a medical device.

The company’s solution essentially helps women track their fertility by measuring their body temperature — which fluctuates during the menstrual cycle and rises during ovulation. Natural Cycles’ algorithm (initially developed by Berglund herself) analyses the temperature data to confirm and predict ovulation.

This way, users know when to use additional birth-control protection without needing to depend on hormone-based methods. Using the same process, users can also plan pregnancy.

The power of data in women’s health

“There’s definitely a gender gap when it comes to clinical studies and data in general,” Berglund says.

Studies show that such gaps expand across the entire data value chain: from understanding women’s health needs and diagnosing to collecting information on a national level, and translating insights into global studies.

As a result, women are not only underdiagnosed compared to men, but they also spend 25% more of their lives in debilitating health, according to the World Economic Forum. When it comes to reproductive health in particular, conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and even menopause are severely under- or misdiagnosed.

“Our users get to know their bodies and understand what’s going on inside.

Securing sufficient data on female health is critical to restoring balance. “The woman’s body has been under-researched and out of focus for such a long time — and we need to catch up,” Berglund says.

One way data can contribute is by measuring the effectiveness of treatments. In the case of birth-control specifically, with a data-heavy, digital product like Natural Cycles, it’s possible to evaluate effectiveness “in real time and with a much more granular cost,” Berglund explains.

The company can directly assess and study the effect of its solution along different parameters, such as age, demographics, and country. That’s unlike traditional pharmaceutical methods, which do not have insights on how pills perform in real life after their release.

Another key benefit of the data is increasing awareness over the female body and health. “Our users get to know their bodies and understand what’s going on inside — and that’s something that they feel is very empowering,” Berglund says. She adds that this knowledge can also enable prevention, and provide insights on conditions including PCOS and menopause.

The need for data privacy

“Data privacy and sensitive data is a delicate thing to handle, but we must handle it properly to allow for the empowerment to happen,” Berglund says.

Period and fertility tracking apps have been on the rise over the past few years — and so have privacy concerns.

Numerous studies have scrutinised such apps for sharing sensitive menstrual and sexual activity with third parties — especially in the wake of the Roe v. Wade overturning in the US.

App users have also expressed concerns. In a poll by the UK’s data privacy regulator (ICO), more than half of respondents emphasised issues corresponding to data security, transparency over data use, and an increase in fertility-related advertising.

Berglund explains that transparency over how data is being used is a critical aspect of building consumer trust and protecting users.

Another aspect is establishing the right processes that ensure data protection.

For Natural Cycles this means using anonymised, unidentifiable data during clinical studies and operating on a need-to-know basis internally. Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the company also implemented an anonymous mode for users, which separates the fertility-related data from the personal information on the database.

“It’s also about the business model,” Berglund adds. “We’re a subscription-based app so we don’t need to monetise data.”

Combining data with AI

Berglund says she’s a firm believer in the power of AI, arguing that a combination of high-quality data with advanced algorithms will progress the future of health.

This combination is also showing tremendous potential in multiple healthcare applications, ranging from disease prediction to diagnosis and treatment.

Natural Cycles uses several machine learning algorithms, the main one being the fertility algorithm. This identifies the fertile window using temperature, optional LH (luteinising hormone) tests, and period data — providing personalised analysis.

To determine the start of the fertile window, the algorithm analyses past cycles, based on cycle length, length of the cycles phases, and average ovulation day. It then confirms ovulation using temperature data to pinpoint the window’s end.

The company claims a 93% effectiveness with typical use, which it says is equivalent to the birth-control pill and superior to condoms. It’s only outperformed by contraceptive implants and intrauterine devices (IUD).

Natural Cycles app
On the right: non-fertile days are marked as green. On the right: daily temperature measurement. Credit: Natural Cycles

According to Berglund, the arrival of new technologies and startups in femtech has pushed the sector to an exciting new level.

For future entrepreneurs in the space, she has the following advice:

“Take proper clinical data, perform clinical studies, and follow the regulatory processes in place.And in that way, ensure that the product that reaches users is robust.”

Eline Berglund is speaking at this year’s TNW Conference on June 20-21 in Amsterdam! If you also want to experience the event (and say hi to our editorial team!), we’ve got something special for our loyal readers. Use the code TNWXMEDIA at checkout to get 30% off your business pass, investor pass or startup packages (Bootstrap & Scaleup). We’re also offering a 50% discount for the Women in Tech ticket.

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