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Focus on FemTech: Hana Janebdar on closing the healthcare gap

Posted:
5 May, 2021

When Hana Janebdar, co-founder and CEO at Juno Bio, a health company working to decode the vaginal microbiome, was pitching her startup, she was asked by some male executives at an investment committee meeting if she could avoid using the word ‘vagina’.

“We even had some of our ads banned for ‘inappropriate language,’” Hana recalls. “It made no sense. This is medical terminology – and it’s what we do.”

Hana’s experience is not uncommon. The gap in healthcare and wellness often means that issues related to female bodies are considered inappropriate or taboo – and therefore, remain unaddressed.

For many, this leads to years of frustration, obstacles and dismissal when trying to get health and wellness issues resolved.

Juno Bio is challenging this. Part of a new generation of ‘FemTech’, their advanced approach helps people with vaginas to understand their bodies in ways that they were unable to before.

In this series, we’re speaking to the women behind FemTech companies to learn how they’re drawing on their experience – as researchers and in their own lives – to challenge the status quo and build companies with real impact for those they serve.

Here, Hana explains how she encountered this shocking research gap, and how she’s using her expertise to support customers and advance the way we treat vaginal health conditions.

“These are issues that impact billions worldwide - but they weren’t being sufficiently researched.”

A biologist and biochemical engineer by trade, Hana Janebdar began her career researching microbiomes. 

“Microbiomes are the communities of microbes that exist in, and affect, the whole world around us”, she explains. “And they have a big impact wherever they are.”

However, she found herself astonished at where the research in her industry was – and critically, wasn’t – focussed.

“While there was all this research and commercialization in areas such as the gut microbiomes, soil and skin, nothing had been done when it came to the vagina and the reproductive tract. 

This was shocking to me. Consider just how many conditions vaginal microbes are associated with – everything from bacterial vaginosis, all the way through to pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, and even preterm labour. These are issues that impact billions worldwide – but they weren’t being sufficiently researched.”

Frustrated by these limitations, Hana joined the Entrepreneur First programme, through which she met future co-founder Leighton Turner.

Hana and co-founder Leighton
Hana and co-founder Leighton

The technology behind Juno lies at the intersection of Hana and Leighton’s skillsets – combining Hana’s in-depth knowledge of microbiomes, and Leighton’s expertise as a data scientist. 

The company began by undertaking the ‘Juno Study’ – which became one of the most representative repositories of vaginal microbiomes in the world, with women and people with vaginas from all over the US enrolling to take part. Applying machine learning to the dataset, the team were able to recognise patterns and gain an unprecedented insight into vaginal microbiomes in real world contexts.

Late last year, they launched their first product to market.

“We provide a wellness test which provides people with vaginas with insights into their vaginal microbiome. 

By taking the test, customers are also powering up research to answer significantly under addressed questions in women’s health and wellness, improving the standard of care for all.”

“It really resonates with a lot of customers that we are working towards this bigger cause.”

Juno Bio’s product currently works as a wellness tool for users to understand their body better, and the team is now building a validated product that can inform clinical decision making. 

“We’re seeing from our first customers that so many for so long have had to just go blindly when it comes to their vaginal microbiome and what they’re experiencing because of it”, says Hana. “And they’re just so glad that finally screening to point them in the right direction is possible.

It also really resonates with a lot of customers that we are working towards this bigger cause. We’re not just selling wellness kits – we’re actually improving standards for women.

The next generation sequencing and machine learning we’re using unlocks an unprecedented level of insight and understanding when it comes to these conditions – and the impact we can make. 

We’re seeing new patterns. We’ve identified microbes that no one in the world has ever identified before, which is in itself a huge, huge thing.

With our metadata, we can actually see where a customer might think an issue is one thing, and have gone to their doctors on and off for years without a solution – however, we can pinpoint the real cause of the problem. Our research will be able to save her years of frustration and pain, and find her the right solution.”

“When we first started out, people hadn’t really heard the words ‘vaginal microbiome’- often even gynaecologists and scientists.”

For a topic with such global impact, it may feel surprising that sufficient research wasn’t being channelled into this area. Hana notes numerous reasons for this.

“On a technical level for microbiome science, we’re utilising technologies that are quite a recent phenomenon. 

These have definitely unlocked our ability to do this kind of research and science, but that doesn’t explain fully why this application to vaginal health isn’t where it needs to be. And that’s an issue of where we are socially and historically when it comes to feminism.

It was only in 1993, the year that I was born, that you had to include assigned female people in your studies (or at least state why you weren’t including them) in the US. Drugs would come to market and they potentially had never been tested on half the population. You’d have studies on hormones or sexual health that were relevant to all sexes published, but with no one biologically female involved.

There’s also an issue of, when health research is directed at female bodies, it’s only a subset. In healthcare to date, for instance, a lot of research and its benefits have been for Caucasian people.

Therefore, a lot of minority ethnic people have not had the same amount of attention. And so the way that we understand these conditions just doesn’t translate, especially when it comes to the vaginal microbiome, across everyone.”

People’s reluctance to discuss Juno Bio’s subject matter can also affect their ability to address the topic head on. “When we first started out, no-one actually had heard the words ‘vaginal microbiome’- often even gynecologists and scientists.

We were even once asked on our way up to an investment committee meeting if we could avoid using the word ‘vagina’ – when we run a vaginal microbiome company. We’ve had men in the room shocked that bacterial vaginosis affects 10% of people with vaginas recurrently, because they’ve never even heard of it.

We’ve had pretty much everything thrown our way.”

Nevertheless, Hana is optimistic about the future of healthcare, and the role that Juno Bio will play in it.

I think we’re going to see more and more companies and people go into the FemTech space. In particular, I think we’re probably going to get more female-centric approaches to conditions like heart disease – which, even though you might not traditionally think of as ‘FemTech’, affects female bodies differently, so requires different approaches.

I’m excited not only by the way the work that we’re doing not only supports individual customers, but the wider implications of our data in improving healthcare for good.

We’re in a position where we will be redefining the way we think about health and the way that these conditions are even characterized, diagnosed, and treated.” 

For more information on Juno Bio, please visit https://www.juno.bio/ 

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