[00:11:16] Alice: Meanwhile, Hana’s company, Juno Bio, focuses primarily on vaginas. I asked her to explain how they cater to the wellness of people with vaginas.
[00:11:23] Hana: At Juno, we’re decoding the vaginal microbiome. The vaginal microbiome is the community of microbes that live in the vagina and are implicated in over 30 women’s health conditions from recurrent infections through to unexplained infertility. These conditions are poorly characterized, badly diagnosed and inadequately treated. We provide women with an at-home wellness test, which is the most comprehensive screen that they can get of all the microbes that live in the vagina, what it means for them and what they can do next. Then we pull all the results that we have and we use that to power up research to close the gender health gap.
I think our biggest recent milestone similarly is the launch of our product. So 10 months ago we launched our product, our first ever one. It was informed by the study that we had done the year previously, which was in itself, one of the biggest studies of its kind. Then over the past 10 months, we’ve been working really iteratively, adding features, talking with our customers and really learning so much.
Breaking news, I think we’ve hit product-market fit according to the Sean Ellis test, so that’s super, super exciting for us.
[00:12:30] Alice: Recently, the label FemTech is being used increasingly to refer to products which cater to women’s healthcare, but is it right to use such a term? I asked Hana if she finds this label appropriate.
[00:12:40] Hana: I think the short answer is, in the short term, sure, why not? It’s a sufficient categorization, but in the medium to long-term, no, it’s not the right terminology at all. The way to categorize our company is first of all, obviously, what we do for people with vaginas, it’s not just your traditional FemTech or women’s health type company. Then, second of all, I think it’s probably not advantageous for the kind of problems that we’re solving to bucket us into just this one FemTech category, because you’ll get people that are either engaged in it or not engaged in it even from a funding perspective. What we’re doing is solving problems for over half the population of the world, and I think it’s bigger than just this tiny little FemTech name that we get given.
[00:13:30] Alice: Alexandra believes labeling technology based on gender is unnecessary.
[00:13:33] Alexandra: I realise maybe it’s because I don’t know, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of MenTech. I’d be curious if that exists. It could, I’m not saying it shouldn’t. But, I think, especially with IVF, I’ve tried to be as vocal as I could about it because, it’s very often that I hear that IVF is FemTech, and don’t get me wrong, it’s fine. I think it goes back to what you were saying, Hana. You need some labels sometimes, and it’s partly FemTech in the sense that we do use tech to help women.
I feel with IVF it’s just even more of a problem because, in some ways, it sounds like it’s just semantic, but words matter. They matter a lot. Words shape the experience of people, and especially of patients, I think, and even though it sounds subtle, what I would imagine is that, if you keep hammering this message home, it could really sound like fertility is a woman’s problem, which if you extend the argument could really sound like the burden of parenthood falls on women.
Again, it sounds a bit extreme but also, let’s face it, it has been true in society and could still be in some places. The point is, I really think changing the way we use words could really remind us that, no, at least it doesn’t need to be if women want to be parents. Of course, it’s great, but it doesn’t need to be that the burden feels like it falls on women, because you can imagine if you were infertile, it’s even harder because you could feel like you’re failing. In some countries, it does happen, and in some places, it’s not just a conversation that makes you uncomfortable, it can be a big deal.
That’s why I think it would be really good if we stopped associating fertility and parenthood with women, and also back to Hana’s comment because, gender is also being redefined. It’s not just women and men anymore. This is a separate subject, but there’s also homosexual couples, men that would use IVF with surrogacy. The last thing I’ll say is that it would also undermine all the men that desperately want kids and they’re having fertility issues.
I don’t see it as being problematic. Like Hana said, just use FemTech short-term if it makes sense logically. We are helping women. I just wouldn’t want it to be used exclusively. That’s why back to my comment, okay, FemTech, let’s talk then about MenTech, let’s talk about everything else and make sure that we don’t make this association that in the long term will not be beneficial to women.
[00:15:47] Hana: The burden of all this, all the problems that we see in this space, shouldn’t be on women. I think that is a big thing that isn’t traditionally addressed when we’re talking about the companies that we build. A lot of the time you’ll be asked as a woman, what happens, and as a woman, this and that. It really shouldn’t be as a woman, it should be as a person navigating the patriarchy. If you want to call it anything, call it anti-patriarchy tech, don’t call it FemTech.
[00:16:15] Alice: Advances in technology have also helped the reproductive healthcare market evolve. I asked Alexandra to tell us about some of the new tech trends she’s paying attention to in this sector.
[00:16:23] Alexandra: The thing is, I don’t know if I’m going to talk about the trends that I want to see happening or the ones that I’m seeing. It could be a mix of both, but one thing that I’m hoping is happening is really this idea that we are going to leverage AI to become more and more interdisciplinary. I’m a firm believer in being interdisciplinary. It’s in my training and I think it’s known that it’s often where you foster creativity.
I would really hope that there’s going to be almost this idea that we can use AI to learn a lot from different experts within the same field. If you look at IVF, there’s already this challenge of having gynecologists and embryologists, the experts in the lab, sharing their knowledge. They already do it and they do it well, but there’s always this feeling that we could really make sure that data and help flows more freely across experts within reproductive health, and also outside of reproductive health.
I think this could actually apply, I would hope, to all of AI in medicine, so making sure that we see AI being used to share knowledge even across clinics. I think that it would be really great to make sure that we’re not just all trying our own solution locally, which I find happens often in academia too, by the way, but making sure that we can really get to the next level and add some transparency, both for the doctor and for the patients.
I’m not saying patients should have as much information as doctors. They don’t have the same training, it can be scary, but I do think it’d be a really great trend. I think that’s where we all want to go, where we can actually, again, use this more data-driven medicine to help patients also go through the process more peacefully and to make sure that they’re more informed about what’s happening and what decisions are being made.
[00:18:02] Alice: Globally, access to reproductive healthcare continues to remain an issue. Hana’s company is trying to tackle that by offering at-home services. I asked her to elaborate on how this works and why it’s beneficial.
[00:18:13] Hana: It definitely was accelerated by the pandemic where a lot more things had to happen at home. The reason why it’s so great is because, it really helps the patient, or in our case, women, people with vaginas, take control of their own wellness and health journeys, especially when, traditionally, they would have been dismissed or not had the same access if they’d gone and done not at-home testing. We’re seeing the at-home testing space really grow in a really exciting way. We’re also seeing people really self-advocate for their health and wellness, which I think, they didn’t really have as much self-consent to do so.
To go and self-advocate and say, “No, I feel that this is wrong and something has to be done about it.” We’re also starting to see a lot more nuance. Now that people, in a greater way, understand biology in part because of COVID-19, and they understand the fact that there will be ambiguity and that science is an evolving thing, people understand nuance. People can accept uncertainty around different aspects of the at-home testing space.
[00:19:26] Alice: I love this point around enabling people to advocate for their health needs, and particularly in under-researched areas. I asked Hana what she thought about this.
[00:19:34] Hana: A big part of the gender health gap is literally just being taken seriously. Women and people with vaginas aren’t taken as seriously as their counterparts in the medical industry.
[00:19:46] Alice: At EF, I’ve often noticed how founders who transition from academia to business can initially find it challenging. I asked Alexandra to tell us about how she dealt with leaving her lab to spend more time pitching her products to customers.
[00:19:58] Alexandra: I suppose, one of the big changes that was very welcome actually in joining EF is this idea that, if you want to start a company, or at least the way I started it myself, you need to be ready to face the end-user, or the customer, or the patient, call it however you want. I’m not saying that when you’re in academia, you never do. You could, but it’s not something that is typically encouraged, unless you’re really on the clinical side of things, but even then.
I guess my point is just, making sure you like it because, often, when you’re in academia, you could be someone that likes being in their own lab – I certainly was – alone, or very often, not talking to users. I think that would be a change that you’d need to be ready for. Especially the idea of not having any excuse, in the sense that when you’re doing research, you have so many other things to do, and especially if you’re a perfectionist, you’re going to be like, “Okay, let me work more on this, let me work more on this.” Guess what? You didn’t talk to the end-user, and that’s fine by the way, because more often than not, you don’t need to in academia. The first change I’ll say is really be ready to have no excuse.
It’s like, no, actually, if you want to start a company, you’re not going to be pushing technology, which is often the case in fundamental research, I’m not talking about all research. You’re going to have to first show or prove that this technology is going to be pooled, and it sounds subtle, but that switch is actually really hard, because you’re always going to be thinking, “Oh no, but I really believe in this technology, I have preliminary data, believe me.” It’s switched around. That’s the first thing.
The second one is maybe a little more personal. I don’t know if it applies to everyone. Science is often incremental, as it should be. Not always, but often, you’re often used to bringing data with you to prove what you’re saying.
I guess, I don’t know if you see where I’m going with this, but the idea is that when you want to start a company, at least the way EF encourages you to, there’s this switch to see big. I’m not saying you don’t see big in academia, but in academia, when you want to get grants, you’re not talking to investors that are looking for long-term risk. You’re talking to people who are a little more risk averse. You have to adapt your discussions. Especially, as I said, in your training, you’re often seen as someone who does good science, and it’s true, if you have data that proves what you’re saying.
I guess the switch that was hard for me and still is today is the idea that you are encouraged to be a storyteller, and it’s good. It’s fine. It’s good. But it’s this opposition that I often make, which is that I do think there’s this difficulty of just admitting that it’s fine. You’re telling stories. You believe in it. You’re not lying. You’re just trying to take this feed so that you get money to then prove it. It sounds again subtle, but I feel like it was, and it still is sometimes a bit hard for me to marry those two sides of me.