During this two-part interview, I spoke with amazing women with a very big vision, about something relevant directly and indirectly to 100% of people - which is sex, sexuality, FemTech and other topics related to women’s health. In a continuation from last week’s interview, this will be an open, honest, and educating conversation that is important for every woman as far as she is a woman/investor/manager, and nor the less - for any man that has a woman dear to him in the business and personal world; and to investors - that need to start investing money into this arena - because it relates to all of us.
On vaginal discharge and endometriosis
Inbal joins Shlomit and they set up Gina Life, a FemTech platform for early detection in women's health. "We can get a lot of information from women's vaginal secretions and this information can save lives. It’s a fluid that comes out of the body, like snot, therefore it’s open to the environment and has very specific properties. Like COVID-19 - which is examined by snot, a lot of things can be learned from vaginal discharge."
“We are first and foremost scientists. We extract information from all kinds of platforms and it's simply and undeniably a treasure trove. It's amazing how much information can be extracted from there and how much this medium, this bio-fluid, has not got the place & respect it deserves. There are very few academic articles that talk about the molecular properties of secretions, and we understand that research, awareness, and education are needed for this. We are told we are brave for researching & envisioning it. And I ask - why? ".
Through research and analysis of vaginal secretions, they identify different biomarkers and characteristics. These days they are researching and looking for biomarkers that will help in the early detection of ovarian cancer. They’re also developing a special test that will allow any woman in the future to check for ovarian cancer at home and detect it at a very early stage, just like a pregnancy test, because unfortunately, today it is often discovered at a very advanced stage of the disease, and time is a crucial factor to win this fight.
We also talked about the BRCA test, a gene test that is done to determine if you have chances of mutations in your DNA that increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, which has now entered the Israeli health care system for Ashkenazi women. It can save lives, so for those of you who it is relevant to - go get tested. We also discussed how we, as women, are going to break out and give ourselves the power to oversee our own lives.
As part of their vision in Gina Life to save lives, they need to address endometriosis, which affects 10% of women. These are cells in the wall/lining of the uterus, which move to other areas of the body and change on certain days of the month around ovulation and menstruation, which can be very painful. These are lesions that are not cancerous, but still aggressive. The big problem surrounding the treatment of this disease is the lack of awareness which leads to long times for diagnosis– an average of 7.5 years.
The question arises - why does the diagnostic process take so long?
In endometriosis, the symptom that women experience is pain. In many cases, a woman who complains of menstrual pain is sent home when she first arrives to report the pain. The test is invasive and complex and is usually diagnosed when a woman is unable to conceive because endometriosis causes fertility problems. Only then does the doctors return to all the symptoms the patient has shared in the past. Part of the process of understanding the cause is through elimination. Endometriosis is chronic and has no treatment, so often syndromes related to sexual behaviours are neglected and sometimes that itself can cause more damage along the way. We must recognize this disease as a society, and it’s also important that women will know that it exists and there is an explanation for what they are experiencing. In Gina Life, they are also trying to diagnose endometriosis early.
On menopause & pain during intercourse
In Aquafit, Rebecca and her co-founders have developed a product that secretes lubricants naturally, which leads to softening of the vagina, its expansion and reduction of pain during intercourse.
Let's take a moment to explain -
The two most important hormones in women’s bodies are estrogen and progesterone, and in men, two other hormones can cause an imbalance. Estrogen is what binds us from our first cycle to menopause - it’s responsible for all our sexual health, pre-menstrual pain, and mood swings. Estrogen is affected by the day of the month, when we’re menstruating, when we’re breastfeeding, and in menopause it completely disappears.
As young women, we don’t know enough about the phenomenon of menopause. This phenomenon is prevalent in 100% of healthy women who reach the stage where their menstrual cycle ends - "In Israel, it’s called the age of “worn-out”, and I don’t feel that in any way", says Rebecca. Sometimes the way things are named does not do them justice.
Menopause has several side effects that affect the vagina and in particular the ability to circulate blood and moisten it.
There are intimate ‘workouts’ that can be done to produce more than that - "foreplay" is a great thing, also from a biological standpoint, because it activates the natural lubricants. Sexual pain can be experienced from a young age at the beginning of having sex, but it’s true for all ages - 40% of women experienced pain when they had sex. It’s not one in 10 but 2 in 5, and the report of pain can come at any age.
"A lot of women are not educated from a young age how to treat their vagina as an organ that is critical to pleasure. We do see it in a distorted way in porn, which many men are affected by in the way they approach sexual experiences with women. Looking at the Jewish religion - the attitude is that our body and our sexuality are not for pleasure, but only to bring children into the world."
On the phenomenon of Vaginismus - there is an involuntary narrowing of the vagina. 20% of young women experience pain, hence, they are in a state of involuntary muscle contraction because the initial penetration was not done with "foreplay". Although today there is more openness, much of our sexual knowledge & behaviour is mediated by digital interfaces.
We all agreed that every woman should talk about the pain she is experiencing in sex. We are responsible for our own pleasure & pain. One thing is certain - sex should not hurt. In most cases when it hurts it can be resolved, and anyone who talks to a woman who says sex hurts her - should talk about it and not ignore it.
Education as a tool for healthier sex
We are entrepreneurs, investors, and many of us are parents - we must be aware of what message we are conveying to children. We have a responsibility for their sexual perceptions - sexuality & sex are wonderful things and should be mediated & adapted for the appropriate age, but not ignored. One of the reasons we’re embarrassed and don’t pass on proper sex education is because when we were kids, the adults in our lives never spoke to us about sex so we learned to never talk about it honestly and openly; Now, that permeates to our children as well. There are professionals today for healthy sexuality - the goal is to give the tools and knowledge for proper sex education that will allow them to be informed & enjoy their bodies, and as parents - we need to know what our children consume and how, for their own good.
Women FemTech entrepreneurs come to male investors - what's going on within that space?
Inbal shares about the types of investors she encounters - those who connect to her vision and goal because they have a personal story to relate to or those who have daughters and want to create a better world for them. But some investors don’t per se connect to the vision in any way and see it has no market, even though women are 50% of the population! In this case, science & the business model speak for themselves, and she goes about her explanations by explaining their impact–what it does and how much money it will make them. But it's still a struggle - Rebecca shares that there are complex moments even with the consumer companies themselves - "they gave us the innovation award from Procter & Gamble and then the investors asked me to take out the product and everyone was shrunken. They asked us to build the market first and come back in another 5 years because sexual health is complex."
I asked Orit about her perspective as an investor, and she replied that before COVID, all the healthcare departments didn’t get much investment attention, but COVID-19 has changed the game. Since then, there has been an awakening. She shares that this field has been considered difficult for years because of its long-term requirements, including a lot of clinical trials. It’s an investment that requires a very large amount of funding even before the product is ready for commercialization. It involves high risk and isn’t suitable for every investor. Beyond that, she added that there’s something in the word 'discharge' that arouses bias– from a man's point of view it may shatter their idea of the allure of sex or the beauty of the model - because if you recognize it, you admit there is a problem. The second thing concerns women investors, and that's also difficult for them - it holds up a mirror and confronts them - "what does it say about me if I use this product".
What’s important for us to remember moving forward
We talked about a lot of issues related to women's health, sexually transmitted infections, and new technologies. Out of all this information, that takes time to digest, what’s important is that we remember to enter the following habits into our lives:
1. The responsibility for our life is in our own hands - no matter what age, we need to take the reins, manage them, and not give up.
2. It’s super important to do an annual checkup with a breast surgeon, do a breast ultrasound, and Pap + HPV tests- we must put our health as our top priority, because without it, we can’t be our best selves as managers, mothers, entrepreneurs, investors, etc.
3. We want to be true to ourselves, to talk about sex openly, to talk about female medical aspects openly - with ourselves, with our spouses, with our children. Everything we talked about in the two parts of this conversation affects labour productivity in the economy and employers should know, be aware and address it.
4. Investors - did you hear that? This is not feminism; these are health issues concerning 50% of the population. This market is estimated to reach $ 60 billion by 2027. FemTech includes a full range of domains, so even if we talk about 10% out of 50% of the population - it’s still a significant share.
Finally, I asked Orit, Inbal and Rebecca, what their wishes were for today.
Inbal shares that her wish is to show that vaginal secretions are an important part of maintaining health and to break new ground in this field and thus also commemorate the memory of her sister Hava. Rebecca simply says - "to live in the venture for another year. We didn’t know what we were getting into in the beginning, and we still don’t know what's ahead. We are very proud that we were able to take out a product and reach women, and we hope to continue to do so." And Orit hopes that more women will enter the world of investments.