In this two-part interview, I spoke with amazing women with a very big vision, about something that is relevant in a direct and indirect way to 100% of people - which is sex, sexuality, FemTech and other topics related to women’s health. 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.
Orit is an experienced lawyer in the financial sector. 4 years ago, Orit decided to pursue her two great passions: technological innovation and investments, and co-founded NEOME - the first Israeli female angel club. NEOME consists of 60 women investors from a variety of different worlds of content, background, and knowledge. Since then, they invested in 11 start-up companies in the fields of HR-tech, e-commerce, life science, digital health, EdTech, FoodTech - and these days, they are working on their first FemTech investment. 3 months ago, NEOME had their first exit, 3 years after they invested in Donde Search, which was acquired by Shopify.
Inbal holds a Ph.D. in immunology and is the Co-founder & CEO of Gina Life. She has more than 10 years of experience in the world of drug development and diagnostics, mainly with an emphasis on cancer and autoimmune diseases, both in Israel and in the United States. Inbal believes that there’s room for more impactful developments in the worlds of women’s health, and with her mission to fight cancer in mind, she partnered with Dr. Shlomit Yehudai-Reshef, the company's founder and Chief Scientist - to establish Gina Life and enable early diagnosis for a variety of diseases in the field of women's health, the first of which is ovarian cancer.
Rebecca is a strategic designer, senior lecturer in design thinking at Tel Aviv University School of Business, entrepreneur and Co-founder & CEO of Aquafit-Intimate, together with Vered Italiano as a CTO and Varda Messer as a COO. Aquafit-Intimate is a company for products and services for women’s sexual health in self-care, that are designed for the 40% of women who experience vaginal pain during intercourse, from all ages - young women, women of childbearing age, menopausal women, or after gynecological surgeries or estrogen-reducing cancer treatments. Their company also combines applied science, usability, and behavioural change to make sexual health approachable for women.
In an intimate and fascinating conversation, we talked about sexuality, sex, and women’s health, on their life journeys as women entrepreneurs and early discovery of cancer.
Bursting the bubble
Orit shared about her discovery through her work at NEOME, that we as women are half of the population, and yet - we are not a part of the clinical trials. The treatment and the vaccines we get are not tested enough on women to ensure their safety and are not adapted in any way to a woman’s body. It hit her that, for her and her daughters’ future, she must find a way to change that.
She was then exposed to the concept of FemTech, which is any technological solution designed to improve women's health or quality of life. A crucial thing to remember about the importance of FemTech is that while they relate to women's bodies - it is not only about women. When a woman is not healthy or feeling well, it hurts her employer financially as well, it doesn't just affect her family; society and companies need to be aware and face that issue.
It’s not easy for us to discuss these topics. It's taboo. To talk about sex, about how we feel, even as women - we don’t feel comfortable speaking about it with one another, let alone with professionals, a lot of whom are men. From the side view of an investor, Orit shares that when she speaks to other investors about start-ups that are trying to work through and solve issues in the field of women’s health, they don't understand that it is even a big deal. “For years, as women, we haven't talked about these things because we were embarrassed, and how can you later find a solution when no one knows that there's an issue, to begin with?” Allegedly everything is already clear and known. But no! Women get to the ages of 30-40 and don’t understand what is happening to them and their bodies.
From a personal path to an entrepreneurial journey
Orit was still an attorney in the capital market, far away from FemTech. She had the privilege to bring companies to IPOs and it made her understand that there is a lack of women in this industry, and after a thorough investigation with Inbal Polak, her first co-founder at NEOME, they realized that the shortage is not only in female investors, but also that the map for investing today reflects the taste and wishes of a very specific part of the industry. Even if we look at it from our human nature point of view, it’s natural for people to invest in others who resemble them and who they feel they can connect with. In this, we see a greater challenge for women to raise funds to advance and become a unicorn. We also see studies today that show that women have better results when they are leading companies.
At NEOME, they invest in products and services that improve women's lives. VCs always say- “follow the money”, but sometimes women still don’t have the knowledge or courage to come to the front of the stage and take financial responsibility, and it’s one of the added values that is crucial for driving the economy forward. The combined efforts that NEOME takes part in creates a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts, a chain of value from helping women invent technologies, to women investing and managing their money in a much better way.
Taking control over our medical treatment
Rebecca shares that to some extent, her work in the field stems from a desire to establish some order in the world. In the field of women’s health, she realized that the world is not where it needs to be. Rebecca had cervical cancer at the age of 48 - she personally experienced the medical failures and their fatal impact- in her case, it was an abnormal pap smear whose results were not passed on to her.
A few words about cervical cancer that are important for you to know - it is one of the only cancers that, in early detection, can be avoided. It starts with the papillomavirus (HPV) and has a range of strains - some of them violent. 80% of men and women have this virus throughout their lives, as we can be infected as soon as we start having sex. Sometimes it is in a "dormant" state in the body, where it can either erupt due to change or simply passes on its own. However, sometimes medical intervention is required.
In general, there is so much ignorance about the symptoms that women go through, and the conversation should start with talking about female physiology and health, from menstruation to menopause. Today most of the discussions are concentrated on pregnancy and childbirth and much less on other physiological mechanisms. In Aquafit, Rebecca shares that they find that with some doctors, there's a treatment for a specific symptom, instead of searching and treating the root problem, and there's no exposure to the information of the consequences for the different treatments and their costs. There is a huge gap between what we need to know about ourselves, and what we know.
So, what is our place in this given situation, as women? No one can take care of our health, other than ourselves. Every one of us needs to simply decide the quarter of the year in which she does the tests for everything she needs because the control over our life is in our own hands.
Inbal adds, that if something is bothering you - insist on it. Find the doctor that will go with your intuition and needs and will do whatever they can for you to be healthy. Because if it’s not done - it can cost lives. Orit points out that it’s not only, that women don’t know, but also that the field has not been explored. There is a lack of information and access that starts from medical school - there is gynecological medicine, but there is no comprehensive women’s health department - just like a child is not a small adult, women are not like men. The more we raise awareness and bring women to key roles, the more we can change our reality for the better.
Rebecca shares about the medical procedure that she's gone through: “They sent me home with a vaginal dilator that looked like plastic, that I needed to put gel on it and go home. As a product designer, I looked at it and thought to myself, that there wasn't any thought given to the consumer experience. The options were to use it, or not have a sex life. I started searching for an alternative.”
When I asked her how she faced the complex experience of the treatments, Rebecca replied that it wasn’t difficult because she made sure there was always healthy communication between her and her medical team, in a way that suited her. When she came across people who were less informative, she simply reflected that to them. She took ownership over her life and her treatment and was assertive to get the results she wanted. This ability is relevant to every entrepreneur - if you're walking into a room, and you don’t know how to read the room and the people in front of you, it prevents you from stepping up as an entrepreneur. It’s not just assertiveness or being sensitive, it’s entrepreneurial maturity in every field.
From a personal loss to finding your inner fire
Inbal shared that when she was a child, her parents found out her older sister had Prader-Willi Syndrome. She grew feeling older than her sister, even though she was younger, while and “age gap” between them got wider and wider. They always had a very close bond, and Inbal realized that not only is she the big sister, but she will also accompany her as a mother and grandmother; Her sister will always need her.
In 2010 her sister was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Though she is 34 years old, her mental age is only 12. Inbal had just finished her Ph.D., and she understood that she wants to bring innovation to patients in her life. She went through four difficult years, which ended with her giving birth to her youngest son but also losing her sister just three weeks later. On her sister’s last days, they sat in her room together, listening to the song “Adama” by Ofra Haza; realizing that her sister would succumb to her disease soon, Inbal promised her that she will do everything within her power to avenge the disease that took her too soon.
There is s the coping of the patient himself/herself, but there is also the coping of the family and friends who must share in the struggle of their loved one’s disease. We must accommodate and make room for those feelings and struggles as well- it’s another issue that we don’t talk about enough.
"She died and I was left with guilt and great sorrow, and I think of Newton's second law which says very simply - the force you exert on an object is the force acting back on you. Here's what I feel - if I do not turn it into something good, it will kill me." Two years later she connected to Shlomit, who shared her idea with Inbal for dealing with ovarian cancer, and Inbal knew she was in the right place.
Many times, I find myself having this conversation with entrepreneurs, who avoid bringing their personal story into their professional life - because it feels uncomfortable–there is this inner voice telling them that they are “using” their story because raising money for the company turns their personal pain into commercialization. It's crucial to understand and set the record straight - we are not commercializing something bad that has happened to us for our own profit. This is not our goal. What we do have, as entrepreneurs, is the opportunity to make an impact from our own personal experience, where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.