Episode 37: Tania Boler
Smart breast pumps and Kegel trainers - taking on taboo issues with tech
healthHackers® Episode 37 with femtech entrepreneur and CEO, Tania Boler
In this episode, we cover:
Signs that suggest you have a weak pelvic floor
The shocking amount of new mums dealing with prolapse (regardless of whether they had a caesarean or vaginal birth)
The real cause of lower back pain in 50% of women, according to Tania
How long it takes for your pelvic floor to strengthen by itself
What leisure activity can apparently wreak havoc on your pelvic floor
Why Tania believes women’s tech products haven’t had the same attention as men’s
How the male-dominated tech sector reacted to Elvie’s first smart device - that sits inside a vagina
Why talking about periods should be as acceptable as talking about the weather
Why Tania launched her second product: a silent, wearable breast pump
What Tania wants every woman in the world to know
Her key tips for entrepreneurs with an idea in femtech
The best advice she’s ever been given as a CEO
A hint about what’s coming next in the Elvie series of smart devices for women
Solving women’s intimate issues with smart tech
Entrepreneur Tania Boler has a knack for taking on taboo women’s issues with clever, comfortable tech designed to make life better.
It started with a smart pelvic floor trainer. ‘Smart’ because the device sits inside a vagina, but communicates with an app on your phone- setting you personalised games to play by contracting the intimate hammock of muscles between your legs.
Before coming up with the idea for the Elvie Trainer, Tania didn’t know much about the importance of exercising her pelvic floor (it seems few women do). She thought it was: “something strange to do with sex,” she told me, or something to do with seeing if you can “hold yourself while you're trying to pee.”
When Tania got pregnant, her pilates instructor told her that taking care of her pelvic floor muscle was “the most important thing you can do as a woman to look after your body.” Surprised by this statement, Tania mentioned it to her French husband.
“He just said: ‘But of course, all women have to look after their pelvic floor. Do women in England not do that?’”
As a scientist and author with a background in sexual reproductive health, she began researching further and was “completely shocked,” she told me.
What do pelvic floor muscles (a.k.a Kegel muscles) actually do?
The pelvic floor supports the pelvic organs, so exercising it can strengthen areas around your bladder, vagina or penis, and therefore impact bladder control, childbirth and even improve sexual function.
“The problem is most women don't think about it until they start having issues and the main issue being that it becomes quite weak,” she said.
There are a range of symptoms that indicate you may have a weak pelvic floor.
“The most common one is stress urinary incontinence which basically is accidental leakage. Often, when you hear women say things like: ’I wet myself laughing’ or ‘ I ran for the bus and peed myself’ - that's when you're beginning to lose bladder control slightly,” she explained.
“Something I had never even heard about... is prolapse. Women just don't talk about it.
“As women get older… the pelvic floor is getting weaker and weaker and it gets to a point where it can't actually sustain the pelvic organs and they start to descend through the vagina.”
Shockingly, Tania told me that half of all women will get prolapse at some point after the menopause, and that “80% of new mother's have prolapse of some form and it's not even to do with whether or not you have vaginal childbirth or a cesarean.”
“One in 10 women need to have an operation. I don't know if you've heard about the mesh scandal?” Tania asked me. I had. It makes me squirm with anguish for those poor women.
Other signs of a weak Kegel muscles include loss of sensation during sex and lower back pain. In fact, according to Tania, half of all women with lower back pain are actually dealing with the effects of a problem with their pelvic floor.
Launching a vaginal device to a male-dominated tech sector
Realising that women were lacking the tools and means to talk about these issues led Tania to launch the Kegel trainer as the first product from Elvie, her tech startup dedicated to improving women’s lives.
“I was just pigheadedly completely determined to get this product out because I knew that it would help women.
“Most investors, including most male investors, didn't understand it and I honestly just didn't care,” she told me.
Tania said releasing the Elvie Trainer helped move the idea of pelvic floor strengthening “from that kind of medical, yucky issue to lifestyle and prevention wellness.”
Once she started working within women’s health tech, she noticed some key differences between the male and female offerings.
“You take any technology product for women and look at it closely, you'll realise it's not had the attention products for men have had.
“So historically, if you're trying to adapt a piece of tech for women it will be on the aesthetic level; let's make it pink, let's turn it into a piece of jewellery.
Many women’s issues are not talked about. Add this to the fact that tech companies are mostly led by men, and therefore “they're not necessarily going to be the first to recognise that there are problems that can be solved through tech,” she explained.
But it seems men don’t actually fare much better when it comes to health solutions.
“There's more tech generally for the male consumer, but specifically for men's health… there's not much either because I'd say when it comes to intimate sexual health and reproductive health, men and women both struggle to talk about it and actually men might even struggle more than women."
Then came the world’s first silent wearable breast pump
“If you think about what epitomises the worst of technology for women I would say it's the breast pump,” Tania told me.
“It's often painful, difficult to use, cumbersome, noisy and you feel like you’re tethered to a wall.”
So, Tania and her Elvie team redesigned it - launching their second device - a smart pump that’s placed on the nipple, inside a bra, allowing a new mum to walk around and get on with her life while quietly expressing milk.
“Women, again, have gone evangelical about this product,” she said. The main market for the pump is in America because mothers there “are going back to work so early,” she told me. US women can get subsidy on their health insurance plan for the device.
What’s coming next from Tania and Elvie?
“I can't share too much but we have just raised about $40 million which will allow us to really scale up.”
The plan, Tania told me, is to start working in R&D in parallel so that Elvie can launch new products “every six months or so.”
The next device is due out in early 2020.
I asked if it will be exclusively for women. The answer: yes. “Our mission is to create extraordinary products that improve women’s lives.”
The Elvie Trainer can be prescribed for free on the NHS through a specialist such as a gynaecologist, physiotherapist or women’s health consultant. Speak to your GP first.
The Elvie Pump is available on health insurance in the US.
Follow Tania on Instagram.
Shout-out of thanks to this week’s episode sponsor @MartinBell1966 of The Martin Bell Partnership - a healthcare and digital focused consultancy.