Fundraising lessons from a world-leading femtech pioneer

Tania Boler’s company, Elvie, completed the largest femtech fundraise ever. Lessons learned along the way could help other founders.

When it comes to tech pioneers, Tania Boler is on the frontline. She saw a neglected opportunity in women’s health, applied technology to the problem and now, six years later, is taking her place as an icon of Femtech. In 2019 her company, Elvie, completed the largest femtech fundraise ever. The journey, of course, wasn’t straight forward. But lessons learned along the way could help other founders following Tania’s path.

We first met Tania, and co-founder Alex Asseily, in 2015, before investing in 2016. Tania’s background with the United Nations and Marie Stopes, a leading sexual reproductive health charity, fitted brilliantly with Alex’s experience in consumer products and wearable tech. Alex Asseily had co-founded Jawbone, raising $900 million in the process. Elvie, the company they founded, tackled the taboo but widespread issue of women’s incontinence with a pelvic floor trainer that had the desirability of any Apple device. Now Elvie’s second product, a silent, wearable breast-pump, is taking a similar path, following its high profile launch in London Fashion Week in September 2018. Far from being a ‘niche’ suite of products, Elvie is becoming a brand that boldly brings to light the issues in women’s healthcare that were once ignored. The market is massive.

As with any startup, fundraising fuelled the early stage business. So what were the lessons Tania learned along the way?

“Let your idea be your inspiration”

Belief that your idea is the right one, will drive your ambition to fruition. “I knew that the problem I wanted to solve was real, widespread and unaddressed”, says Tania. The little-known fact was (and still is) that one in ten women have surgery for vaginal prolapse, while the urinary incontinence pad market is worth well over $8bn. Pelvic floor health is the problem, simply solved by the right exercise. This was an awkward intimacy too far for some potential investors. But their lack of enthusiasm didn’t deter Tania. In fact, it was helpfully self-selecting. Those who could see the potential – Alex Asseily among them – were the right people to have on board.

“Embrace the Angels”

Tania’s first fundraise pivot point was winning an Innovate UK grant of £100,000. “This told me my idea had commercial potential. A panel of expert judges had agreed”, she said. Then it was a matter of building a network of support, both financial and advisory. Angel investors began to constellate and Elvie’s board included Alexandra Chong of Lulu, Tom Adeyoola of Metail, Seth Johnson of Nex and, as mentioned, Alex Asseily. Now Tania was connected to the board members’ networks, to other angel investors and, crucially, to retail networks in the UK and the US. The word spread outward, raising a further £2 million.

“Metrics matter”

“At Seed stage it’s easier to pitch on the promise of achievable projections, but Series A gets tougher,” says Tania. “Concrete evidence of expansion needs to be seen”. Showing revenues that demonstrate product market fit, knowing the milestones, then keeping investors informed when they’ve been hit, can push things over the line. That was the case with the Elvie/Octopus partnership. “We went back to Octopus and showed we’d done what we’d said we’d do,” says Tania. Beyond the numbers, demonstrating the technical competence of the team was important for Elvie, as its product was a complex, connected device.

“Don’t let fundraising be your obsession”

Once each fundraise is done, it’s important to get back to execution. “Founders can tend to over-obsess about valuation and the next fundraise. Cash is the fuel in the engine, not the vehicle itself.” Switching back into execution mode means the goal of building a big, successful business stays in the founder’s view. Elvie’s last fundraise, earlier this year, was very fast and very successful. The brand was riding high, with sales of the new product outperforming expectations. Femtech was finally accepted as mainstream, not niche – or, as Tania puts it, “we’d gone from weird to cool.” She was out in front, able to choose who she wanted on board, according to Elvie’s culture and values. Now the $40 million fundraise is over, she’s back building the business.

A final reminder

Tania has one more lesson to pass on: “remember to take time to enjoy yourself!” Any entrepreneur is thinking about the next step – that’s what pioneers do – but taking time to stop and savour the adventure should take priority, even if only on the plane ride back from the biggest Femtech fundraise in history!

Image: Simon King, Octopus Ventures and Tania Boler, Elvie. CPG Photography

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