Taboos in health have kept vast populations in shame and fear for generations. Busting these taboos is not only liberating society, but revealing explosively lucrative opportunities for the startup pioneers willing to tackle them head-on. Our Future of Health pod at Octopus Ventures has been investing in the pioneers daring to confront these taboos, so last week we hosted ‘An Evening of Taboo’ at London’s Hospital club (appropriately) for the healthtech community.
Tania Boler of Elvie was our key speaker, backed by a panel of healthtech startup founders, each of whom are busting a particular taboo area. Terms like ‘menopause’, ‘obesity’, ‘vagina’, ’depression’, ‘pelvic floor’ and ‘breast-feeding’ flowed freely without so much as a nervous cough or raised eyebrow. Here was proof of how far these taboo-busters have already come in discovering massive growth opportunities within the neglected areas of health, both mental and physical. Normalising the issues society traditionally shunned, like erectile dysfunction and mental health, takes guts, but also proves that fortune favours the bold.
Tania opened up proceedings by defining the health sector taboo opportunity: “an investment thesis based on latent demand and explosive growth”. She quickly added colour to this definition by citing examples such as HIV and menstruation. Killer ‘AIDS’ is now framed in the more measured, less feared (though still stigmatised) term ‘HIV’. Likewise, menstruation is slowly moving away from a shameful, ‘unclean’, perception. Tania’s main message was that, if you’re going to tackle a taboo, you’ve got to do it head-on. Her company, Elvie’s, #letfannyfly campaign promoted their cornerstone product, a pelvic floor exerciser, in such a standout way that it was banned even by the ‘free-thinking’ Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For the launch of Elvie’s silent wearable breast pump, giant inflatable breasts were placed on rooftops around London. But these promotional stunts are grounded in clear strategy and Elvie recently achieved the largest ever fundraise ($42 million) for a femtech company. As Tania explained, taboo busting isn’t just about selling product, it should aim to turn an issue from ‘shameful’ to ‘shareable’. Gleeful posts from breast pump and pelvic floor exerciser-users on social media are the real measure of success and Elvie’s following is growing every day.
So what do aspiring taboo busters need front and centre to achieve commercial – and social – success? Here’s where the panel of entrepreneurs came out:
- Make your story personal
George Bell is Growth Lead at Sanctus, a company with the ambition to put mental health gyms on every high street. George made it clear: “if I tell you that I have personally experienced depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, it’s going to be a lot more powerful than if I just tell you about our product.” All our founders had personal stories to tell that fed their authentic passion for their products. So the lesson is simple: if you’re in the business of taboo-busting, there’s no room for shyness. Be out and proud with your personal story. Lead by example and your potential customers will be much more likely to listen – and to buy.
- Make a very, very good product
“If you’re going after something big and hairy, make sure you’re going to solve that problem,” said Chris Edson from OurPath. OurPath started life as a diabetes prevention product but is now in the business of mass lifestyle change. OurPath’s customers love the way it leads them from an immediate, stigmatised issue like diabetes or obesity, towards a new way of living. Whether it’s a service such as OurPath, or hardware like Elvie’s pelvic floor trainer or wireless breast pump, tackling taboos requires a product that’s up to the job. If your customers are bold enough to meet you in the marketplace, make sure you don’t let them down.
- Target a core problem
George Pallis is co-founder and CEO of Manual, which provides men with solutions to taboo issues such as erectile dysfunction (ED) and hair loss. George’s advice to potential taboo busters is to make sure the problem you’re setting out to solve is a big one. The statistics in his area are big: a recent study showed that 25% of patients going to the doctor for the first time for ED were under the age of 40, which is notable when considering that only 25% of men actually get treated for the condition (WebMD). The bigger and more hidden the problem, the more secure the opportunity for explosive growth.
- Put the person you want to help at the centre of your business
Just because they’ve been in the shadows, sometimes for centuries, doesn’t mean taboo issues aren’t big. Menopause, for example, not only effects 51% of the world’s population at one time or other, it’s also composed of around 70 symptoms, making it a highly complex affliction. Marje Isabelle, founder and Director of Fertile Matters , understands the importance therefore of never letting the issue over-shadow the individual customer. In her case, education is a key part of the customer – and investor – journey. Putting the customer at the centre of your business will inform your product, strategy and vision.
The Future of Health
Tania warned that taboo issues, by their nature, are polarising: some investors just won’t engage. As investors ourselves, we believe – in fact we know – that the really exciting developments in healthcare are in the taboo areas. Borrowing a mantra from Sanctus, “self awareness is a super power”, so the more aware we are of the opportunities in taboo, the more we can all benefit: entrepreneurs, investors, customers and society.