By Geri Stengel
Amanda French, cofounder and CEO at Emme, is applying her medical device development background to solve the oral contraceptives’ missed pill problem. After three years of building and testing its Bluetooth-enabled “smart case,” which works with more than 100 birth control brands, it has launched.
When you miss taking a pill, the app automatically sends user-customized reminders. It notifies at-risk users when back-up contraception is needed. The app also allows users to track symptoms in the categories of “mood, body, sex, and flow” related to their menstrual cycles or hormones. When you track symptoms, you can see patterns as they pertain to pill habits. The data can be used to understand the effects specific birth control pills have on hormonal issues and help women and their doctors find the right pill in the right dose. But, like many female founders tackling women’s health care, funding has been a challenge.
Emerging technologies have the possibility of improving health outcomes and reducing medical costs. Yet, a massive market is ignored—women—who make up more than 50% of the population. Stanford Biodesign’s mission is to advance health technology innovation to improve lives everywhere. In 2016-2017, as a fellow at Stanford Biodesign, French and others focused on looking for and understanding unmet needs in the healthcare space.
“I was floored and disappointed at the lack of innovation that I was seeing in women’s health, especially with their experience with the [birth control] pill,” she exclaimed. According to Grandview Research, the U.S. contraceptive market size is expected to reach $7.2 billion in 2020.
French noticed a gap in the “pill experience.” Oral contraceptives are nearly 100% effective in preventing pregnancies. However, “adherence is such a challenge,” sighed French. More than half—52%— of women reported missing taking the pill. She had experienced this problem herself. Unfortunately, missing taking the pill leads to 1 million unplanned pregnancies in the U.S. each year. It also disrupts hormone balance, causing side effects such as bleeding, nausea, mood changes, and headaches.
Women are blamed for the problem—”user error.” “Education will fix the problem” is the most common refrain. Other health sectors are taking a more proactive approach. These sectors don’t expect the patient to do better. They use technology to help. “I found it shocking that there is such a common pain point that was not being addressed by any innovative technology,” said French.
In 2017, she and her co-founder Janene Fuerch, MD, launched Emme. The first couple of years were spent building the first version of the system and proving its efficacy using a rigorous national data sample. “We saw an 80% reduction in missed pills and 85% improved confidence and peace of mind,” said French.
Finding funding was challenging. Women’s healthcare is underfunded. “Male investors didn’t see how they made money solving women’s health problems,” said Amy Millman, president of Springboard Enterprises, in a recent article I wrote. Recently, she launched the Women’s Health Innovation Coalition to focus attention on gender-specific health. “There’s been a lack of acknowledgment that women’s health is a massive business opportunity that’s worth investing in,” said French. “Many investors told me women’s health is a niche industry and the missed pill problem isn’t one that could lead to a pain point worth solving and worth investing in.
“As someone who came out of the cardiovascular and hearing aid health spaces, I saw there was almost no technology being developed for women’s health that could be used in the hospital, clinic, and home settings,” said French. An initial grant of $100,000 came from Stanford Biodesign, Atlantic Pediatric Device Consortium, and VentureWell. The funding was used to provide scientific evidence of the effectiveness of Emme’s system.
Being part of organizations that support budding entrepreneurs, and being comfortable introducing herself to industry movers and shakers and leveraging those contacts has opened doors for French. A case in point was meeting Deb Kilpatrick, Evidation Health CEO, MedTechWomen cofounder, long-time mentor at Stanford Biodesign, and advisory board member of the Ferolyn Fellowship. After hearing Kilpatrick speak at a MedTechWomen in 2016, French approached her. “Let’s have coffee,” she said.
The relationship built over time. “There’s a misconception that the mentor is always helping the mentee,” said French. It wasn’t just her taking from Kilpatrick. French provided insights into the sectors she knew best and referred engineers when Kilpatrick was looking for talent. Kilpatrick became an advisor to Emme. She introduced Christine Aylward of Magnetic Ventures, which led the seed round of $2.5 million, which recently closed. Kilpatrick is now on the company’s board as its first independent board member. Bolt led the pre-seed round. To date, Emme has raised $3.5 million.
Money wasn’t the only challenge French faced. For the company, the coronavirus pandemic didn’t just mean working from home. The team had to rethink how it would do extensive testing in-house and contract firms for design verification of the hardware. One of Emme’s mechanical engineers built out a full design verification test setup in his kitchen.
Emme’s components are sourced from around the world. The company had to rethink its material planning strategy, too. It ordered more components to ensure it had the parts in stock.
While Emme is focused on birth control pills to start, French recognizes the system’s potential for ensuring that medication and even vitamins are taken. “That is certainly on our horizon,” said French.
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