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Elvie’s CEO Tania Boler is breaking the women’s health taboo with smart connected devices

Written by Eric Johansson on Thursday, 04 July 2019. Posted in Big business, Interviews

Having raised the biggest femtech round ever, Elvie’s founder promises its pelvic floor trainer and wearable breast pump are just the beginning

Elvie’s CEO Tania Boler is breaking the women’s health taboo with smart connected devices

Tania Boler Photo credit: Elvie

The boobs were huge. You couldn’t miss them if you happened to walk down Columbia Road, Shoreditch, Brick Lane and east London where the inflatable mammaries had appeared overnight across different rooftops in April 2019. The smallest was three metres tall and the largest one measured a height of six metres. Photo-happy pedestrians flooded social media with images and occasional tongue in-cheek comments about the rooftop tits. Most of them also used the #FreeTheFeed tagline, which was the whole point to why Elvie had pumped up the boobs to begin with.

The femtech scaleup offering technological solutions to female health issues had launched the campaign to destigmatise breastfeeding and to market its new wearable breast pump. Even though the UK has come a long way in recent years, a Unicef UK report revealed that it has some of the lowest rates in the world. Only 34% of British women breastfed their babies after six months compared to 62% in Sweden. The taboo surrounding the topic was part of the problem, with people being uncomfortable discussing it. And that’s why Elvie had inflated the breasts on top of five buildings across London. “Ultimately, if you want to spark conversations you need to be bold and humorous, especially when you’re talking about quite yucky taboo issues,” argues Tania Boler, co-founder and CEO of the scaleup.

Elvie first hit the spotlight with the release of its pelvic floor trainer in 2015. Even though people had told Boler she was crazy for investing time and money into launching a product that would ultimately go inside vaginas, both Elvie’s kegel exerciser and breast pump have since found their way into John Lewis stores and become smash hits across the pond. Both connected devices can be controlled and tracked via apps. On the back of the success, the scaleup raised a $42m series B round in April 2019. It was reportedly the biggest round ever raised for a femtech startup. “It’s amazing and a game-changer for Elvie but it also an important milestone for femtech, which didn’t even exist as a category three years ago,” Boler says. 

Her journey to become the face of the femtech revolution began two decades ago when she heard about the African Aids epidemic in 1999. At the time she was studying for her master’s degree in international education policy at Stanford University. “I recognised that in eastern and southern Africa there’s really no point in putting much money into [safe sex and reproductive health] education as teachers were dying or children were orphaned and dropped out of school,” she remembers. But what really struck her was people’s reluctance to talk about HIV and Aids. “There was so much taboo and secrecy and if we could just break open some of these conversations we could see that we would have a much bigger impact,” she says.

In the following decade Boler became a doctor of philosophy in teenage pregnancy and HIV in South Africa at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She used her degree as a senior adviser on HIV and education for social justice NGO ActionAid and helped create an educational programme to battle HIV for UNESCO. “I am used to shinning a spotlight to issues that no one wants to talk about but that are quite normal to human life,” Boler summarises. 

Photo credit: Elvie

When she had her own child it became abundantly clear to her that the taboo surrounding reproductive health wasn’t confined to Africa. Boler’s own experience made her look into how common it is for women to encounter problems such as incontinence due to the stress their pelvic floor endure during the gestation of their baby. “I was just so shocked by the statistics,” she says. “There’s this hidden epidemic for women’s health. It’s crazy that one in three women suffer from preventable bladder problems and nobody wants to talk about bladder problems.”

To her, this unwillingness to discuss it led to unnecessary suffering, especially as there were treatments to these ailments. Through her French husband she learned that it was normal for new mothers in France to attend pelvic floor strength rehabilitation classes with healthcare professionals. Knowing this, she originally set out to fix the UK problem by seeing if there was a way to incorporate the French model in Britain. “It was not that I wanted specifically to create a business – I just wanted to find a solution,” Boler explains. 

However, she soon asked herself why women actually needed to go to a hospital to get access to technology that could help. Maybe there was a way to bring the big “horrible device” out from clinics and into people’s home. “The eureka moment came as I was reading the Economist [about the huge] increase in wearable tech and sports tech – like Fitbit and Jawbone – and in particular the use of sensors that track [people’s performance],” Boler remembers. She realised the same level of innovation could be made to boost women’s health and set out to do just that.

Confessing to knowing nothing about engineering at the time, she enlisted the help of a friend to sketch something up after talking to some academics. Then she heard about a competition for tech startups with Innovate UK, the public agency offering innovation support for startups. “Looking back, I was so naive,” Boler laughs. She originally took two days off to work on the application for the competition. “Then six days later I didn’t even understand the questions because I had never worked in the private sector,” she remembers. “I had to call up friends who worked with private equity to understand what the business model was.” Despite these challenges, Boler impressed the judges and walked away with a £100,000 grant in April 2013. 

Following the competition, she hired two graduates as her first engineers and began to work on a prototype out of a Hackney workshop. However, realising her vision proved more challenging than expected. “To be honest, we would’ve failed,” Boler confesses. “We didn’t know what we were doing.” 

Even though wearables were having a moment – Forbes even stated that 2014 would be the year of the wearable after the launch of Fitbit’s gadgets, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear range and Sony Smartwatch 2 – creating a connected kegel exerciser was something completely different. “This tech is so hard, even for a piece of wearable tech because it is inserted into the body,” Boler explains. “It needs to be waterproof, have a strong Bluetooth connection. You know, it’s a complex product.” By the end of the summer of 2013 the Elvie CEO knew she needed help. 

At the time, few people could compete with Alexander Asseily when it came to having the expertise in wearable internet of things devices. He’d co-founded Jawbone, the wearable consumer technology company, in 1998 and served as its CEO until 2007, as executive chairman until 2010 and as non-executive chairman until 2015. By 2013 Asseily had spearheaded the company’s development of internet of things devices, like its then-groundbreaking Bluetooth headset and a lifestyle-tracking wristband. This had seen Asseily named the 33rd most influential person in Silicon Valley by Business insider. His co-founder Hosain Rahman even made the annual Time Magazine Most Influential People list in 2014. 

Jawbone is by no means Asseily’s only venture. In 2011, he’d become a founder of opinion network State and in May 2013 he’d founded VC and private equity firm the Zulu Group. He’s also invested in successful companies like UK unicorn Improbable and money transfer startup Azimo. 

While Jawbone imploded in 2017 after failing to compete with the likes of Fitbit, few in the wearable technology sector were held in as high regard as Asseily was in 2013. And that was why Boler decided to pitch to him about investing in Elvie. 

However, piquing “the king of wearable tech’s” interest could be a challenge as many entrepreneurs approaching Asseily with similar motives had learned. “But Elvie just grabbed his attention,” Boler remembers. To ensure things were done right, Asseily came in to offer some guidance, particularly on the engineering side. “He came up with strategies and made us think it through,” she continues. “Quite quickly he’d worked on it so much that we decided to become co-founders as well.” With Asseily stepping up as chairman and investing in the venture, Elvie had the funding and knowhow to make the company a success.

One of the most important pieces of advice he offered Boler and her team was to ignore the haters and focus on developing the product. “So for us it was about putting our heads down and genuinely ignore the fact some people thought we were crazy,’” Boler says. 

Having Asseily on the board together with the Metail co-founder Tom Adeyoola and Nex Markets CEO Seth Johnson also helped when it came to raising money. “All our network and introductions came from those three individuals,” Boler explains. Indeed, she argues that every investor since, including the ones behind the massive series B round led by private holding company IPGL and supported supported by VC firms Octopus Ventures and Impact Ventures UK, can be traced back to those original board members. “But at the time I would’ve never guessed it would happen,” she continues. “I’m sure every entrepreneur says you just have to focus on building relationships because you don’t know which ones will one day be important.”

And what was important at that stage was to get the pelvic floor trainer market-ready. Developing the technology was just as vital for it to be successful as the design. “We spent so much thinking about all that, particularly for pelvic floor products,” Boler explains. “As this is seen as a medical issue, you tend to design it in a white horrible and sterile. Or it’s like a sex toy in which case it’s big and black. So we didn’t want to make it pink or anything [like that as] women like good designs. They also like good tech. So that was definitely part of it.”

Photo credit: Elvie

In late 2014 the kegel exerciser was ready to preorder and was officially launched at the beginning of 2015. Even though the team could see some positive sales numbers, it wasn’t until a reporter from the New York Post called her up that Boler realised just how huge Elvie’s impact had been. “The reporter said: ‘I would like to interview you about this crazy phenomena that’s taking over New York – people are going wild about this product and everybody is talking about it on the Upper East Side,’” she recalls. Even though the CEO tried to hide it, she was surprised to hear what the voice on the line was telling her. “We had no idea that people were talking about our product, specially since it’s an intimate product,” Boler says. 

Hanging up after the interview, she knew she’d proven Elvie’s early detractors wrong. Soon, others noticed too. “Suddenly we became the darling of the tech scene [and] started winning a gazillion awards,” she remembers. “Whatever it was, it happened very quickly. We went from being weird to being something cool. But I think that there’s always going to be a bit of a blur about what’s weird and what’s cool, right? I’m quite happy to be weird.”

However, as Boler and her board members saw the sales spike, she was also faced with one of the cardinal rules of surviving in the age of constant consumption and limited attention spans: you’re only as good as your next product. “[I was] exhausted because [I’d] been trying to bring that product to market,” she recalls. “It’s so tiring. But as soon as you launch everyone is immediately asking what your next product is.” So while the women of New York were euphoric about the trainer, Elvie needed something new. 

Emphasising that the then-team of ten all pitched in to come up with what the next step would be, Boler reveals she had another eureka moment which led to the work on the breast pump. The brainwave came when she was trying to figure out where the best place for the pelvic floor trainer was in a shop and landed on the conclusion that it would fit in quite nicely alongside breast pumps. Boler suddenly realised how similar it was to the kegel exerciser. “It’s a medical device that’s been neglected for such a long time and it’s essential for women’s empowerment,” she says.

An added synergy was that her team now included people who’d worked on Dyson’s vacuum cleaners. “Suddenly all the buzzers were going off and, oh my god, all I’ve got was breast pumps,” Boler remembers. She ran into the office and told her co-workers about her epiphany. “And they said: ‘We’re not going to do it just because you think that’s a great idea, we need to do a proper process,’” she continues. “So they went and did a proper process to work out what would be the best commercial opportunity. And it turned out to be the breast pump anyway.” 

In September 2018 Elvie unveiled the new device during London Fashion Week. The model and new mum Valeria Garcia shocked and thrilled onlookers as she went down the catwalk, visibly wearing the breast pump underneath her bra. “I felt confident and happy to do it,” Garcia later told BAZAAR.com

The stunt didn’t just announce to the world that Elvie had a new product. For Boler’s newly recruited marketing team members, it had been a chance to flex their muscles. “When they came onboard last summer they said we need to really stand out,” she remembers. The team had been busy at work creating a campaign for the breast pump that would stick with the company ethos to change the conversation about women’s health. “Just because you’ve become a parent as a woman, you’re still a woman,” Boler explains. “You still have a career and ambitions. You still want to be sexy or whatever it is. So for us, having a model walk down the catwalk whilst pumping was [about shaping] the woman you want to be, the mother you want to be.”

The London Fashion Week stunt was later followed with an ad stating that many breast pump users felt like cows and the huge inflatable breasts on top of London rooftops in April 2019. And Boler promises it won’t be the last. “We are just going to keep raising our voices around womanhood and women’s health issues,” she says. 

Elvie isn’t the only startup challenging the taboo surrounding female health by breaking the silence surrounding it and by using technology. Over the past five years there has been a rise of femtech startups around the world. “All of these different services are dealing with different aspects of women’s lives but are all sending the same message which is that female consumers have been overlooked and it’s an important opportunity,” Boler argues.

Indeed, as they’ve achieved more popularity, investors have forgone their old reluctance to invest in the sector. In Germany, period tracking app Clue raised a $20m in 2016 to help women better understand their menstrual health. Glow, a similar app from California, has also raised $23m to date, according to Crunchbase. Moreover, a slew of startups that supply services for freezing eggs as well as businesses like femcare company Callaly have been launched over the past few years. The market is even estimated to be worth $50bn by 2025, according to research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. “As with any innovation it happens in lots of different places and in lots of different ways  and it’s only when you gets to a certain critical mass that you are starting to break through and now we’re breaking through,” Boler continues. 

A similar trend can be spotted in the sexual health sector where often female-led sextech startups are innovating to liberalise the way women and men enjoy their bodies. And just like in the femtech sector, these companies have struggled with deep-rooted taboos. Similarly to the adjacent industry, investors are becoming more interested in investing in this sector. 

As both investors and future entrepreneurs recognise the opportunities in the femtech sector, they will look inevitably look to Elvie for inspiration. After all, the company inked a partnership with the NHS in August 2018 for its pelvic floor trainers and the breast pump has already made an impression on people beyond the London Fashion Week catwalk. At the same time the scaleup’s team has grown to over 50 employees, with many more in the pipeline. “That just implies that we are going to start working on our idea and power and we are going to launch lots more products over the next few years without compromising the quality,” Boler says. However, she won’t reveal what Elvie’s next product will be, only hints it could be “take neglected medical devices” and turn them into connected ones.

So what’s the end goal for Elvie? “If you take a step back and think about it it’s crazy that it’s never been a consumer tech brand for women,” Boler concludes. “So that’s our goal, we want to be the first ever women’s healthtech brand. And it’s a massive opportunity.” 

About the Author

Eric Johansson

As web editor and resident Viking, Johansson ensures EB is filled with engaging and eclectic entrepreneurial stories. While one of our most prolific tech writers, he has sharpened his editorial teeth by writing about entertainment and fitness. Follow him on Twitter at @EricJohanssonLJ to catch up with his stream of consciousness.

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