Earlier this month the Women’s Health Innovation Summit brought together an international collection of investors, researchers, foundations, entrepreneurs and policymakers. It was four days jam packed with panels, mini sessions and networking. Many of the participants were familiar to me either directly or by reputation. There was a feeling of camaraderie which surprised me given the enormous scope of women’s health as an industry. And that’s when I realized that in some ways, women’s health is still treated like a niche market by the larger investment and research community. That needs to change.
Women comprise 52% of the world’s population, and yet there is an incredible gulf in solutions, knowledge, research and efforts to address women’s health and wellness needs.
We are not a niche.
For example, menopause will eventually be experienced by 100% of people who have female reproductive systems. There are very few conditions that have that large of a market, and yet, the dearth of research and understanding is disturbing.
We have a maternal health crisis in the United States with have mortality rates far higher than any other developed country, and the racial disparities in maternal health outcomes are extreme.
In other areas such as mental health, heart disease and cancer, women develop diseases differently from men and in some cases are overrepresented in the disease. But, women are underrepresented in research, testing and innovating in health care. As many people have said, “women are not smaller men.” And, we are not a niche.
We need to redeploy existing tools and resources to address the massive unmet health needs of women.
Women live longer than men, and the cost of an aging society is already massive. End of life is already the largest cost for insurers. If we continue to defer health innovations for half of the population, we are in for a health care catastrophe. One that is avoidable.
Change the National Health Priority
The majority of health research should center women as the primary research subject. Women have been underrepresented or outright excluded from research in all areas from cancer to heart disease. We need to rectify that by mandating that funding from the National Institutes for Health (“NIH”) and similar agencies prioritize closing the knowledge and solution gap in women’s health. That is doable.
Hold the FDA accountable
The FDA’s role is to approve devices, drugs and treatments for all people, and for too long it has allowed solutions to move forward without regard for broader groups of people. Women of all races and ethnicity are underrepresented in research, development, testing and trials. No longer can the FDA afford to approve innovations that omit considerations for half the population.
Fast track funding that closes the gap
Whether it is research and development credits or grants from government agencies, there are so many tools available already that could be redirected on closing the health care gap. Companies love their R&D credits, so why not add a small sweetener for R&D for women’s health? That is a simple, effective tool.
The US government already grants about $4 billion to private companies through its SBIR program in a variety of industries, why not earmark 52% of healthcare funding for women’s health and make sure that the remaining 48% addresses how its product impacts women.
Learn from the “Orphan Drug” legislation
“Orphan drug” legislation has been highly effective in creating incentives for companies to target diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 patients a year. Without that legislation and the corresponding incentives, it is unlikely that we would make the progress we have made in some areas. In fact, one of my investments RenovoRx now has two orphan drug designations for its product, one of which has dramatically extended the quality of life for people living with a specific kind of pancreatic cancer. If legislation for “orphan drugs” has been so effective, why not create legislation to benefit large, unmet needs in women’s health? This designation would have a neutral effect on the federal budget and would catalyze a lot of innovation.
Learn from MOMNIBUS
Currently the MOMNIBUS Act is making its way through the US legislation, and it is important that it pass and be implemented. Watching this wide-reaching, science-based approach to maternal health, I have seen how challenging it is to attack a big problem on multiple fronts.
Big Venture Capital will not lead, only follow
Big venture capital funds follow the lead of Big Pharma, insurance and the major players in the health care industry, so as the industry centers its focus on solving health and wellness issues for 52% of the population, we will see venture capital follow along. Asking large venture capital firms to make this change unilaterally and early is futile. They are slow to change and have not typically had the appetite to break new ground. Our incentives (carrots or sticks) need to focus on the real power holders.
Women investors, large and small, are leading the way
Smaller venture capital funds and angels will continue to fund women’s health because they are typically driven by the demand for innovation coming from women who are not only 52% of the population but also control the majority of investable assets in the United States. But, the ability of small funds and angel investors to fully fund companies from idea to exit is a major challenge, so we need to team up. Personally, I’ve invested in numerous funds in this area including Portfolia’s FemTech Fund I (and soon Fund II), Avestria Ventures and RHIA Ventures. This is in addition to the numerous direct investments made. I’ve got a “crash the net” philosophy to support and fund a variety of solutions in women’s health.
To make changes in women’s health, we need to move the bigger levers, and that is absolutely possible.
Women are not a niche market.
Originally published at https://www.impactseat.com on September 29, 2020.