Addressing gender disparities in health with a femtech revolution

15 Nov 2023

Tanya Mulcahy. Image: Health Innovation Hub Ireland

Health Innovation Hub Ireland director Tanya Mulcahy discusses the changing health-tech ecosystem and the need for more women founders in the industry.

Over time, our ability to live longer extends. What was considered old age a few decades ago could now be seen as a person in their prime. But it’s not just about living longer, it’s about ensuring that those extra years are healthy.

This is what advances in medtech, biopharma and health-tech are aiming to achieve. There are plenty of major life sciences and pharma giants working on advanced therapeutics and funding research in the area of health and many more innovative health-tech start-ups that are hoping to create life-changing advances.

In Ireland specifically, there is also the Health Innovation Hub Ireland (HIHI), which works across the health sector with Irish businesses to improve patient care through new technologies and products.

Tanya Mulcahy is the director of HIHI, with more than 30 years’ experience in the start-up, pharma, product development and research industry.

“At the heart of it, I’m a scientist. I studied biochemistry at University College Cork (UCC). I loved learning about the systems in the body, why and how we function at a biological level, and what and why things go wrong,” she said.

“It was genetics that really interested me, and I completed a PhD in cancer genetics, looking at mutations that confer risk in Irish families with a history of colon cancer. I then moved to Dublin where I spent a couple of years at Trinity College (TCD) as a postdoc working on genetics of bipolar disorder.”

Mulcahy also gained experience in the US, first at a large pharma company and then at a biotech-start-up that was developing lab-on-chip technology for genomic analysis. “In a start-up, you learn a bit of everything, and I think that’s where I realised I wanted to be involved in creating new innovative products and start-ups. Fast forward eight years, two boys and a third on the way and we moved back home!”

Strengthening Ireland’s health ecosystem

As director of HIHI, Mulcahy wants to support Irish-based healthcare companies in the development and implementation of their products. “There are some amazing innovators out there and our role is to try and support development of these products so that they impact patients faster,” she said.

“As the work of HIHI expands, my role is more focused on our strategic direction – looking at where we need to be in Ireland to support healthcare innovation and how to get those innovations into our healthcare system so that they have impact and making sure that Ireland is well represented at an international level in the area of healthcare innovation.”

HIHI was established in 2016 and since then has supported more than 500 healthcare companies, engaged with more than 400 healthcare staff ideas and delivered innovation education programmes to more than 1,000 people.

Mulcahy has been instrumental in expanding HIHI from a pilot programme to a national entity and she said that, while it’s challenging, the location brought a lot of benefits. “The beauty of Ireland and Irish academia in particular is that ‘everyone knows someone’ and that’s all you need to get a national partnership going,” she said.

“The successful pilot was delivered through University College Cork and we already had a good relationship with the team behind the BioInnovate programme in Galway, MTU is just down the road from UCC and I had some good connections in TCD from my time there also, so getting people to become partners was easy.”

‘We tend to treat a condition or illness once it occurs, but we are very passive about preventing development of those illnesses’

While collaboration was easy, Mulcahy noted that the biggest challenge was making a relatively small budget stretch across four locations. However, she added that HIHI has a strong team across all the partner sites, including nurses, engineers, designers, biochemists, physiotherapists and more. “Everyone brings a different perspective and that’s what makes us work well together.”

The hub supports innovation at early-idea stage, pre-commercial stage, prototype and product pilot stage. “We have just completed a pilot of a Parkinson’s speech support programme developed by a great Irish start-up called Telea (formerly Teleatherapy). The results for patients and in saving time for healthcare staff have been very positive,” said Mulcahy.

“We’ve piloted a compostable PPE apron developed by HaPPE Earth – staff loved it for its functionality but also for the impact it has on carbon emissions (75pc reduction in CO2 when compared to standard PPE).”

Another project is My OT&Me, which provides digital and online occupational therapy solutions for children. “Children are assessed in person, enrolled in the online programme [and] an interactive box of games and gadgets is sent to their home and parents play a role in therapy. Our pilot showed 50pc of participants did not require further intervention after the programme. This has major implications for our paediatric OT waiting lists.”

The future of healthcare

Unsurprisingly, one of the most pressing challenges Mulcahy sees in the healthcare industry is ensuring that, for those living longer, the added years are healthy years. She added that currently, Ireland has a much more reactive approach to healthcare, rather than a proactive one.

“We tend to treat a condition or illness once it occurs, but we are very passive about preventing development of those illnesses. With biomarkers, at-home testing and wearables, plus what we can learn from data and AI, we should in the future be able to predict, alert and act on any deterioration in our own health,” she said.

“The second opportunity longevity presents is when we are living with a healthcare condition, that we can manage this as much as possible at home or in care communities that provide a better quality of life than in a hospital. Again, this will involve digital tools that engage with clinical teams remotely while ensuring the best care is provided. In Ireland, this will require a massive change in mindset, processes and will absolutely require our health IT infrastructure to change.”

Another trend she sees taking hold is advancements in the area of diagnostics both in the tools itself and in the decision-making process. “Today, we still rely heavily on human decision-making and this is good, but technology and AI can augment and support this and in the future I suspect will replace some types on diagnostics.”

Opportunities in femtech

A need for more women in tech, more women in health and more women-founded start-ups is not new. But at the intersection of all of these disciplines comes a very real need to ensure women’s needs are met in the healthcare industry.

Despite the fact that women make up roughly half of the global population, women’s health lacks funding. “Women experience physiological life events that men do not [such as] menstruation, pregnancy, post-partum, endometriosis, PCOS, peri- and menopause and also are disproportionally affected by conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, cardiac health, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and others,” said Mulcahy.

“In 2022, we launched Ireland’s femtech ecosystem, bringing all those interested in women’s health together as a community to drive support, learn and collaborate. We have nearly 400 members of our network and more than 25 femtech companies on our map.”

Mulcahy added that she’s seeing a “global revolution in femtech product development” at the moment, with investors realising the huge market and buying power.

“What we’ve seen are products in menstrual blood collection and analysis for at-home testing, menopause apps and sensors, supplements, post-partum care products, lifestyle apps and incontinence and pelvic floor solutions,” she said.

“If I was to position Ireland in this global market, I would call for deep-tech, research-informed and transformative products. Those that are game changers when it comes to women’s health.”

While a recent TechIreland report showed that only 16pc of start-ups in Ireland have at least one woman founder, Mulcahy said supports are increasing. This year, HIHI is seeking applications for its Femtech Call, a competition to select the best products or services aimed at women’s healthcare.

Innovative products or services can be market-ready or in development and Mulcahy said anyone with something in development should apply.

“Keep it simple, define the problem well and how your solution addresses the problem. It’s also important to understand the end user. For example, if your product is aimed at menopause but you don’t fully understand the symptoms and what’s causing them, that will come through in the application,” she said.

“Your solution may not be 100pc perfect but that’s where the pilot will help. You’ll get feedback from end users and will understand its impact. Some people might be too early for this call, with an idea only. In that case, submit to our Innovation Portal online, we will still support.”

The current Femtech call closes on 17 November 2023.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic