Elvie co-founder Tania Boler on the women’s health company pioneering the new generation of connected devices

 
Francesca Washtell
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Elvie connects to a smartphone app to track and, according to the evidence so far, improve the strength of a woman's pelvic floor muscles
Elvie connects to a smartphone app to track and, according to the evidence so far, improve the strength of a woman's pelvic floor muscles (Source: Elvie)

Few companies unite celebrities such as Khloe Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow and January Jones (who have all praised the device) and investment dons like Nex exec Seth Johnson and Nex founder Michael Spencer, but Elvie has proven the exception to the rule.

Elvie is a sleek, insertable pod around the size of a pebble that connects to a smartphone app to track and, according to the evidence so far, improve the strength of a woman's pelvic floor muscles. This has seen it touted as a game changer for women's health.

Johnson was Elvie’s first angel investor, with Spencer later coming on board.

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The idea for Elvie was conceived in 2013 by co-founder and chief executive Tania Boler, a former UN employee and the ex-global director of research and innovation at Marie Stopes.

“When I was pregnant with my first child six years ago I was in a pilates class and the instructor was saying to me that the most important thing I needed to do as a women whilst pregnant was to look after my pelvic floor and I’d literally never even heard of that part of my body,” Boler says.

She says she went home “intrigued” about this advice and later as a new mother did research on the issue, finding a “huge health epidemic” around women losing control of the pelvic floor.

It’s estimated one in three women will have stress urinary incontinence, 50 per cent get prolapse at some point in their lives and one in 10 need to have an operation, creating “a huge burden on the health system”.

However, there is strong clinical evidence that keeping control of the area is largely preventable through exercise and this is where Elvie comes in. When inserted into the vagina Elvie measures the movements known as Kegel exercises, giving users realtime feedback that helps strengthen and develop the pelvic floor muscles.

In March 2013 Boler applied for government funding and won it, giving her the first financial boost to create the Elvie device. She launched the eponymous company in 2015 with Alexander Asseily, the former chief executive of wearable device company Jawbone.

In total it has received £8.3m from a mixture of government funding, seeding rounds and, in March this year, institutional investment from Octopus Ventures, with a participation from female-focused VC AllBright. At £5m, this latter investment was the largest funding round in a female-led consumer ‘femtech’ startup to date.

Sales reached $1m (£788,000) last year and are set to triple in 2017.

It’s being helped in the UK by a retail partnership with John Lewis, is also available on Amazon and Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop.

The word is also being spread by around 800 ambassadors from across the medical, wellness and fitness communities, from midwives and doctors to yoga instructors. It is available in around 60 countries and can be bought at a discount via NHS referral (normal retail value is £149).

The awards have also come in thick and fast. Elvie was recognised as one of the UK’s top 33 startups by TechCityUK, gaining it intensive mentoring through its Upscale programme. It has won more than a dozen awards for innovation and design, most recently gaining the title of hottest hardware startup from Europas.

“We came into the product because we saw a big unmet need within women’s health, but actually now that we’ve developed this product we realise that there’s a much bigger opportunity to redesign the way technology is used by women,” Boler says.

“If you say the words consumer electronics for women, you don’t really think of innovation… [E]ither it’s made pink or trackers tend to look like a piece of jewellery.

“Medical devices, particularly for women, are kind of really uncomfortable, difficult to use, very utilitarian in their design so for us what we’ve done with the first product and what we’re doing for future products is all about taking kind of neglected medical devices and turning them more into consumer products that people like to use."

What we’re trying to show is you can have the best in class technology that can also look elegant. People always assume when they look at Elvie, because it looks so nice, that it is potentially a gimmicky or superfluous product, which is why we’re also trying to show there’s a strong scientific backbone.

On the scientific side, around 150 women have been involved with research and development testing to date and there are plans for Elvie to be involved in clinical studies.

When it comes to the wearable device market, that of the Fitbits and smartwatches, analysts are optimistic. IDTechEx thinks the increasingly diverse market will reach $150bn by 2027, from $38.6bn in 2017.

Although not a strictly “wearable” device like the ones measured, Elvie broadly comes into the same category of connected health trackers. How then will Elvie avoid the trap other firms have fallen into, in which they’ve, in Boler’s words, “disappointed” investors by failing to reach profitability?

One of Boler’s resources on this front is her co-founder Asseily. His $3bn wearable tech company Jawbone was one of those companies that started well but along the line lost some momentum. His advice and guidance is an aid, though it should be said the product has few real rivals from the UK’s startup scene.

“I think with Elvie what he [Asseily] saw was really different to what else was happening in the sector, we were solving a real need,” Boler says.” A lot of wearable tech is a sensor arms race with companies adding more and more sensors but users are not understanding the value, you supply users with more and more information but don’t necessarily find it meaningful.

“The good news is that the new generation of connected health devices such as Elvie are much more focused on identifying what outcome consumers want and providing that in as simple a manner as possible.”

So with a strong product already making waves, what’s next? There are plans for several more products in the next two to three years, with a second product, aimed specifically at new mothers, on the way next year. Boler keeps tight-lipped about the details, but says “the ambition in connected health products for women is that you would have a go-to women’s health app that then connects through and can support women at different stages of life”.

This is a lofty goal, but when Boler says it, I believe her. For a woman specialising in gynaecological devices, she’s got some balls too.

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