A celebrity endorsement from actress Gwyneth Paltrow on her website Goop helped build traction for the Elvie trainer
Like so many entrepreneurs before her, Tania Boler, CEO and founder of women’s health tech company Elvie, realised she’d spotted a business opportunity after failing to find help for a problem she’d experienced first-hand.
Eight years ago, while learning about the importance of kegel muscle strengthening in a pilates class during her first pregnancy, Tania was shocked to learn that one in three women experiences pelvic floor problems such as bladder control issues and even prolapse at some point in her life.
Tania, a former charity worker, has been involved in a number of campaigns over her career, including providing access to safe abortion and aiding HIV prevention across Africa and Asia during her time with companies such as Marie Stopes International and ActionAid.
When she found there was nothing on the market that appealed to women suffering with pelvic floor-related problems, she knew she had to do something to help. The company now has a projected revenue for 2019 of £21million.
‘Because nobody talks about it, nobody thinks to build businesses around it – nor do they think there is even a need,’ says the 42-year old.
‘Periods, pregnancy, the menopause; there are so many stages in women’s lives where our bodies undergo huge change. It’s a hidden epidemic.
‘That’s when I came up with the idea for the first Elvie product. It was about taking a problem, one that wasn’t spoken about because it was considered taboo, and turning it into a product that women actually enjoy using.’
Tania Boler entered the untouched world of femtech with the Elvie trainer in 2015. The company now has a projected revenue for 2019 of £21million.
Celebrity Charity: Making a vision a reality
Tania spent several months researching pelvic floor issues, meeting investors and searching for the right people with the right expertise to help make her idea a reality.
It was in 2013 when she applied for the government-backed Innovate UK grant and won £100,000 that she really felt validation for her vision. She quit her job at Marie Stopes and founded Elvie’s parent company Chiaro Technology.
Through research and networking, she then met and partnered with entrepreneur Alexander Asseily, founder of Jawbone and one of the pioneers behind wearable technology, who helped her to develop a team of engineers and creatives from leading tech companies such as Apple and Dyson.
‘For me, not being an engineer meant I pretty much started with a blank piece of paper,’ the mum-of-two says. ‘I may have had the idea but without that expertise I would have failed.
‘I knew that I wanted it to track my progress, and that I wanted to be able to do other things at the same time. It also had to be waterproof and comfortable – as it’s inserted into the body – but I didn’t want it to feel like an intrusive medical device. I wanted it to be fun.
I may have had the idea but without that expertise I would have failed. – Tania Boler
‘I also don’t think I quite appreciated that we had to change the language and the brand positioning because nobody wants to talk about a “yucky health problem”. It was important to position it as more of a lifestyle brand as I knew women would get more excited by that and be more likely to start talking about it.’
Following clinical trials with health professionals and having over 100 women test the prototype product, the Elvie kegel trainer was officially launched in 2015.
Celebrity Charity: Celebrity endorsement: The ‘stardust’ effect
The first thing the firm had to do was educate the market and spread awareness about pelvic floor training. The product was launched in various boutique gyms and spas across London and feedback was collated.
Social media influencers were given the product to review and, slowly but surely, a conversation started to grow across platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. But it was the backing of actress, businesswoman and wellness advocate Gwyneth Paltrow on her lifestyle website Goop, that really helped build traction for the Elvie trainer.
Tania adds: ‘We knew she would like it because she is into health and wellness. Goop gave the product a rigorous review process and loved it. They have been great fans of Elvie ever since. Having that “stardust effect” was a huge bonus.
‘The hardest part of launching a product is always those three months before the product launch because you don’t know how customers are going to react but it’s so rewarding on the flip side after the launch when you’re getting such great feedback.’
With a wearable breast pump and kegel trainer already in its offering, Elvie says it is committed to ‘talking candidly about women’s bodies in order to give them the products they deserve’
In 2017, the company went on to raise £4.6million from a series of angel investors and its second product, the Elvie breast pump, was launched the following year. It also announced a strategic partnership with the NHS to allow millions of women to access the kegel trainer.
‘I have always been a campaigner for women’s health and recognised early on that the big game changer was going to be technology,’ says Tania. ‘I also realised the commercial potential was huge because nobody is innovating.
‘It’s a big, wide open space because lots of people think hardware is difficult to get investment for and because this was dealing with an intimate and taboo issue so nobody was going near it.
#FreetheFeed – April 2019
Free the Feed saw five inflatable breasts launched across the London skyline in a bid to ’empower women to feel safe and comfortable breastfeeding or pumping in public’ and to encourage the British public to support them breastfeeding in public.
Each boob, erected in Columbia Road, Village Underground, Ely’s Yard, Bethnal Green Road, and Shoreditch Grind, represented the diversity of women’s bodies, from skin tone and size to stretch marks and nipple hairs.
#LetFannyFly – August 2019
This year, Elvie planned to launch an incontinence awareness campaign via a pop-up at the Edinburgh Fringe alongside a vagina-shaped blimp to be tethered in Festival Square.
However the campaign was banned by the council and so Elvie launched a petition and the the blimp was tethered to a field outside the city, waiting for the opportunity to fly.
The petition gained thousands of signatures and nationwide support and while the council never backed down, millions of people turned their attention to the topic of incontinence during the Fringe.
‘When you think about consumer electronics for women, we have been so short-changed. Everything is pink or has to look like jewellery and most of the breast pumps out there are loud and uncomfortable.
‘The uptake for our breast pump has been phenomenal because it has literally changed women’s lives.’
Elvie’s second product has performed particularly well in the US, where it is covered under Obamacare and available to new mothers under the Affordable Care Act.
Tania explains: ‘The UK is our home market but we also see the US as our second home market. Women go back to work as early as six weeks after giving birth so all places of employment need to have rooms where women can go and pump.’
Despite the trainer being a huge success in itself – and having won several awards – the pump has been the bigger success.
Now, Tania says, there is potential for strong cross-sell between the two.
The company’s success also means it has a louder voice for boosting the public’s understanding of femcare and femtech and it’s launched a number of awareness campaigns such as #FreetheFeed and #FreefromPee.
Celebrity Charity: Changing the face of femtech
The experience of launching Elvie hasn’t come without its challenges, with the lack of awareness and understanding around feminine care being at the forefront. Tania recalls showing the prototype kegel trainer to many investors who just weren’t ‘getting it’.
‘We always do the “Elvie test”,’ she says. ‘We put the product on the table, to see how people interact with it. A lot of men just don’t want to touch it, and even some women. If they can’t touch or talk about it then they’re not the right people to be on our team or our board.
‘There was definitely a generation of older, male venture capital partners who were not going to be early adopters when it came to women’s health – but rather than feeling defeated I just accepted they weren’t the right fit for us.’
Celebrity Charity: What does the future hold?
This year Elvie landed the largest femtech investment to date after closing a £33.2million series B funding round, led by private equity firm IPGL and supported by Octopus Ventures and Impact Ventures.
This year Elvie landed the largest femtech investment to date after closing a £33.2million series B funding round, led by IPGL and supported by Octopus Ventures and Impact Ventures
As a result, the company’s research and development team is currently working on four different product lines, with a focus on the pregnancy and postnatal life stages for women.
‘It’s really exciting,’ Tania says. ‘We want to be the go-to destination for women’s health tech. The word femtech didn’t exist three years ago but now you see so many start-ups in the space – it shows the investor community has finally woken up to what the opportunity is.
Looking back on her career as a business owner so far, Tania says it has been tough but also the ‘most incredible journey’. She advises other budding entrepreneurs to get on top of the ‘mundane’ things such as legal and financial requirements.
‘Those are the engines of your business,’ she adds. ‘You need to understand how that all works. Also remember that even if you have a great idea, and you are very passionate about it, it will always take longer and cost more than you think to execute.
‘You might fail a few times along the way but you learn so much from it.’
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