Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Based mainly in Manchester, Olivia Ahn works as a junior doctor with a primary interest in surgery. Started WithLula in her final year with co-founder Aaron, she has been juggling working at WithLula on weekends and days off, using annual leave to attend conferences, exhibitions and competitions.
Aaron Koshy is fascinated by journeys, primarily around health and personal care. His background is in biomedical and design engineering. Having recently graduated, he’s working full time in WithLula. He is originally from India but grew up around the Middle East and currently based in London, UK.
What is the idea behind WithLula and how did you come up with it?
A: WithLula is developing safely flushable sanitary products. Redesigned using biodegradable materials to be silent, skin safe, and sustainable. Both Olivia and I started to tackle periods through more than just products. We believe in a universal access to menstrual health and hygiene, and we’re doing this by combining medical research and sustainability.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
O: It started with myself and Aaron in our final year at university. I was finishing my medical degree at Imperial and Aaron was doing his final year of his joint masters degree at Royal College of Art and Imperial. We were housemates and the discussion of environmental problems was raised with the stigma of periods and how modern women, despite technology and daily living having been developed and brought into the 21st century, periods and period products have been left behind.
After winning the Imperial women’s flagship entrepreneur programme, Shyam joined our team with his background in finance and marketing, as well as Alexis, with her background in material engineering. We were introduced to Angad in Mumbai, who has joined us as our manufacturing lead and point of contact with our R&D team at textile research institute, SASMIRA.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
A: We officially started working on this under a year ago but the idea was morphing well before that, whilst both Olivia and I were in our final year of university. We have a long journey ahead and we’re very excited by that!
What was the biggest obstacle?
O: Holding an open conversation about periods. Wherever we went, whether it was a science festival, exhibition, audience research, surveys or even meetings, we would be met with some interesting responses to talking about periods. Sometimes there would be hesitant questions and replies, other times some rather outdated myths on periods would be raised and rarely, straight up outrage at the public discussion of periods.
We are happy to talk about periods and WithLula any time - we understand how important it is to highlight the stigma of a natural process such as menstruation, and how dangerous it can be to ignore and sweep under the carpet, discussions and questions about this.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
A: Finding a solution that the people we talk to really want. We’ve been fortunate enough to have wonderful mentors and win grants and competitions, but it was the individual validation from our early adopters that this is something that they want and would make difference that was the most important achievement for me.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
O: The big giants in the game such as Kimberly Clark, Procter and Gamble, dominate the conversation in the sanitary product market with brands like Always and Bodyform. Change is slow to come to this niche, and it is happening, slowly but surely. Starting the conversation with businesses and entrepreneurs, which is classically male-dominated, is a challenge as people are much more cautious in working in an industry they are not familiar with. I feel that being a female founder does lend itself to this market very well - and is one of the few advantages. Women relate easily to what we provide, and highlighting the pain points is much easier as I have experienced them myself. One unexpected bonus is that other budding female entrepreneurs feel more comfortable in contacting me via LinkedIn or email to ask how I started and how my experience in the field has been as a woman. I hope to encourage other women to go into entrepreneurship as well.
A: As a guy in a menstrual health + hygiene startup, I’ve had people come up to me bemused on how and why I was involved! Periods aren’t just a ‘woman problem’ and the opportunity to understand and tackle a journey that I have never had to do, is a personal challenge. We pride ourselves in questioning everything here at WithLula, and I find it a lot easier to question when I have no previous understandings!
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
O: Definitely. Whether it is tech, STEM, arts, I care about the equal opportunity for anyone to pursue their interests. I support every movement that aims to achieve this, including #WomenInTech, as I firmly believe everyone benefits, from the people working in the industry, the community who benefits from the industry as well as the industry advancement itself.
A: Of course! Women in tech is massively under represented, which shouldn’t be the case. Like in any company or organisation, ideas and innovation stagnate when you only hear from one side of the board.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
O: Just to put yourself out there. It is a simple but scary bit of advice, one that I am attempting to put into action everyday myself. It is easy to think that you won’t apply for this or that because you don't have enough experience, or just too beginner or not prepped enough, but there is always something to gain, whether it is someone you meet, something to learn or some inspiration to gain along the way.
What will be the key trends in the health tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Both: Wearable - passive to active: Integration of technology into our daily lives has seen wearables as passive partners; tracking our steps, counting our calories and monitoring our sleep and activities. We think the next step from watchful passive wearable to an active, conversing partner will be the next step for wearables as we demand more interaction and personalisation from our technology.
FemTech: The global movement towards female empowerment has positively affected business by promoting female founders and entrepreneurs, which in turn, is growing the area of femtech. Female empowerment is seen both in the boardroom and on the shelves where innovated products provide the need for the gap in the market.
POC (Point of Care): Medical devices have made huge leaps and bounds, and patient care has been shaped by the technology advancements. Our limiting factor is the huge price and physical space, the machines are taking up and the queues for scans is affecting patient care. The next step to lift the burden is what we have seen with phones, the shrinking and portability of machines. We have started to see this with portable Xray machines, Point of Care warfarin machines, and portable oxygen tanks and breathing apparatus in backpacks.
Who are your 3 inspirational people in health tech?
A: Hugh Herr - MIT. The reason why I went into bioengineering. An inspiring figure in prosthetics and biomechanics who pioneered in lower limb prosthetics. Tania Boler - Elvie. A UK entrepreneur who has set up a wonderfully designed femtech product that has raving reviews. In the smart device space, the tool actively helps and trains, using kegel exercises. Emma Walmsley - GSK. Became the first female CEO of GSK, in a largely male dominated sector, and has made huge overhauls to the companies management and focuses.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.