Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Tania Boler has devoted her life to taboo women’s issues. Passionate about changing neglected areas of women’s health, Tania began working at Marie Stopes International in 2008, a global organisation that provides women in underserved communities with high quality sexual and reproductive health services. Tania’s projects all work toward the same goal: enhancing physical and emotional well-being for women.
In 2013, Tania partnered with Alex Asseily, co-founder of Jawbone, and set out to design a wearable tech product that actually helped women with these commonplace issues. Building her team with Dyson engineers and Harvard Business School grads, Tania brought her first product - Elvie, from conception to consumer in two years, a phenomenally fast turnaround for hardware. It’s been just over a year since Elvie came to market and Tania has already won Innovator of the Year at the FDM Everywoman in Technology awards 2016, been touted as a Game-Changer in the JWTIntelligence 2016 One to Watch and been named a Porter Magazine Woman of the Year 2016. The product itself is also recipient of prestigious awards such as the Red Dot Design Award 2016, the AXA Health R&D award 2015, and Best Business start-up at the Wearable show 2015.
And she’s not done yet. Tania is set to release another highly anticipated women’s health product that’s as disruptive as the first. With fans such as January Jones, Amal Clooney, Gwyneth Paltrow, and amazing women everywhere, Tania has done more than develop patented hardware; she has started a movement.
What is your idea and how did you come up with it?
Elvie is a pelvic floor exercise tracker and app that is transforming the way women engage with this important but hidden muscle group.
Elvie is a wearable technology - a bit like an UP band or Fitbit. You simply insert the small pod inside your vagina and it connects to your phone via Bluetooth. As you squeeze your pelvic floor muscles, a gem on the app lifts. The stronger your squeeze, the higher the gem lifts. Lots of women want to know how strong they are inside and gets competitive. We worked with doctors and physiotherapists to create personalised training programmes and targets so that women can see improvements and track their scores.
I realised there was a strong need for something like Elvie when I had my first baby and was told to do pelvic floor exercises. I struggled to know if I was doing them right and if they were making a difference. As I researched the area, I realised that there hasn't been much innovation at all. Women were buying all types of devices but there wasn't any evidence that they worked. The one thing shown to work is giving women real-time biofeedback, but until recently, this technology has only existed in hospitals. With feedback, women can stay motivated as they see themselves developing better control and core strength.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
We launched Elvie in 2013 and brought our first product, a pelvic floor exercise tracker, to market in 2015. We are growing really quickly and we are now 35 people globally!
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
I told my first investor that bringing Elvie to market would cost £200k and take a year. It cost more like £1 million and took two years !
What was the biggest obstacle?
Wearable tech is intrinsically complicated - even Fitbit and Jawbone have had problems with waterproofing and irritability. Imagine, designing an intimate wearable technology. We knew with Elvie that we had to raise the overall standards in wearable technology. For example, we didn’t want any exposed parts so the product is fully waterproofed and charges through induction.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder in the country you live in?
Being a female founder has never been a huge issue for me and so far I haven’t had a problem raising money or getting the right people to listen. It’s not unusual to have some rejection especially in fundraising but if an investor isn't interested in women's health and doesn't get the huge potential and power that women consumers have then it's his loss, no? Thankfully, there are enough visionary investors out there who know that we are in the middle of a digital revolution and that this will disrupt the health and wellness industry as we know it.
The UK has been really supportive of the start-up ecosystem. We’ve won over £600k in government grants for R&D. I genuinely think there has never been a better time to be a tech entrepreneur.
One of the problems at the moment is that investors are a little wary of wearable tech. The sector hasn’t lived up to its promise yet. With ELvie, we’re solving real problems with tangible results and that is what sets us apart.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Hitting the £1million revenue target on next to zero marketing spend was a great validation that Elvie really matters to women.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company?
Our ambition is to be the Apple of Women’s health tech. We want to launch 4-6 connected wellness products by 2020. I can’t share yet what the next one is but it will launch early next year.
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech and IoT industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Wearables need to become more relevant. There was a bit of a sensors arms race over the last few years but companies are now waking up to the fact that consumers don’t want to be bombarded with data.
With Elvie, some investors questioned if we were too niche. However, I believe for a start-up to succeed, there is no point taking on the giants from the start but better to focus on a specific problem where technology can make a real difference.
Wearable technology will become increasingly outcomes focussed. Consumers will be paying for an outcome rather than for tracking itself. For example, with Elvie, women are paying for a tangible benefit of a strong pelvic floor - whether or not that is less health problems or better core strength.
Why is #WomenInTech movement important to you?
Women in tech need to come together. There are many women’s health needs which can be greatly improved through technology but women need to be at the centre of the design process.
We are one of the few wearable tech companies which is led by women and designing products specifically for women. I’ve had men tell us that women’s health is niche but I want to know how the experiences of 51% of the population can be “niche”? Having more women in influential positions in tech companies will help to ensure we are catering for the unique needs of women too.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
You can achieve so much more than you thought possible. Just take the leap and give it a go.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech?
Meng Li, Bethany Koby and Yasmine Mustafa.
EDIT: In March 2017 Elvie raised £5 million from Octopus Ventures with a participation from female-focused VC AllBright. Previous investors include Google Maps founder Lars Rasmussen, iCAP founder Michael Spencer, Nicole Junkermann founder of NJF Capital, and Lulu founder Alexandra Chong. This is the largest funding round in a British female-led consumer #femtech start up to date. The money is being used to launch in 25 additional territories, grow the team and launch a new femtech product aimed at new mothers.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and 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.