Winning Solutions for Women’s Health

January 11, 2022

Healthtech startups are playing an increasingly critical role in addressing some of the most pressing health challenges for women, including access to maternal care, reproductive care, and high-quality diagnostic tests and screening.

Tech innovations are particularly needed in emerging markets, where lack of adequate resources and tailored solutions is having a devastating impact on the lives of millions of women—according to the World Health Organization, 94 percent of all maternal deaths occur in low and lower-middle income countries, mostly due to poor access to quality health services, while limited access to diagnostic centers and tools for early detection result in lower survival rates for breast cancer.

Four innovative startups—Antiva Biosciences, InnAccel, NIRAMAI, and UE LifeSciences, which recently received a WBG-CES Global Women’s HealthTech Award—show us the impact that new technologies can have on women’s health in emerging markets and beyond. A non-surgical treatment for cervical pre-cancers that can be administered by women in the privacy of their homes; a handheld thermal screener for breast cancer; a device that uses AI to monitor fetal oxygen levels; and a radiation-free device to detect breast cancer early and with minimal training—these cost-effective innovations have the potential to reach large numbers of women in remote and underserved areas, potentially making a lifesaving difference.

“This recognition will help us achieve our mission of bringing world-class maternal care to the most vulnerable women in the world, improve pregnancy outcomes, and substantially reduce intrapartum deaths,” said Siraj Dhanani, founder & CEO of InnAccel, which developed the Fetal Lite monitoring technology, among other solutions.

Comprising slightly less than half the world’s population, some four billion women face gender-specific health and safety issues tied to fertility, menopause, menstruation, and diseases of their breasts and reproductive organs. Many women worldwide face barriers to accessing medical care, in part because of cultural taboos around reproduction, but also because they are more likely to work at home or in the informal sector without access to reliable income or insurance.

Recognizing the need for tech solutions to transform women’s healthcare, last August, the World Bank, IFC, and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) launched the Global Women’s HealthTech Awards to identify and recognize startups that are leveraging new technologies to improve the lives of women and girls in emerging markets. The competition drew more than 70 companies from 35 countries, submitting their products and services under three categories: reproductive health and pregnancy, general women’s and adolescent health, and women’s safety and security.

Along with the fetal monitoring tech company InnAccel, the award winners include two companies that have made strides in developing affordable breast cancer screening devices as an alternative to traditional mammography. NIRAMAI has created a portable thermal screening tool that uses AI to detect breast cancer before methods such as self-examination. The device can be used for large scale screenings in rural and semi-urban areas at a fraction of the cost of hospital-based mammograms. UE LifeSciences has developed the iBreastExam, a radiation-free device that is easy to use and requires minimal training for operators. The company has reached almost a half a million women globally, detecting hundreds of breast cancers.

“This prestigious recognition highlights UE LifeSciences’ breakthrough innovations for enabling access to early detection of some of the most common and deadly cancers. This award will help us realize our mission to make early detection of breast and cervical cancers equitably accessible all over the world,” said Mihir Shah, the company’s founder and CEO.

The fourth winner, Antiva Biosciences, is a venture-backed pharmaceutical company that has developed topical therapeutics to treat HPV lesions before they progress into invasive cancers, including pre-cancers of the cervix, that can be self-administered by women in the privacy of their own homes.

“Every two minutes, a woman somewhere in the world dies of cervical cancer, a disease which is preventable if caught and treated early,” said founder and CEO Gail Maderis, whose company recently secured $31 million in equity financing. “Antiva’s topical therapy has the potential to save thousands of lives each year by improving access to care and empowering women to self-treat their disease.”

By leveraging new technologies like smart sensors, 3D printers, big data analytics, and AI, healthtech startups have the potential to help break down the barriers women still face in attaining high quality and affordable healthcare in emerging markets. The Global Women’s HealthTech Awards and influential industry events like CES play an important role not only in highlighting the need for these innovative solutions, but also in catalyzing support and investment to help them scale quickly.

Geetha Manjunath, the computer scientist who founded NIRAMAI in Bangaluru, India, is in the process of expanding global access to her company’s portable, thermal-imaging breast screening devices. “This award and recognition will help us to reach out to a large number of women, create awareness, and conduct screening tests to detect early-stage cancer and save lives,” she says.

Published in January 2022