Speaking about end-of-life treatment, sex, cannabis, women’s health or mental health can make some people feel embarrassed or offended. As a result, such topics are considered taboo, and are often avoided, or ignored altogether. However, the anonymity that technology can provide means it holds the potential to be used to tackle problems relating to these issues, and, potentially, provide opportunities for investors.
This has led to a new buzzword being used by investors in recent years, that of ‘taboo tech’ (or taboo medtech). Taboo tech is used to address unspoken needs in the medical space, remove stigmas and help overlooked topics rise up agendas.
There are a number of emerging ‘tech’ scenes that are linked with the rise in prominence of taboo tech. They are:
- Femtech, or female technology, which concerns devices, software, diagnostic tools, products and services that use technology to address all things related to menstruation, fertility, menopause, and other women’s health issues.
- Sextech, or sexual technology, which involves technology and technology-driven ventures that facilitate sexual experience.
- CannaTech “involves the merging of the cannabis industry with modern technology in order to improve products, customer experiences and the ability to comply with federal/state regulations”, according to online start-up community Builtin.
All of these areas of tech facilitate a ubiquity of help and innovation in the medical space, which can remove barriers when it comes to speaking about taboo topics, especially in marginalised communities.
“There have always been pioneers looking to help treat particular issues on the fringes of society, but with technology we can produce mass solutions at low-barrier to entry for users. This is where the true innovation lies, in improving access and equity of solutions,” explains Anna Butterworth, co-founder and CEO of Vibease and founder and director of Ultra Violet Futures, which is a forecasting agency specialising in femtech.
How tech can de-mystifying taboo issues
“Tech is definitely opening a lot of doors for taboo subjects, as it is giving possibilities and platforms to deal with taboo issues,” says Andrea Olsson, co-founder of Bumpy, a fertility support platform.
“Unfortunately we still live in a society that designates value to people by their reproductive capabilities, so many people feel very embarrassed, guilty or shamed when facing fertility struggles, going through IVF treatments or experiencing miscarriages. Start-ups like us that want to drive societal change and stigmatisation are very much needed and on the rise,” says adds.
Data shows that reproductive tech is a fertile area for investment. Research from Pitchbook shows that $823.1m was invested across 90 deals globally in fertility tech venture capital in 2021, up from $132.2m and 18 deals in 2012.
Investments in fertility tech include projects related to egg freezing, machine learning for embryo selection, artificial wombs for premature babies, sperm count, IVF improvements and diagnostics apps.
Sextech, which is expected to reach a market size of $50bn by 2025, is another area rising on the radar of investors. Sextech projects could include gadgets or apps that can be essential for sexual health education, or for gathering data that could help with the research in areas related to interplay of cardiovascular health and sexual response or the lack of libido due to health issues or eating disorders, which are considered taboo topics among many people.
“Investment opportunities already exist in [taboo tech areas in] most European countries, although it’s limited. We are seeing an emergence of medtech in Asia and Africa, and most are sextech, femtech and end-of-life services,” says Sanasi Amos, who helps femtech brands scale customer acquisition through digital marketing.
Digital health is another sector that is booming, especially in the Nordics after the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Olsson. “More and more people are seeking care online, especially mental health,” she says. “The amount of health information generated by digital tools is rapidly growing. Tech should be used to improve the quality of health and broaden the access to it.”
What does the future hold for taboo medtech?
Looking ahead, the taboo medtech sector is set to experience further growth for several reasons. To start with, the situation is improving when it comes to normalising topics such as women’s health, sex and cannabis use for health reasons.
Moreover, Butterworth adds that there has been a huge move to embracing themes, lifestyles and beliefs that had previously been considered taboo. “The new generation, young Millennials, Generation Z and likely Generation Alpha will be significant advocates of these industries,” she says.
Breaking taboos or removing stigmas is not easy. However, technology has provided people with easier access to gadgets or apps that could help them open up, discuss topics that they were not feeling comfortable with to and get the help they need for the health problems they face which would be embarrassing to discuss with another person. The more investors see how fertile the area of taboo tech is, the more likely these barriers will be broken down further.