The world has been screaming out for an Apple of women’s technology.
In our forthcoming Future 100 report, to be released in December, we look at the “un-tabooing of womanhood,” a phenomenon in which we’ve seen a whole range of topics related to women’s bodies and health move to the center of the cultural conversation.
Few products exemplify this shift as well as Elvie, launched in October 2015 and marketed as “your most personal trainer.” The sleek device looks like a covetable Apple product and positions itself in the lifestyle category, but is designed to help women track pelvic floor exercises, or “Kegels,” which can help improve sexual and urinary function, especially following pregnancy.
We spoke to Tania Boler, CEO and co-founder of Chiaro, maker of the Elvie, about how, as she puts it, “advances in sensor technology and connected devices can help make women’s lives better.”
What led you to start your company, and what gave you the idea for Elvie?
My passion is women’s health, and I’ve often worked on women’s issues that are not talked about as openly as they need to be. So for me this has ranged from working on HIV prevention through to issues like teenage pregnancy.
Four years ago I became a mother for the first time, and I think what really surprised me, though I was a women’s health expert, was how many changes my body was going through. And as a woman, there wasn’t that much information around about what to expect. For example, I’d never heard at that point about pelvic floor muscles and how important they are to look after, or that half of women over the age of 50 start getting quite serious physical problems related to them.
So I realized that there was a very large uncharted territory in women’s health, particularly here in the UK. My husband’s French, and in France it’s completely different; it’s accepted that this is an important part of how women need to look after their bodies. So I became interested in the area and started researching it, and realized that there was a lot of innovation happening in technology, and particularly with the Internet of Things, but that in fact what was missing was applying some of the technology from that field to women’s health.
You came at it very much with a background in health, but not as much in technology. How did you approach the technical challenge of designing and creating a physical product?
In terms of the technology I was really fortunate: I met somebody called Alexander Asseily, who started Jawbone, which is the second-largest wearable tech company after Fitbit. He just got it straight away that with Elvie, there’s a potential for this to be very big and mainstream, and that it was solving a real need, unlike a lot of wearable technology products out there.
But I think what we both realized very early on, and I think particularly because of my background in health promotion, is that this can’t be marketed as a health product. If you brand it as a problem-avoidance product, then women think about all these yucky health issues, like damaged pelvic floor muscles. But in fact this is a lifestyle issue—it’s more similar to yoga and pilates, and it ties into the fact that women are increasingly taking care of their bodies and their wellbeing.
So once you had realized the need to brand and market it as a lifestyle product, what kind of strategies did that lead to?
It was about normalizing the conversation, and it really changed the kind of partners that we have. For example, this could have been a health product, it could have been a sex product, but we always say that this is for women’s issues. As a strategy it’s about women who are basically the wellness consumer, women who like to look after their bodies, who like to take preventive action to make sure they’re staying strong physically.
So the strategy has involved partnering with a lot of boutique gyms, getting a lot of ambassadors on board who range from personal trainers through to doulas, through to quite a lot of celebrities who are really liking the product, too. And beyond just the marketing, it’s about making the whole product experience quite fun and cool, so that women actually enjoy doing it. Because ultimately we think that this is a word-of-mouth product—that was a big strategy that was underpinning our marketing, the idea that women like to talk to other women about these issues. It requires quite a different type of marketing because it still is a new product category, so it requires an element of education.
So what kinds of features does the product have that could be considered fun, or appealing in that way?
If you just forget the fact that it’s for an intimate part of the body, if you think about it more as a normal part of your body that you need to look after, it’s taking an approach as if you were marketing a new fitness craze, or something like that.
We know from behavioral psychology that women get motivated if they are seeing improvements and they’re able to track them. Take running—nobody is going to be running if you don’t really know how far or how fast you’re going. So working from that, we’ve created workouts with Elvie that are based on the best evidence from sports science, but also include a bit of gaming, and the ability to count points based on your exercises.
Women all want to know how fit they are on the inside, and some women do get quite competitive about it. So what we built in next is that shareability aspect—we have the app, and the app is our touchpoint with the consumer, so we are able to use the app in order to push this through women’s social networks.
There’s a real cultural zeitgeist around women’s empowerment and a kind of new-wave feminist movement in which—partly fuelled through social media, Instagram, and Twitter—women are really proud about their bodies and are demanding more attention. So that’s also creating an opportunity for us.
How does this sit within a wider array of Internet of Things products, and what kinds of integration are possible?
I believe firmly we’re at the cusp of the revolution in terms of wearable technology, and I think the products we’re seeing today are going to look nothing like the products we’ll see in a few years’ time. I think now they’re still quite crude, and one of the biggest challenges is making the data really meaningful for women. Even with Elvie, the technology is actually more complicated than what you find in the Fitbit, and in some ways it’s more sophisticated because it actually helps women correct and improve their exercises in real time, whereas obviously with a lot of other trackers you get the data after you exercise.
In terms of the Internet of Things, what we all see in the future are connected personal wellness devices. That could be through an integrated app—and obviously Apple’s Health Kit is aiming to be that go-to app—but as we know Apple has been quite slow when it comes to women’s health. They recently added menstruation and period-tracking, and now that we’ve launched Elvie, we’ve found that there’s a big gap in terms of beautiful yet sophisticated products around for women.
Far too often, hardware or consumer electronic products are still led by male companies, and often redesigning for women tends to focus on aesthetics, making it a different color or something like that. Whereas in fact the big opportunity is the fact that physiologically women are different to men, and need to track different signals from their bodies: from periods to pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. So there is definitely a lot of opportunity for future products, and absolutely they should be connected to each other, mostly because if they’re connected you’re able to use the data to give more meaningful feedback back to women.
What’s next for Elvie and what’s next for the company?
In terms of Elvie, we’ve taken a kind of hyper-local strategy in terms of the launch, which is specifically focused on London and New York. That’s partly in order to experiment with some of our approaches, but also as a new product category, it’s required a level of education and conversation that’s different to other products. The next phases are more of a focus on retail, and then expanding through to other markets.
Now that we’re in the space of women’s technology, we definitely see opportunity for other products. The world has been screaming out for an Apple of women’s technology, and we’re very ambitious, so we’ll be bringing out more products in the near future.