Tania Boler’s pelvic-floor exerciser must be the only item handed out inside the glittering, $100,000 Oscars goodie bags (alongside a Hawaiian holiday) that’s also available on NHS prescription.
But Boler, the entrepreneur behind femtech firm Elvie, has got used to confounding expectations around women’s health gadgets.
When her company, flourishing off the back of the success of its eponymous pelvic-floor trainer which saw sales hit $1 million in its first year, invented a new breast pump, the launch wasn’t in a maternity ward, but at London Fashion Week. Elvie’s discreet pump peeped out of a catwalk-strutting, black bra-wearing model mum, to make the point that making milk for new-borns doesn’t need to involve a dairy farm-like contraption.
Next Boler installed four massive inflatable breasts, up to six metres high, across Shoreditch and the City “to encourage people to talk more about breastfeeding”.
“No one,” the 43-year-old entrepreneur explains, “wanted to talk about bladder problems or prolapse, or pelvic floor health, or why breastfeeding was so difficult or unpopular.
“Women tend not to talk about the health issues they’re facing, despite the fact that they’re completely normal. So by launching our products in a lifestyle space, we could normalise it.”
Before founding Elvie, Boler graduated with health degrees from Oxford and Stanford universities, before completing a PhD in reproductive health and spending 12 years working on sexuality education and HIV prevention for the UN, ActionAid and Marie Stopes.
Then she gave birth to her first child, “and I quickly realised that there had been zero innovation in pelvic-floor health, even though 80% of expectant and new mums suffer with it in some way. The idea for Elvie was to bring women’s tech out of the dark ages via innovation and product design. I didn’t really have an idea for a company, I just thought there was a problem that needed to be solved and that tech could help.”
Boler pored through NICE guidelines and read that biofeedback was the best way to exercise pelvic floor muscles, “but this was done via a horrible device where women had to lie on their back in a hospital with a probe put in. I thought, ‘why can’t we take the idea behind this thing that hospitals are using, and develop something fun and easy to use at home?’ At the time, sports tech like Fitbit was launching and I thought those kinds of sensors could be applied to women’s health.”
Her idea won her a £100,000 grant in the government-backed Innovate UK scheme in 2013, so she quit her job to focus on making the first Elvie device: a Kegel trainer and app used to help women strengthen their pelvic floor via five-minute workouts involving games. She worked with engineers on a first prototype, before meeting Alex Asseily, founder of wearable tech firm Jawbone.
“He came on board as a co-founder and investor, and encouraged me to take a Californian mentality, raising more money and hiring the ‘A-team’ of engineers.”
When the £170 Elvie Trainer hit the shelves two years later, Boler and her team hosted sales talks in west London and New York gyms and hosted parties in people’s homes.
“Eventually it reached a tipping point via word-of-mouth success. Then all the retailers who’d thought we were crazy, and said they weren’t going to stock a vagina product, began calling us back.”
After six months, the firm turned a profit; within a year revenues hit $1 million, then, three years after launch, the Elvie Trainer was also made available on the NHS.
In 2017, Elvie raised £4.6 million from angel investors, helping the Farringdon-based firm fund what it calls “the world’s first silent wearable breast pump”. Despite the £250 price tag, “it was an overnight success story” says Boler.
Turnover stands at £22 million, with celebrity fans of the brand including Gwyneth Paltrow, whose backing for Elvie on her Goop site saw the Trainer sell out, and Khloé Kardashian.
This year, Elvie closed a £33.2 million funding round, led by Michael Spencer’s private equity firm IPGL and backed by Zoopla-investor Octopus Ventures and Impact Ventures.
Boler’s firm has four new femtech products in its R&D pipeline. “Until now, the tech industry has always thought that focusing on women customers means changing the colour or a product or turning it into a piece of jewellery. There’s never been a tech brand for women before. That’s our ambition.”
Turnover: £22.1 million
Business idol: Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. “She talks candidly about the failures in her early years making her who she is today.”