About the author:
Parminder Lally is a senior associate at Appleyard Lees IP LLP. Parminder specialises in drafting and prosecuting patent applications for computer-implemented inventions. She has built a substantial reputation working with high-growth start-ups, spin-outs and SMEs in Cambridge, and has in-house experience.
Recently, ‘femtech’ – technology aimed primarily at women – has not only gathered more attention and support, but has led to products and discoveries that are potentially life-saving, and life-changing, for many women. Femtech devices and apps help women to better understand and manage their health in the best way for them.
This article discusses examples of femtech innovations that have been patented in recent years.
Menstrual cups may seem like a new innovation, but they have been around since the 1800s. In 1867, a patent was granted in the USA for a “menstrual receiver”, which was formed of a rubber sack, a rubber ring and a wire(!) and designed to be inserted into the vagina. A sponge was provided in the sack to absorb blood.
Given the recent rise in popularity of menstrual cups, the global market for menstrual cups is expected to grow to approximately USD2bn by 2026. There are a number of reasons for this renewed interest:
- It is estimated that people who menstruate use around 11,000 disposable menstrual products in their lifetime, many of which contain plastics and non-degradable materials, toxins, bleaches and dyes
- Alternative, non-disposable products are more sustainable than disposable products
- Disposable menstrual products are expensive and unaffordable for many, leading to “period poverty” and consequently, harmful physical and mental outcomes
European patent EP3558177B1 relates to an ergonomically-shaped menstrual cup, designed to be easier to insert and remove without spills. The invention is based on the idea that a rotationally asymmetrical shape may enable the cup to better fit within the vagina. The central axis of the cup is also curved, which makes it possible to keep the plane of the opening essentially horizontal while the cup is being removed, which reduces spillage. Making the cup easier to insert and remove, and reducing spillage, makes it more likely people who menstruate will feel comfortable using menstrual cups.
Typically, the outer surface of a menstrual cup forms a seal with the vaginal wall so that blood is collected in the cup. However, this seal can cause pain and difficulty when removing the cup. To address these problems, another patented menstrual cup (EP3324901B1) features a plurality of non-convex grip surfaces distributed in an axisymmetric manner on the bottom of the cup, which is flared. The grip surfaces are configured to be pinched between fingers, which reduces the pressure exerted by the outer surface of the cup on the vaginal wall. The cup, therefore, is easier and less painful to remove.
Menstruation and fertility tracking
People who menstruate have traditionally kept diaries or made notes in their calendars to help them remember when their period is expected to begin each month. This is often based on the assumption that an average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days. However, normal, regular cycles can be between 21 and 40 days. Thus, the default assumption can make it difficult for people who menstruate to know when their period is due and whether their period is late, or what is normal for them.
Better tracking of periods can help people who menstruate to prepare for the start of their period (e.g. by having menstrual products to hand), to determine whether their periods are irregular (which can indicate a health problem or the onset of perimenopause), or has been missed (which could be an early sign of pregnancy). Better tracking and understanding of a menstrual cycle, and specifically ovulation, can also help people who menstruate to achieve or avoid conception.
US patent US10,765,409B2 relates to a computer-implemented method for modelling a menstrual cycle. The document describes using a wearable device to non-invasively obtain heart-rate and haemoglobin data, analysing the data to determine a health pattern for the user of the wearable device, and correlating the health pattern to events of a menstrual cycle to thereby generate a menstrual cycle model. The model can be used to predict or detect the start and/or stop of ovulation or menstruation. The model is user-specific, which enables better tracking than models based on averages.
Similarly, EP3125754B1 relates to an unobtrusive ovulation tracking system that uses heart rate variability features to predict the likelihood of ovulation. This system can be easier to use than basal or core body temperature thermometers, which must be used daily for long periods of time to be able to predict fertile periods precisely.
Menopause symptom relief
People who menstruate do not know when their menopause will occur, but there are often symptoms that can help them to guess that they are on their way to menopause. One symptom is irregular periods, which the above-mentioned tracking systems could help to detect. Another is hot flushes, which can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, especially in the workplace. Night sweats are another symptom which can impact sleep, causing further issues.
There are a number of patented compositions for the treatment of hot flushes. For example, US8647665B2 relates to a method for treating hot flushes that comprises administering formulations for the transdermal or transmucosal delivery of oestrogen. The amount of oestrogen in the formulation is the lowest effective dose which can be delivered daily while being effective at treating hot flushes. The formulations are also substantially free of long-chain fatty alcohols, long-chain fatty acids, and long-chain fatty ester, to minimise undesirable odour and irritation caused by such compounds.
Other innovations have been developed, including US8887328B2, which relates to an automated system for use while sleeping. The system automatically detects an imminent hot flush, and prevents or controls the symptoms, which can include raised body temperature, sweating and/or chills. The system comprises a sleeping bag in which a user sleeps, sensors for obtaining skin temperature, a fan, and a control module for controlling the fan in response to changes in skin temperature. Similarly, US10179064B2 relates to a wearable headband or cap that incorporates an EEG sensor for collecting data on the wearer’s brain activity, and a blanket that can be used to provide cool air in response to the EEG sensor data indicating that a person will have a hot flush.
Both of these devices are suitable only for use at night, and are not necessarily comfortable or practical. Therefore, US10182937B2 provides a wearable device for manipulating temperature using a thermoelectric material positioned close to the skin. The device generates successive thermal pulses according to particular temperature profiles, which may give rise to an enhanced heating or cooling effect for the wearer.
If you are working in the femtech space and would like advice on how you can protect your innovation or brand, get in touch with us for a free and confidential discussion.