Startup

How the UAE’s Nabta Is Promoting Female Wellness

In an interview with Inc. Arabia, Sophie Smith, co-founder and CEO of UAE-based femtech Nabta, talks about the challenges--and opportunities--of managing a femtech in MENA.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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Established in 2017, Nabta Health is a UAE-based femtech (female technology) startup that targets women's health and wellness. Through its programs, it aims to address the misdiagnosis and mismanagement of chronic and complex diseases in women, as well as the lack of access to affordable healthcare for women in the Middle East and Africa, and the gender and racial gaps in healthcare data.

Femtech, or female technology, is a nascent sector that uses technology to address healthcare challenges specific to women, including fertility, period planning, pre-and post-natal care, and sexual wellness. Internationally, this includes companies like period-tracking app Clue, whose founder Ida Tin first coined the term femtech. Across the region, it includes a host of startups offering alternative menstrual products, awareness and screening programs, female wellness centers, and other tech-enabled solutions.

As one of the first femtechs in the region, Nabta has had to contend with the multiple challenges that come with being the first in a sector, from negotiating stigmas to educating investors. Last year, Nabta raised $1.5 million, which was used to acquire its first clinic, launch its full hybrid model in the UAE, and transition from R&D into commercialization. It is currently in the process of closing its next funding round, which will help drive expansion and consolidate its footprint in the UAE.

This year, Nabta is opening a women’s health Research and Development Institute at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh. According to Smith, the institute will be the first of its kind in the region.

“There are no other companies in the MENA region that I know of that are conducting or looking to conduct research into chronic and complex diseases exclusively in women. This alone presents a massive opportunity that is unique to the region when you take into account the gender and racial gaps in healthcare data,” she tells us. She notes that factors like high smartphone penetration, a young population, and growing awareness of the gaps around women’s health and the need to overcome them, are creating a fertile ground for companies like Nabta.

How Tech Can Help

Nabta uses a combination of digital and traditional healthcare to diagnose and treat chronic and complex diseases in women. It combines data from its app with data from wearables, which provide insights into sleep patterns, activity levels, and menstrual cycles, for early disease detection.

Smith tells us that Nabta uses the data it collects to tailor its recommendations based on the health conditions, age, and reproductive goals of each woman. As Nabta becomes smarter and manages more data, its recommendations will increasingly be couched with a personal health score that accounts for the physical, mental, and nutritional health of each woman and her partner.

And while tech is allowing companies like Nabta to leverage data, it’s not fail-proof. “We treat all datasets with a degree of caution, acknowledging that 92% of clinical trials occur in the US and Europe and the remainder mostly occur in the Far East, which means that of the 19% of clinical trial participants who are female are of Middle Eastern or African origin. This means the majority of healthcare data is less relevant and the insights less true for our populations than for White Caucasian women, for example,” she tells us.

This data, coupled with the use of AI and machine learning to map likely symptoms of users based on their age, stage, and goals, helps the company build a health and disease profile for each patient. That profile can then be used to analyze user data, make personal health recommendations, and predict potential health risks. The data is then used to offer evidence-based recommendations from a team of clinical dietitians, psychologists, and women’s health physiotherapists, among others.

The Business of Femtech

Added to the challenges of pioneering a new market, femtechs in the region--many of which are founded by women--must contend with additional challenges, including investor bias against female-founded startups and a dearth of investor funding for the still-nascent industry.

But the challenges are not limited to fundraising. Femtechs also have to negotiate cultural perceptions of female health priorities and change women’s behavior on how they respond to their health challenges.

Being one of the first femtechs in the region has given Nabta a first-movers advantage--although it hasn’t removed the inherent challenges that come with being in the business. The startup must constantly navigate cultural barriers and stigma, the lack of access to healthcare and education, and fragmented healthcare systems.

“When we founded Nabta in 2017, we were the first femtech company in the Arab world. Since then, we have seen a significant shift in terms of the desire to promote and prioritize women's wellness in MENA--from both an innovator’s and an investor’s perspective. This is evident among the younger generations who understand, as we do, that the UAE and other countries in the GCC have the potential to become the global hub for innovation in women’s health, given their diverse populations, their proximity to emerging economies in the Middle East and Africa, and their growth mindset,” Smith tells us.

FemTech Analytics, a subsidiary of Deep Knowledge Group that focuses on the femtech industry, estimates the global femtech sector will be worth $75 billion by 2025. [1] MENA has the smallest share of the sector, being home to 7% of femtech companies globally.  

But the landscape appears to be changing. Last month, Aramco's VC fund, Prosperity7 Ventures, invested $14 million in Chinese femtech Cispoly Bio-Tech--a clear indication that investor interest in femtech is growing.     

Despite a growing appetite for femtech, from her experience, investors are still conservative, Smith tells us. She explains that the level of funding for femtech is still incomparable with the funds being poured into healthtech regionally--or femtech globally. Nabta, which Smith estimates is probably the most funded femtech startup in the region, has raised $2.5 million to date--approximately 3% of the total raised by healthtech giant Vezeeta.

Overcoming Stigmas and Ensuring Equitable Access to Healthcare

One of the biggest challenges of addressing a female market in MENA has been overcoming taboos and stigmas around menstrual health and hygiene. These stigmas, Smith tells us, make it harder to “meet women where they are, and start talking to them about their pain points and health goals.” To build trust networks, Nabta focuses primarily on offline activities, collaborating with local women’s organizations, community support groups, and other female-led businesses to generate word-of-mouth recommendations.

Through its work, it targets girls and women from teens to menopause, addressing each stage according to its needs. Among young women and teens, it designs school and university-targeted activities to raise awareness among young women about “whole-person care,” to enable young women to feel that they are “the primary architects of their health,” says Smith.

For older women, one of the primary challenges that companies like Nabta face is a health insurance system that often does not cover preventive care or female-specific needs. According to Smith, the biggest challenges that women face are ensuring that they have appropriate healthcare coverage and finding workplaces that support them. 

“Today, 1 in 4 women consider leaving their jobs due to poorly managed perimenopausal symptoms. If organizations want to achieve their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion targets and get more women into senior leadership positions, they need to introduce policies that will help women navigate perimenopause and its 35+ symptoms,” says Smith.

Smith explains that, because menopause is classified as a pre-existing condition by insurance providers in the UAE, women who are diagnosed as perimenopausal pay much higher premiums. Other challenges include getting access to Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), which is not readily available in countries like the UAE.

“We need a better system for managing chronic and complex diseases, which today make up the majority of the global disease burden (70%) and which traditional, acute disease-centric healthcare providers are simply not set up to treat. We need to advocate for policy changes and partner with insurance providers to make coverage more equitable. And we need to work with the government and with regulators to mandate the provision of value- and outcome-based care,” says Smith.

She explains that tackling issues that disproportionately affect women, including chronic illnesses and reproductive health concerns can help decrease both healthcare costs and the costs of lost productivity, which ultimately helps to close the gender pay gap.

Despite all of these challenges, she sees positive changes happening on the policy level. Initiatives like the Parent-Friendly Label, an initiative by Abu Dhabi’s Early Childhood Authority (ECA), are spotlighting the importance of equitable caregiving opportunities for both men and women and the need for workplace policies to support them.

She explains that gender equity in healthcare is key to achieving gender equality in the workplace. “If women do not have effective and cost/time-effective ways of managing their health, they will never be able to progress in their careers and balance these caregiving obligations in parallel,” she says.

“Prioritizing access to preventive care and woman-centric options in the workplace will enable women to manage their health and achieve their full potential, leading to higher earning potential and career advancement,” she adds.

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