Established in 2020, UK-based female technology (femtech) startup ScreenMe allows men and women to conduct at-home intimate screenings and receive consultations on their reproductive health. Co-founded by Golnoush Golshirazi and Lukasz Ciszewski, the startup focuses on vaginal and semen microbiome testing, which, according to Golshirazi, detects yeast and bacteria at a 99.9% accuracy.
Exhibiting at GITEX's Expand North Star in Dubai earlier this month, where it was selected as a Supernova semi-finalist, ScreenMe is looking to make forays into MENA, with a focus on the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
"Intimate health is something that few people among both the general public and the medical community know about," co-founder of ScreenMe, Golnoush Golshirazi, tells us.
In addition to improving quality of life for women, female intimate health affects factors like the potential success of IVF procedures and babies’ metabolism, Golshirazi tells us. She explains that microbiome testing can help address issues like recurring infections, risk of disease, infertility, and miscarriage, among other things. She notes that even when women do visit their gynecologists, they are often "treated blindly with rounds of antibiotics," which results in a high recurrence of infections - not to mention additional challenges, like increased risk of cancer and fertility complications.
Golshirazi explains that vaginal and semen microbiome testing can also improve the chances of a successful IVF transfer. “Women who have an unhealthy intimate environment are seven times less likely to have a successful pregnancy following an IVF transfer,” she tells us.
Expansion to MENA
ScreenMe, which operates in the UK, is looking to expand into MENA within the next year, with an eye on Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. ScreenMe, which received grants, funds and fundraised from friends and family to launch in the UK, is now raising funds to build what they say is MENA's first online intimate and reproductive health clinic, with a focus on holistic intervention and preventative measures.
Golshirazi, who is of Iranian descent herself, is clear that some of the biggest hurdles that face ScreenMe’s entrance to the MENA market is the taboos around discussing women’s intimate health in conservative societies. “Even though we set this up in the UK, we are Middle Eastern women, so we understand the challenges that women in MENA face,” Golshirazi tells us. “We are not breaking norms by talking about intimate health. We want to introduce education in a socially acceptable manner, but it will be a challenge to find a way of going about it the right way.”
“We need big companies and government entities to help us start the conversation and to provide educational pathways for women to start thinking about their health. We want to help women get answers to the questions that they have never asked anybody – sometimes even their own doctors,” Fariba Khonsari, Head of Operations at ScreenMe, tells us. She adds that building women’s confidence and giving them a platform to speak about their challenges will help them to “maintain a better version of themselves” and feel heard.
Golshirazi points to the nascent femtech industry and the enthusiasm for female-founded startups as signs that startups like ScreenMe can make forays into the MENA market.
Femtech on the Rise
A 2021 report by FemTech Analytics found that one-third of the region's femtech startups are based in the UAE. UAE-based femtech companies bucked global trends, with approximately 60% of them focusing on women's wellness and menstrual health (compared to the global femtech market, which is largely dominated by pregnancy and nursing). In October 2021, Organon and Flat6Labs launched the femtech accelerator program in an effort to advance women's healthcare and support female entrepreneurs - an indication that there is a growing appetite for the sector in the region. The report finds that, in spite of the many challenges facing femtech and female entrepreneurs - including a dearth of investors and barriers to global expansion - the UAE's national strategy to support and empower women provide hope to the nascent sector.
Femtech includes companies working in reproductive health and contraception, pregnancy and nursing, pelvic and uterine healthcare, women's wellness, menstrual and sexual health, menopause care and mental health. Femtech companies typically utilize apps and telehealth resources, deeptech, and devices like wearables, sensors and remote patient monitoring.
FemTech Analytics estimates that the industry will be worth an estimated $3.8 bn in MENA by 2031, growing by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15% between 2021 and 2031. Globally, the market is projected to reach $79.4 bn by 2025.