Inspiring innovation in women’s healthcare

Fem Tech Human Welfare Conference 2024

The sixteenth Human Welfare Conference was the first FemTech event of its kind in Oxford, focusing on advancements in women’s health technology. Organised and chaired by Green Templeton’s Christiane Hagel (DPhil, Clinical Medicine, 2019) who also serves as the President of the Oxford FemTech Society, the conference brought together over eighty participants from disciplines including medical sciences, social sciences, engineering, and digital health. There were fifteen speakers, of whom seven were showcasing their research spin-off healthcare start-ups.

Christiane reports

FemTech encompasses software, diagnostics, products, and services designed to address women’s health issues. This rapidly growing field aims to improve reproductive health, tackle hormonal and mental health conditions, and chronic diseases with innovative solutions such as mobile apps, wearable devices, diagnostic tools, and online platforms. FemTech addresses a wide range of issues specific to the female body, primarily with ‘tech’, – but it also considers women’s health via a holistic view of the healthcare sector’s history, unconscious medical bias, and the resulting data gap – which includes all genders in terms of addressing the disparities created by these factors.

Senior Tutor Dr Alison Stenton opened the conference by welcoming participants to an event with an important theme with potential to make a difference for human welfare. The keynote by Dr Helen O’Neill, molecular geneticist at UCL and founder of Hertility, highlighted the transformative potential of technology in healthcare. Despite advancements in many aspects of life, women’s health remains underserved. Dr O’Neill noted that 1.6 billion women suffer from gynaecological conditions and every woman experiences hormonal changes throughout life that significantly affect her health and wellbeing, but these areas are inadequately addressed by current healthcare systems. She emphasised the need for comprehensive solutions, which is one of the reasons she founded Hertility. What began as a clinical trial now offers online reproductive health assessments and personalised services.

Christiane, Nick Shipley, Elise Sai, Sharon DixonA panel discussion with Dr Sharon Dixon from the Primary Care Epidemiology Group and Tori Ford from the Medical Sociology and Health Experiences Research Group at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care stressed the need for inclusive technology that avoids exacerbating existing disparities. Tori, who is also the founder of Medical Herstory, highlighted the importance of patient advocacy to battle persisting stigma and the risks of relying on biased data. ‘Technology is an enabler,’ noted Elisa Sai, Vice President of Capgemini Invent, “but it must be designed thoughtfully to avoid creating new disparities.”

Professor Christian Becker and Dr Tatjana Gibbons from the Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health presented research on endometriosis, revealing the significant economic and personal toll of this condition affecting up to 10% of women – who on average wait seven years to be diagnosed. Once diagnosed, there are not sufficient treatment options besides surgeries, which most of the time will not take away the burden of pain. Innovative diagnostic methods using AI and advanced imaging were showcased, offering hope for earlier and more accurate detection that could lead to more targeted treatment.

Healthcare start-ups presenting their innovations as part of the showcase exhibition at the Observatory included:

  • Calla Lily Clinical Care: Combining a tampon and pantyliner to prevent leaks, along with a device for better delivery of medication for IVF and miscarriage prevention, enhancing comfort and convenience.
  • Serac Healthcare: Imaging technology for diagnosing and assessing disease activity in inflammatory arthritis and endometriosis.
  • Verso Biosense: Minimally invasive uterine environment sensors to measure temperature, pH, and oxygen levels, aiding in diagnosing conditions and assessing fertility.
  • Booby Biome: Breast milk microbiome preservation to improve infant health by maintaining the microbiome in stored breast milk and addressing the disparities in infant feeding.
  • Jack Fertility: Home sperm testing kit designed to make fertility assessments for men more accessible and less invasive, also advocating to empower men and take the burden from women about (in)fertility.
  • Hertility: Comprehensive reproductive health care through online assessments and personalized services, with a new health-tracking app launching this summer.

Thang Vo-Ta, Green Templeton student and co-founder of Calla Lily, highlighted challenges in women’s health, including a systemic reluctance to change and difficulties in obtaining funding. Despite five failures before securing funding, Thang’s perseverance led to the invention of a biodegradable tampon and a device to improve medication delivery for IVF and miscarriage prevention. This product aims to enhance comfort and convenience and at the same time potentially save £236 million annually. Thang emphasised the importance of perseverance and innovation in overcoming systemic barriers in women’s health.

Audience at Human Welfare Conference 2024

The final panel on private investment trends in FemTech featured Angel Investor Victoria Armstrong and FemTech Lab Programme Coordinator Kate Nikityuk, highlighting growing interest in this field but emphasising the need for more funding and mentorship for women-led research spin-offs.

The conference concluded with remarks by Professor Denise Lievesley, emphasising the critical role of accurate data and the importance of collaborations between academia, industry, and public services to foster sustainable development and advance women’s health. Christiane added that the future of women’s health relies not only on technological advancements but also on well-designed, inclusive, and patient-centred care, as well as addressing systemic challenges and improving medical education. FemTech, driven by individuals with exceptional perseverance, many of whom have faced personal health challenges, inspires to change current health services for women. Christiane and her team are also driving the acquisition of FemTech book collections at libraries across all colleges in Oxford, emphasising the use of literature to address healthcare biases and create a culture of understanding.

The conference was made possible thanks to the generosity of Green Templeton Annual Fund donors and others. The FemTech theme received endorsements from Professor Trish Greenhalgh, Professor Jacob McKnight, and Dr Shobhana Nagraj; Professor Sara Shaw recently joined the society as a Senior Member. The Green Templeton volunteers supporting the conference were Amy Booth, Daniela Krouzkova, Davide Bilardi, Laiba Husain, Lucrezia Viti, Sylvie Pool and Patricia Lamirande.

Participants reported that the conference gave them hope for change and inspiration to think about solutions and work with partners outside academia. Some of the male participants felt enlightened and were shocked about the many things they had not known. Many founders, along with the conference participants, shared personal health challenges that had been dismissed or mistreated, emphasising the urgent need for better healthcare solutions.

The FemTech Forward 2024 conference was an inspirational event, showcasing the potential of technology to transform women’s healthcare and concluding with a call for more collaboration between academia, industry, and public services. Thanks to the Oxford FemTech and volunteer team led by Christiane, and the support of Green Templeton College, this was Oxford’s first conference in this field and successfully created an environment inspiring innovation and collaboration. The first collaborative projects as a result of the conference are already on their way.


Created: 30 May 2024