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How Startups Are Turning the Female Body Into Big Bucks

Illustration by Annie Liu, Period Confidential
Illustration by Annie Liu. Liu is a dot connector. She plays with letters, words, patterns, and form to serve as a mirror.

When Apple debuted the health and fitness app HealthKit in 2014, users noticed a peculiar absence. The app managed to monitor your vitamin intake, weight loss, fitness goals, and other minute health-related details, but failed to offer a basic period tracker for women. A reasonable oversight, or so we thought. A year later when the company updated the software, it still hadn’t found a reason to include one. This time the injury felt more pronounced. It took a new round of complaints and bad press for Apple to get the hint, and when they did, they turned to Ida Tin.

In 2013, Tin, a former motorcycle tour guide from Denmark, launched Clue with her husband. Clue is a free female health app that uses machine learning to help predict your cycle and, more generally, help you better understand how your body works. Today, the Berlin-based company has more than two million active users in 190 countries. In November, it received $20 million in Series B funding. When Apple came to Tin, she agreed to allow the company to integrate Clue’s data features with HealthKit.

Second only to running apps, the company says fertility and period-trackers are the largest market in the health and fitness app category worldwide. But Tin’s vision for the company extends beyond big-money startup glory and what we’ve come to expect from health and fitness based technology. Part of her mission is to demonstrate, through female health data, how technology can be used to champion diverse populations, empowering people by connecting them more thoroughly with their bodies. This includes monitoring cervical fluid, bowel movements, hormone levels, stress, menstruation, hair, fertility, and more. It sounds simple, but the potential is groundbreaking.

The aim is to empower patients by giving them more knowledge of and control over their bodies.

Consider a similar story involving a different health-related startup founded by a woman. In 2003, when Elizabeth Holmes was just 19 years old, she dropped out of undergraduate school at Stanford to start her own medical company. With Theranos, as it was called, Holmes wanted to revolutionize diagnostic lab testing by providing simple, painless blood-sample analysis that would be accurate, cheaper, and more efficient than anything the medical community had ever seen. Silicon Valley swooned, and by 2014 investors had valued Holmes’s company at $9 billion dollars.

But the glory days for Holmes were short lived. In October 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an explosive story pointing out that much of the data provided by Holmes’s company had not been verified by peer-review, corners had been cut, and former employees said that they were skeptical of some of Holmes’s most radical claims, like the ability to produce accurate blood-test results using only a few small drops of blood. By the end of last year, Forbes had downgraded her net worth to zero.

Holmes’s tale, perhaps the most visible of any woman working in health technology in the last 10 years, is a cautionary one. But the mission of Theranos is similar to Clue’s and other fertility apps: The aim is to empower patients by giving them more knowledge of and control over their bodies.

This will have a positive impact on the advancement of women’s reproductive rights and the rights of other marginalized populations, as empowering people to make more informed choices about family planning and their bodies is directly related to an individual’s economic independence and prosperity.

On the subject of periods, one of the many infamous moments from Trump’s presidential campaign happened during the first Republican debate when the moderator, Megyn Kelly, apparently questioned him too aggressively. In retribution, Trump accused her of having “blood coming out of her wherever.” It was an almost laughable reference to the female menstrual cycle—only during “that time of the month” are women allowed to be so brazenly bitchy—but it also highlighted a familiar attitude: Women don’t have, or shouldn’t have, control of their bodies.

This kind of thinking has already become a touchstone of Trump policy. In his first week in office, he signed an executive order reinstating a global gag rule prohibiting U.S. organizations receiving federal funding from recognizing abortion as a family-planning option overseas. Under the Affordable Care Act, birth control pills are free for Americans, but Trump and his Vice President, Mike Pence, a vocal opponent of Planned Parenthood, have promised to repeal that policy. What they plan to replace it with is unclear, but it will almost certainly have negative consequences for women and likely lead to less money in our pockets. In fear, many women have preemptively had IUDs inserted by their doctors. According to Planned Parenthood, the demand for IUDs has risen 900 percent.

Clue eschews words like “man” and “woman,” acknowledging that not everyone who has a cycle identifies as a woman, not every woman has a uterus, and that not all users will identify as “female” or “women.”

Tin and her team at Clue, which includes a number of female coders and designers, have fully embraced the political and economic virtues inherent in their company mission. While states like North Carolina pass legislation requiring individuals to use bathrooms that correspond to the gender identified on their birth certificate, for example, Clue has taken steps to educate users on the limiting nature of gendered language, releasing an in-depth report on its website that explains why Clue eschews words like “man” and “woman,” acknowledging that not everyone who has a cycle identifies as a woman, not every woman has a uterus, and that not all users will identify as “female” or “women.” As our thinking around gender identity and sex continues to shift, Clue is doing what it can to be on the right side of that conversation, knowing that this isn’t just a political issue, but potentially the best way for businesses to scale.

Before I started using Clue, I thought of my period as an unwelcome visitor that arrives, uninvited, to a dinner party every month. Instead of preparing myself for it, I did what a lot of women do, which is to pretend that it doesn’t exist, until it arrives again. My relationship to my cycle was borderline hostile. And can we blame someone for feeling this way when so much of what we are taught about the female body is couched in ideas centered on modesty, hysteria, and natural forces beyond our control? No wonder Apple didn’t think we’d like to be reminded of the blood coming out of our whatever.

Drawing hearts on a calendar always seemed a touch too mid-century for me, but I do, for the first time in my life, diligently track my period because of Clue. I’m no power user—I don’t know my basal body temperature—but I do feel liberated by this small yet meaningful development. Tin has said she is not sure how to monetize Clue just yet, but if her vision to empower all people to take charge of their lives through health, science, and technology succeeds, it will be hard to measure just how valuable it will be.

Illustration by Annie Liu, Period Problems
Illustration by Annie Liu

This feature originally appeared in the Money issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Money issue here. Read Mind Over Money: An Interview with LearnVest Founder Alexa von Tobel or The Floridian Underbelly: A Review of Sarah Gerard’s “Sunshine State”.