Getting Personal With Brittany Barreto: From One-Time ‘Science Hater’ To Genetics Doctorate, DNA Dating App And Women’s Health Champion
Medtech Insight sat down with Brittany Barreto, CEO of FemHealth Insights, who participated in a panel discussion at SXSW 2023 on the $1t femtech industry, to talk about her journey to becoming a women’s health care champion.
Listen to the podcast below:
At last week’s SXSW conference, even before the three panelists and Medtech Insight’s moderator took to the stage to discuss the $1t femtech industry, Brittany Barreto had already endeared the audience with her affability and charisma, asking the audience about their involvement in femtech and engaging them in lighthearted conversation.
The CEO of FemHealth Insights is clearly passionate about women’s health. She’s authentic when engaging in conversation, and doesn’t mince words either.
Brittany Barreto started her journey into women’s health while she was pursuing her doctorate in genetics from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. Realizing, “I had too much personality to work in a lab my whole life,” she began to investigate other career tracks.
Her first venture was a DNA-based dating app to predict attraction based on pheromones The company Pheramor didn’t survive, but, Barreto said, she learned a lot during her first start-up experience, and realized “there were a lot of misunderstandings about female health and consequences of things like daily hormone intake.” For instance, studies have shown women on birth control pills were attracted to similar genetics versus the opposite genetics, which required the company to ask if women were on birth control pills, she said. After raising millions of dollars, new rules for the App Store that forbid dating apps from procuring DNA samples from users, the very foundation of Pheramor, eventually led to to the firm’s demise.
In 2019, Barreto was recruited to Houston-based Capital Factory where she evaluated start-ups, mentored founders and assisted in deal flows. In 2020 at the start of the pandemic, while sitting in her studio apartment isolated from the world, she decided to start the Femtech Focus podcast, interviewing doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, investors and other experts on a wide variety of topics from fundraising, clinical trials, health policies and regulation to treatments and services for women-specific health conditions. The podcast just celebrated its 200th episode and has grown to 85,000 downloads with listeners in about 120 countries, Barreto said.
Meanwhile, Barreto was building a women’s health community and creating a vast database of companies and products in the space. Those assets and her background in fundraising, mentoring and entrepreneurship coalesced into FemHealth Insights, a boutique consulting firm specializing in women’s health innovation.
Medtech Insight sat down with Barreto to talk about her journey from an unstable environment in New Jersey to founding her first company Pheramor while pursuing her doctorate in genetics, working in venture capital, and eventually finding her passion in driving women’s health issues to the forefront.
This article was lightly edited for length and clarity. The podcast was recorded at SXSW on 10 March following the panel discussion on the $1t femtech industry featuring panelists Brittany Barreto, Jennifer Fried, partner at VC firm Portfolia, Kimberly Seals Allers, founder of the Irth app, and moderator Marion Webb.
So my first start-up was called Pheramor. After that, I got recruited into venture capital and worked at Capital Factory, the most active fund in Texas. I launched their Houston branch and that's where I started to learn about venture capital and the power of the investor. As a founder you have one product or service, but as an investor you can invest and empower dozens of products and services. And I liked that angle. I discovered this industry called femtech, which is innovation and women's health and wellness. I just thought it was the most important thing in the world. It has a lot of biology and science, hormones, genetics, lifecycles, so the scientist in me just loves femtech. The activist, the feminist in me, also loves femtech.
[At the time] I was like, where’s the gravity of femtech? What’s happening? Where do I get info? I couldn't find a list of companies. I could not find any data on who was in the space, who was investing, who was successful. That led me down a rabbit hole of my own little research, and I realized, wow, there is a gaping hole here of lack of infrastructure for foundation of innovation in women’s health. Another thing I looked for and couldn't find was a podcast. In March 2020 I said, well, if I have to sit at home in isolation in my studio apartment, I might as well start a podcast. We interview scientist researchers, clinicians, doctors, but definitely also investors and founders. I want to hear the story of how people got there. It’s also a deep dive into the condition or the problem that person is solving. So much of women's health is just a big black box and misunderstanding.
Women themselves don't know what's happening, so we cover things like, what is endometriosis? What’s the market size? How many women are affected, but also how do women get diagnosed with it? And finding out there is no diagnostic test. (Also see "Alife Health Leverages AI Tools For IVF To Increase Access, Improve Chances For Successful Pregnancies" - Medtech Insight, 22 Feb, 2023.)
We talk about innovation and the opportunity. So I interview people who are innovating things like diagnostics for endometriosis. We have an episode coming up about women's health for incarcerated women. What do pregnant women in prison do? Do they breastfeed? Where does the baby go? The podcast is just an amazing platform for authentic conversations, sometimes hard conversations too. We talk about data privacy after Roe v. Wade. We talk about black maternal mortality. We also cover topics how women are activating and getting together to provide access to abortion. (Also see "Telemedicine Among Sticky Wickets As Uncertainty Abounds Post-Roe v. Wade" - Medtech Insight, 14 Jul, 2022.)
We help large companies on their women's health strategy, whether they’re starting one, doubling down or diversifying it. One of the unique things we have is access to early femtech start-ups, so we really specialize. We are finding a lot of our requests right now are for acquisitions and investment into early-stage femtech companies, so that's really great for founders. I cannot wait until I help my first M&A. It's going to be amazing. I'll be potentially as happy as that founder is, because at the end of the day my goal is to improve women's health through innovation and technology.
We have women in finance. Investing is, I always say, one part logic, one part emotion. If you’re only pitching to male investors about solutions, like some kind of breastfeeding pump, usually men don't understand the full struggle of the breastfeeding journey. When you’re pitching this problem to these male investors, they're looking for the numbers, right? That's the logic part, the business model, the market size, the value, profit margins.
But then there’s also the emotional part. You have to be really excited about a deal. When you’re going to male investors trying to solve heavy menstrual bleeding, they don't feel very inclined to jump up and say, ‘This is revolutionary!’ Women in finance is a really critical point, especially when you're at the early stage and you don't have the data, you don't have the profit margins, you just have an idea. You need someone who believes in it. The third is women in the workforce. Fourty-six percent of the workforce in the US is female and women's health is affecting company's bottom line when half of your workforce is not feeling well. When they're getting breast cancer, when they're missing three days a month of work because they have endometriosis, when they have chronic migraines, that is affecting their bottom line. There are now health benefit programs that employers are starting to really buff up on their female-specific solutions for their female employees. And then, last but not least, is the decreased stigma.
If you look at #PCOS or #endometriosis on TikTok, there are literally billions of views, and when women see that one in 10 women have endometriosis, they all of sudden feel a little less lonely and isolated.
In perimenopause, there are over 34 symptoms affecting women, ranging from hot flashes, brain fog, mood swings, irritability, vaginal dryness, weight gain. All of that has to do with the fluctuating hormones. And then post-menopause, you’re dealing with very low estrogen and all the effects that come from that. Women were historically told you just need to ride it out. So there's this tremendous need to find solutions to help these women. (Also see "‘Femtech’ Evolving Beyond Periods, Pregnancy And Postpartum: What’s Next In $1.2Tr Women’s Health" - Medtech Insight, 24 Feb, 2022.)
One of the biggest opportunities in medtech is diagnostics for women. So often we're relying on physicians believing female patients as they describe their symptoms. There is a real problem of medical gaslighting phenomenon right now, which is the doctor saying, ‘Well, that sounds normal for your age. You’re menstruating, of course you have cramps or headaches, just take an Advil; or you have low sexual desire, take a vacation, maybe you're just stressed.’ That is not only insulting to female patients, but it's unhelpful. Women will have to go years without a diagnostic that shows they actually have a sexual dysfunction and should take this medication or have chronic migraines and that’s because of your hormones. Instead, I say to the medtech world, please find a diagnostic test for these things.
Two of my favorite companies right now are Hera Biotech and Molli Surgical. Hera Biotech is developing a diagnostic for endometriosis and entering clinical trials. Another medtech innovation that would be interesting for your readers and listeners is a company callled Molli Surgical. Women that are suspected of having a lump in their breast and need biopsy are asked to go to the hospital very early in the morning and get the radiologists to identify where the lump is in the breast. They stick this metal string into her breast, so that the surgeon can easily find the lump. After they get the wire inserted, the women have to stay at the hospital all day with this wire hanging out of their breasts. Molli Surgical developed a little magnetic bullet that’s punched into the center of the lump that allows women to go home and can have it for three days, so highly innovative, highly technical. These are billion-dollar opportunities.
Then at Drew University [undergraduate college], there was a woman named Carla who worked in the student center. I applied and got a very large scholarship, which really was the only reason I was able to go to Drew. I still owe six figures in student debt and can't even fathom what my student debt would be like without that scholarship.
Dr. Jack Gill, he's an angel investor, he wrote my first ever check. He put me in front of really wealthy active investors, and he said, ‘This kid has the chops, you know, and he got some people to invest who never met me.’ So often I got mentors, sponsors, people who reached out to me simply because I was just shining my light, unintentionally, just the way I do. But people see it and they latch on to that. For FemHealth Insights, I hope that one day we're so successful that we are setting up STEM scholarships for girls to go to summer camps if their families can't afford it, or college scholarships for STEM, or early- stage grants for start-up ideas in women’s health. I'm really excited to give back.