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Tech of the Town: Is Good Sex the Real Moonshot?

The Helm’s Managing Partner, Erin Shipley, explores the next wave of companies reshaping our sexual future.

Each month, Tech of the Town takes a deep dive into the technology trends we are most excited about through the specific lens of our monthly theme. For this month’s theme, Sex, we’re exploring the future of sextech – and more specifically, the companies and innovations that are creating products and services that enable sexual health and sexual pleasure.

The mythology of the tech industry is that of a culture that is constantly pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible. The culture of not only Moonshots, but Mars-shots too. Collectively we celebrate this kind of ambition, but I think—perhaps more often than we in the industry care to admit—the kinds of innovations that get the lion’s share of attention and funding don’t stray too far outside of cultural consensus. SpaceX may represent Elon Musk’s uniquely bold vision, but the validity of space exploration itself hasn’t really been particularly controversial since the time of Galileo.

We are arguably living in a golden age of product design and consumer innovation, with startups consistently proving the importance of access, ease, and aesthetic. The result of that: everything from Postmates to Sweet Green to Blue Apron when you need to eat; StitchFix to Allbirds to Everlane when you need to get dressed; the lists and categories could go on. Sex, on the other hand—specifically sexual health and sexual pleasure—has been largely left out.

Ironically, the sex industry helped define the internet as we know it. Pornography companies played a significant role in pushing online innovation forward, providing the early testing ground and capital needed to develop tools like online messaging, video, and payments. These technologies laid the foundation for much of what we do on the internet today, from streaming Netflix to online shopping. And we see this phenomenon continue to play out in frontier technologies like robotics, cryptocurrencies, and Virtual Reality.

Innovators and entrepreneurs in sextech will be quick to draw a distinction between sex and pornography, but that doesn’t mean that sextech companies don’t still face a very real “vice” bias from both institutions and investors. Anyone who believes that in 2018 we’ve moved past a cultural squeamishness about sex, and that entrepreneurs can innovate within a secular marketplace, needs look no further than the stories of current tech pioneers like Polly Rodriguez, Cindy Whitehead, and Cindy Gallop to see how real the barriers that still exist can be.

And yet, sex is as prominent and influential a part of the human experience as the majority of the categories that we VCs are often so eager to embrace. I would argue that building for safer, more enjoyable sex for more people here on earth is as valid and revolutionary an ambition as colonizing Mars — and, if you can take an unbiased look at the demographics, an enormous opportunity.

I would argue that building for safer, more enjoyable sex for more people here on earth is as valid and revolutionary an ambition as colonizing Mars. Tweet

So who are the entrepreneurs and companies that are defining this opportunity?

Knowledge is Power

In the US alone, an estimated 75 million 18-34-year-olds are having sex 1.6 – 2x per week. But being sexually active doesn’t equate to being sexually healthy. Comprehensive sex education has been shown to be more effective at reducing things like unwanted pregnancies, and yet sex education is only required to be medically accurate in 13 states in the nation. It is reported that less than 50% of 18-24-year-old men and women use condoms when they have sex, a number that drops to less than 30% in ages 25-34. At the same time, 2016 saw some of the highest ever recorded incidents of sexually transmitted diseases like Syphilis (+17.6%), Gonorrhea (+18.5%), and Chlamydia (+4.7%), despite those diseases being at historic lows and close to eradicated as recently as ten years ago.

Tackling education from two different angles, companies like Tia and myLAB Box are offering consumers new avenues for proactive sexual health.

AskTia: Tia is a sex-positive, millennial-first women’s health advisor co-founded by Carolyn Witte and Felicity Yost to build an alternative for women confronting a health system that is “not designed to serve women’s unique healthcare needs.” The app offers personalized birth control recommendations, judgment-free answers to your questions about sex and your body, and help finding doctors in your area and network. The app is free, meaning services are broadly accessible for women.

Why it’s a game changer: Let’s just take Tia’s “The Vagina Benefits” product as one example. With the passing of the Affordable Care Act, many women’s health services, both acute and preventative, are now free. Helping women understand that they can receive everything from breast cancer and UTI screenings to birth control for free, empowers better sexual health.They also provide ways for women to take action to protect their benefits with their #MyVaginaMyRights campaign.

Helping women understand that they can receive everything from breast cancer and UTI screenings to birth control for free, empowers better sexual health. Tweet

myLAB Box: myLAB Box offers affordable, 100% lab-certified in-home STI testing through their online platform. Founded by Ursula Hessenflow and Lora Lvanova, the company’s standard “Safe Box” costs only $189 and covers 71% of the most common STIs, offering results in 3-5 days and optional doctor consultations. myLAB Box’s goal: to make STI testing affordable and easy for sexually active men and women everywhere.

Why it’s a game changer: Among people who are sexually active, STIs are common, and the CDC estimates that the direct cost of STIs to the health system in the US is $16bn per year. And yet, services to identify and treat sexually transmitted diseases to prevent their spread are decreasing. In a study published in 2017, researchers surveyed over 300 Local Health Departments (LHDs) who provide STI testing/treatment and found that over 60% reported budget cuts. The result? Reduced clinic hours, fewer patient screenings, and reduced partner services. Private sector solutions that facilitate access to affordable testing have the power to help reinforce safe behaviors for people who are sexually active.

Building for Better Sex

Research about sexual pleasure, especially female and non-binary sexual pleasure, remains extremely underfunded. The first nationally representative study in the US on female sexual behaviors wasn’t conducted until the early 1990s, with the second such study taking place close to 20 years later. So it stands to reason that, when it comes to sex for women, there is little to nothing in the way of trusted brands and resources. And when it comes to products, the experience of purchasing and discover hasn’t been updated for consumers in the last 60 years. Condom purchases continue to be defined by embarrassed grocery store checkouts, and sex toy purchases by un-curated, uncomfortable sex shop experiences. And yet, despite this lack of choice and innovation, people still spend close to an estimated $1.3 billion on condoms in the US every year, while the market for sex toys is an enormous $15 billion annual industry. This represents a huge opportunity for new brands and services to speak directly to a modern, diverse consumer.

New companies like Maude and O.School are poised to not only capitalize on these trends, but potentially shift behaviors among a sexually active population that has been consistently underserved.

Maude: Maude was co-founded by Eva Giocochea and Dina Epstein to create beautiful, minimal, “sex essentials” that appeal to both genders. Their first products — condoms, a personal lubricant, and a vibrator –are a direct reflection of Eva’s experience in branding working for companies like Everlane and Steven Alan, and Dina’s experience in product design and development working at companies like Doc Johnson and Kiki De Montparnasse. Their products were designed to have universal appeal, be easy to purchase and engaging, and to fundamentally improve the sexual experience.

Why it’s a game changer: When it comes to who buys condoms, two-thirds of those purchases are being made by men with an estimated 65% of women never having purchased condoms. One explanation: condoms—and sex basics more generally—have a branding problem. Enter Maude, who is using the scalability of direct to consumer e-commerce and coupling it with beautiful design for both men and women to create a brand that redefines what consumers can expect from this category.

O.School: O.School was founded by Andrea Barrica as a “shame-free platform for pleasure education.” The platform offers live streaming conversations with “pleasure pros” on a variety of topics, utilizing moderated chat to allow for interactive dialogues with an intentional, intersectional community. Users can choose from streams as diverse as polyamory, kink, sex with a disability, and how to talk to your kids about porn.

Why it’s a game changer: Quite simply, there are few inclusive spaces to learn and talk about sex. Especially, with the majority of sex education focused on a white, heteronormative population. The kind of varied content offered by O.School—and in an environment free from the harassment that has become normalized in online spaces—allows users to learn about the kind of sexual experiences that appeal to them.

Sex for Every Age

The older population—both men and women—are sexually active, and frequently so. A study of over 3,000 participants aged 57 – 85 in the US showed consistent sexual activity in 73% of 57-64-year-olds, 53% of 64-75-year-olds, and 26% of 75-85-year-olds. And according to the AARP, 60% of women and 40% of men surveyed over 50 report using sex toys as part of their sex lives. And yet, the impact that changes with the body can have on sexual pleasure is something that affects both genders as they age. For women, there are still few products that have been created for those challenges.

Companies like VaGenie and Genneve, however, are introducing new products and community-driven platforms which address the changing nature of sexual health as women age.

VaGenie: The VaGenie was created by Julia Rose to address a common, but little-discussed issue that women often experience starting after childbirth and continuing as they age: a weakening of the muscles in the pelvic floor. A connected hardware device, the idea for the product came from Rose’s experience giving birth in France, where comprehensive postpartum care targets this issue specifically. The brand is aiming to confront a number of taboo subjects in women’s vaginal health including incontinence, vaginal dryness, and decreased sexual responsiveness.

Why it’s a game changer: A healthy pelvic floor has a direct impact on a number of women’s health issues that women are often uncomfortable discussing openly: things like vaginal dryness, pain during sex, reduced bladder control, among others. These are symptoms that get worse with age, and over half of women report at least one symptom by age 80. The associated medical cost of these issues is projected to reach $83 billion by 2020. It has been shown that pelvic floor weakening has a direct, negative impact on sexual function for older women, and yet there are still few non-surgical interventions for women to prevent and treat these issues.

Genneve: Genneve is a women’s health concierge platform specifically built to cater to the unique needs of women as they enter mid-life and beyond, dealing with the effects of menopause and more. The company was founded by Jill Angelo to empower women’s continued sexual confidence as they age, starting with vaginal health. The platform provides content, community, and product for sexual health and wellness issues women face as they get older.

Why it’s a game changer: The majority of women begin to go through menopause between the ages of 45 – 55 with an average age of 51. And with the baby boomer generation plus Gen X aging into that demographic, there are more women than ever – over 58 million women over 50 – looking for resources and advice on the changes their body is experiencing. This is an enormous group of women whose needs in this area are still largely underserved.

As we continue to shift our comfort levels towards a more inclusive view of sextech as a category, we have the ability to discover companies that are creating the kinds of scaling network effects that investors and entrepreneurs are always searching for. If you make sex safer and more pleasurable for the millions of adults having sex in the US alone, it stands to reason that the market size as we’re able to understand it now will grow and expand. Safer, better sex for more people will likely lead to more people utilizing and purchasing the tools, products, and services that create safer, better sex – at every age.

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