In celebration of International Women’s Day 2022, AST is highlighting some of the talented and inspiring women founders and leaders of sports tech and health tech startups who are bringing positive impact to the world.
Women’s sports have been gaining momentum in recent years with the increasing value in broadcasting rights and sponsorships of women’s sports, the universal marketability of female athletes, and the sports world moving towards a more diverse and inclusive space. The global sports market will generate US$826B by 2030 with potentially one-third of its value coming from women. The change is being driven by an increasing number of women leaders in all areas of the global sports ecosystem.
In recent years, the spotlight has been on greater exposure of women’s sporting events and the growing profile of internationally renowned female athletes. In this article, we will highlight the contribution of another group of women who are also highly influential – the female founders and CEOs of sports tech and health tech startups who are transforming the global sports, fitness and wellness industries. We will further examine the impact they make, the challenges they face, why they deserve more credit and support, and the opportunities to meet rapidly growing demand from female sports fans and the female consumer base.
Women entrepreneurs as an emerging force in the sports tech & health tech ecosystems
Women are taking sports beyond the playing field and playing a more active role as sports executives in the boardroom or as founders. We are seeing a growing number of outstanding women with different backgrounds and races playing significant roles as entrepreneurs or as investors and they are quickly emerging as a powerful force contributing to the boom in sports, esports, fitness and health and wellbeing globally and regionally.
Many women are breaking the glass ceiling and changing the game in the sports startup ecosystem. Some of the more high profile founders include: Payal Kadakia, who owns the world’s biggest fitness booking platform ClassPass; April Koh of Spring Health who created a digital mental health benefits solution for employers; Alodia Gosiengfiao of Tier One Entertainment who co-founded a leading esports entertainment agency in South East Asia; and Emmanuelle Roger of Immersive.io from France that has built an AR-powered fan engagement platform.
Gender disparity in VC funding
One key challenge facing female founders is that they have limited access to capital compared to men. Although the US has the world’s largest startup and VC ecosystem, disparity still exists. Forbes states that 58% of people who work in VC are white men while 93% of the venture money is controlled by white men. In 2021, US startups founded solely by women raised US$6.4 billion of venture funding which is 83% higher than that from the previous year, and yet this still only accounts for 2% of the VC dollars raised according to PitchBook.
Facts have proven that female-led startups are more profitable than male-led ones. According to research by Illuminate Ventures, female founders drive 35% higher ROI than men-only led companies, and yet many female-founded startups remain underfunded. Fundraising seems to be even more challenging for companies solely founded by women than those who have a male co-founder.
It is not surprising that the VC funding gap also exists in Asia. India, one of the leading VC markets in Asia, has created three sports tech unicorns in 2021. However, the total funding received by women founders in tech only accounts for 5.8% of the US$1.7 billion raised across 378 deals between 2018 to June 2020 according to MAKERS India. And in Southeast Asia, only 17% of PE/VC deals in 2020 involve startups that have women founders.
In a recent article, we discussed how Venture Capital investing in Sports Tech and Health Tech is emerging in Asia and how women are a key growth driver in Asia’s sports, esports, sports tech, fitness, and wellbeing ecosystems. Women-led startups are becoming highly valuable, not only as they enable investors to capitalize on the rapid growth in Asia’s growing consumer markets but also as advocates of “D&I”, another key factor that drives the ecosystem forward.
Curated for her: The rise of women-centric innovation
“Made for Women” and “For Women, By Women” are two categories emerging in sports tech, fitness tech and health tech. There are more and more new products coming into the market ranging from fitness apps and wearable trackers to apparel and footwear. It might sound like these are niche markets but they are highly marketable and profitable.
Traditionally many sports products and solutions were designed by men or were built based on men’s physiology or needs. Research by the University of North Carolina Greensboro indicates that only 6% of the sports and exercise science research is exclusively conducted on women, reflecting a huge gender data gap. Often overlooked is the fact that it is important to understand women’s physiology when developing products for them as the designs often impact their performance especially if the products do not fit perfectly.
Women know women best including their fitness and wellbeing goals, how they use the product and what experiences they like. This is why it is so important to include a female perspective when designing sports products for women. This thoughtful approach to curate the experience for female users often leads to great innovation.
Laura Youngson, co-founder of a female-specific innovative sports footwear brand, Ida Sports, shared how her unpleasant and painful footwear experiences motivated her to found the company: “ In the development of the product, I realized that there are loads of areas ripe for innovation that target underserved populations. By designing for female athletes, we get to also comment on the lack of thought that has gone into previous products and brands that label items as ‘unisex’.”
Other thoughtful products designed for women include: Bellabeat, the only health tracker made for women. WILD.AI, a science-backed fitness app designed for women that enables users to track their physical activity and adapt different training according to their menstrual cycle. Last year, one of the world’s leading wearable tech companies WHOOP formed the Women’s Performance Collective. This R & D initiative focuses on females’ physical and physiological needs as well as introducing a menstrual cycle coaching feature in their app, helping women to improve their health, sleep and performance.
Hélène Guillaume Pabis, Founder & CEO of WILD.AI highlights the importance of integrating women’s health data in the R&D process: “All products, devices, apps that exist, are made for men. Whoop, Oura, Garmin,… all diet and training apps – all read data as a man: if your body temperature goes up, it thinks you’re sick. True as a man. As a woman, you may ovulate, be pregnant, have peri-menopausal hot flushes… Traditional diets such as no carbs/no fats/keto, etc are working against female physiology. We really need to look at female data with a female lens and provide them with recommendations that are adapted to their body, their life stage, and/or where they are in their menstrual cycle. This enables women to really take advantage of their physiology, instead of battling through symptoms.”
“FemTech” is poised to take off in Asia. Coined in 2016, it refers to “a range of health software and tech-enabled products that cater to female biological needs” and is another rising sector that is drawing investors’ interest. According to PitchBook, global femtech market revenues will reach US$3 billion by 2030 while FemTech Analytics also predicts that APAC will become the world’s fastest-growing region for women’s health apps by 2026. The rise of FemTech will accelerate the overall health tech sector in Asia.
Helene also realizes the market potential of women-centric innovation, especially in Asia: “Women are realizing they’ve been underserved and wake up to the fact that they want and need better solutions. It’s often women who drive innovation in the field, as they want to solve issues they encounter first hand.
Asia traditionally has a more “preventative” approach when it comes to health – which is something that resonates widely with women. We’re at the beginning of a massive change. If we talk about “health” vs. “female health”, it’s because health is actually men’s health. The change looking at women specifically will touch all areas of health: from performance, wellbeing, to medical drugs and medical treatments – for instance, if you look at the digestive system, women should be looked at with their menstrual cycle or life stage.”
The female-centric sports tech and health tech markets have room to grow in Asia as the products and solutions targeting “female” or more specifically “Asian Female” consumers are very limited. Given that women represent nearly half of the population in Asia this could be a huge monetization opportunity for companies and investors.
Serving the massive population of high-spending female consumers in Asia
The purchasing power of women in Asia will continue to surge in the years to come. A study by Frost & Sullivan predicted that annual female income has reached US$24 trillion and women contributed US$43 trillion of consumer spending globally in 2020. Another study by McKinsey also indicated that Asia will contribute 50% of global consumption growth, accounting for US$9.5 trillion from 2020-to 2030.
An analysis by HSBC points out that Young Asian Women are tomorrow’s consumers, especially in sports, fitness, and health sectors as they are more health-conscious. Asia also has a huge number of female sports fans. Both these trends offer a valuable opportunity for companies and investors to capitalize on the economic potential of Asian women in the above categories.
For companies to succeed they will need insights to better identify the demand and capitalize on the future growth in these markets. For example, women prefer the social element in sports and fitness, and they are more likely to make in-game purchases than men. (Read AST’s analysis on “Why the future of esports consumers is female.”) Companies need to find the right strategies to communicate, market their products, and bundle offerings to make them appealing to female consumers and sports fans in Asia.
Leading with purpose: Cultivating a diverse and inclusive ecosystem
It is important to create an ecosystem that is more accessible and friendly for women founders and women from different ethnic backgrounds. Laura Youngson also shared some of her thoughts with us.
“My take on increasing participation for female founders is that we already have great ideas and talents, it’s really a question of removing barriers to participation. If we want to shift how many women are being funded at the VC level then we need to encourage women at the start of the pipeline to enter accelerators and meet great mentors. From our experience, our idea never really changed, it was the opportunity to open more doors and access circles of capital that changed how the business can succeed.
There are also still unique challenges to being a female founder including more household responsibilities and childcare, as well as pregnancy and maternity leaves, so designing a modern entrepreneurial ecosystem that sees these attributes as advantages is my goal. This also has benefits for all genders as it starts to normalize parental leave and spending time with your family. I believe this leads to more productive team members, who bring their whole selves to work with purpose and drive. ”
Moreover, other support such as providing mentorship and having access to the right connections are also important to help female founders to grow and scale their business. “In general, women have less access to capital, smaller professional and senior-level (i.e. decision maker) networks, and fewer opportunities for formal and informal mentorship from people in the entrepreneurial space. This is changing but female founders still benefit from overinvesting in these areas. Removing bias from investment decisions will make a difference to how many female founders and their ideas get funded.” said Youngson.
It is clear that large changes are being driven by an increasing number of women in all areas of the global sports business. Despite these recent changes, the sports industry still needs more women leaders, founders and executives to be role models and encourage the next generation. VC firms and mentors can play an even more important role by investing with purpose and unlocking more opportunities for women founders to thrive in this important part of the global sports industry powered by women.
There are many inspiring women leaders and founders within AST’s network and we look forward to helping more women founders get the support they need to be able to enter and transform the sports tech and health tech ecosystems in Asia and around the world.
Connect with us to learn more if you are a women founder looking for support or if you are an investor interested to learn more about women-founded sports startups.