Colette Courtion was a few months along in her first pregnancy when her friends decided to impart some wisdom. She assumed it would be about weight gain or sleepless nights.
Instead, the pals detailed the trauma their pelvic floors experienced as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. They offered little hope, conveying the troubles as inevitable inconveniences.
“They said, ‘Colette, every time you sneeze you’ll pee your pants. And that’s something you’ll have to learn to live with,'” she says.
Courtion, the former CEO of cosmetic device company Jenu Biosciences, looked up the topic, which she discovered was vastly underrepresented in the field of medicine. According to Kaiser Permanente, one-third of women suffer from one or more pelvic floor disorders. Most women are prescribed Kegel exercises or invasive surgery, with not many treatment options in between.
Courtion’s rude awakening inspired her to ultimately quit and sell Jenu Biosciences and use her expertise in technology and medical aesthetics to target women’s sexual wellness. She thought, “I’ve been working with these technologies that are about rebuilding collagen and elastin in the tissue. Could I do the same for the vaginal tissue and help eliminate these symptoms?”
Bringing The Doctor’s Office Home
In 2014, she launched Joylux, which brings together technologists and gynecologists to solve women’s anatomy issues. From the get-go, the majority of the staff was female, from the engineers to the designers that worked on the physical design of the product. “I wanted them to be women so that they could really understand from a firsthand experience what the issues were and what we’re solving for,” says Courtion. She now serves as Joylux’s CEO.
In 2017, the startup released vSculpt, the first home-use vaginal rejuvenation device using light-energy (red and infrared LEDs), gentle heat, and sonic technology to treat the vaginal tissue and pelvic floor muscles in the U.K. and Canada. A year later, it launched the product in the U.S. under the name vFit, for $395.
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This type of energy-based technology already exists in doctors’ offices. Medical experts use laser or radio frequencies to treat vaginal tissue and rebuild collagen and elastin, thereby improving blood flow and lubrication. In 2015, there was more than $500 million worth of procedures dedicated to this technique.
Joylux’s product offers the privacy of home use, an alternative that might better appeal to women who feel either embarrassed discussing symptoms with a doctor–or unable to afford in-office procedures, which range between $3,000 to $5,000.
Suffering In Silence
In conjunction with a third-party research organization, the Benchmark Group, Joylux surveyed 2,300 women and found that 50% of respondents reported bladder leakage issues, and more than 65% experienced vaginal dryness or pain during intercourse. It wasn’t just older women reporting issues, but women in their 20s and 30s, many of whom reported that their birth control–which affects estrogen levels–lowered natural lubrication.
As for whether these respondents were interested in a home solution, a whopping 95% answered yes. “That tells me that it’s an underserved market,” says Courtion. “They are looking for something to help them because they’ve been suffering for so long.”
The trade-off is time. Medical procedures last five to 10 minutes, with one or two follow-ups, while an at-home device–at a fraction of the cost–requires 10 minutes of use every other day for six to eight weeks. Joylux conducted a study showing vFit is on par with office procedures, which was published in the peer-reviewed International Urogynecology Journal.
A Whole New Intimate Market
Joylux is one of many startups targeting women’s sexual wellness. Unbound, which sells a quarterly box of sex toys and publishes sexual health content, recently raised $2.7 million. Lioness is a vibrator that collects data about users’ vaginal temperature and movements through an app. O.School, meanwhile, is a virtual classroom providing shame-free sexual education.
In fact, the U.S. sexual wellness market is expected to reach $8.8 billion by 2025, according to a new report by Grand View Research, Inc.
And while health-focused Femtech companies raised over $1.1 billion last year, reports CB Insights, female-led startups are still widely underrepresented: only 9% of health tech businesses are founded by women, and women make up about 11% of health-tech partners.
Men have traditionally led health tech, and therefore couldn’t know–or properly empathize with–this discreet issue. In comparison, billions of dollars have benefitted men’s intimate issues like erectile dysfunction–which plagues one in four men, a smaller percentage than female intimate issues.
Dr. Renee Horowitz, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the Center for Sexual Wellness, says the medical community mostly ignored this prevalent issue. “Physicians don’t ask about sexual health for a lot of reasons,” she explains, noting lack of time, insufficient knowledge, or just sheer unease. And it’s no small matter: Sexual health impacts relationships, can lead to anxiety and depression, and affect confidence. “There are a lot of issues that become entangled in our sexual health.”
Courtion predicts tremendous growth in women’s sexual health, pointing to medical conferences that increasingly offer vaginal rejuvenation as a track. She also sees what was once a very taboo issue being stripped of its silence. That’s partially due to celebrities like Kris Jenner or Kate Winslet openly discussing urinary incontinence, but also just a general psychological change in how women view their health.
“Women are becoming far much more empowered to embrace their health in all parts of their life,” says Courtion.
Joylux, which raised $10 million since its launch, plans to release an entire collection of new products targeting pelvic floor health in the next 12 months. Currently, the startup is emulating the Clarisonic model: partnering with doctors offices and physicians to get it into consumers’ hands. The hope is to build trust by way of medical experts. Courtion thinks the vaginal rejuvenation market can potentially swell to $2 billion, though she still faces skepticism every so often.
“The question I get a lot from investors and people that I brought onto the company after I founded it is: Why hasn’t this been done before?” says Courtion. Her response is that women shied away from freely discussing such an intimate issue, thereby enforcing its hidden status. That’s changing: “They’re being far more open in talking about the symptoms and the issues that they face.”
Horowitz considers frank talk an important step in moving the platform forward, advising women to first and foremost share their experiences with one another. “We talk to our girlfriends about everything, but most of us don’t talk to our girlfriends about our sexual life,” she says. “Once women realize they’re not unique in the problems, then maybe they’d be more comfortable approaching their physician.”
Courtion sees the tide shifting, as women’s empowerment changes the political and American landscape. Their voices are echoing across industries, including one they were once too embarrassed to even recognize with pals.
“The timing for a product like ours and the time for the market to expand is absolutely now,” stresses Courtion. “There’s no reason why women should have painful sex. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t deal with these issues, because there’s now technologies and solutions like ours that can help.”