“It’s crazy to me that we’re in 2022 and there’s something that 90% of women will experience at least one symptom of in their lifetime, and we’re like, ‘oh she’s just PMSing’. We wouldn’t do that for any other psychiatric condition”.
Here at Vantage, we designed our Female Founder Growth Series to empower and promote women-led businesses in the UK.
The goal of the programme was to create a supportive network of like-minded women, and equip them with the necessary tools to scale their business and get ‘investor-ready’.
It’s no secret that female founders face significant challenges when starting their business journey. They often aren’t taken seriously, and have to work twice as hard to access funding and prove their worth.
To tackle these problems, and platform the incredible impact female founders are having on UK innovation, we created the Female Founder Showcase.
Samphire Neuroscience was founded in an effort to change attitudes to women’s healthcare, focusing on a universal, yet heavily neglected, area of female health – menstrual health.
They’ve developed a female-first product that treats symptoms of PMS, PMDD, and menstrual pain, and have built an incredible network of female professionals along the way.
Em kindly spoke to us about her journey as a female founder, and gave us some insight into the incredible work she’s been doing with Samphire Neuroscience.
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself and the overall mission of Samphire Neuroscience?
Em was born and raised in Lithuania and went on to study neuroscience and anthropology at Harvard. During that time, she had two formative experiences. The first was working as an emergency medic, and the second was working in research labs.
"What struck me was how different those experiences were. In the lab, everything was avant-garde and cutting edge. Then you go into emergency medicine and expect to see people bleeding and you fixing them up, but instead you see people in crisis mode – people with psychotic episodes, debilitating anxiety and suicidal ideations that need help - and yet there's barely anything you can do.”
These psychiatric crises were nothing like what she saw in the labs, and she realised that innovations in both the brain and technology spheres weren’t going to areas in need of research.
Looking to fix this, she finished a masters in neuroscience and started a PhD in neuropsychiatry at the University of Oxford.
“I started looking at how a lot of the conditions that women deal with are seen as ‘normal’ and ‘untreatable’, when brain-wise and treatment-wise, they’re similar to other stuff we already treat. As a result, Samphire was born.”
Samphire focuses on treating the unwanted side-effects of menstruation. More specifically, PMS, PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder), and dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain).
The changes that happen in your brain before your period - for example, mood swings, brain fog, and fatigue - are all down to these conditions. Women are expected to accept them as a normal part of life, often told to ‘grin and bear it’. Samphire wants to fix this.
“The women with PMDD, the severe form of PMS, actually cannot accept it as part of their ‘normal’. They’re usually depressed, often suicidal, and it’s considered pretty much untreatable.”
Samphire adapted existing pain technology and applied it to menstrual pain, combining it with PMS treatment to build a remote-controlled brain stimulation device – the Samphire Hairband.
Wearing it for 20 minutes per day, five days before your period will help eliminate your PMS and PMDD symptoms by targeting the emotional dysregulation that PMS causes.
Beyond this, it reduces sensitivity to pain, which in turn reduces menstrual pain symptoms in the first days of one's period onset - when they tend to be the worst.
Q: Could you tell us more about the process behind building scientifically validated wearable technology for women?
Samphire was only founded 14 months ago, so intense R&D was required over the first year to get the product to where it is now.
Building a medically-regulated device within a year wasn’t easy, but it was made possible through the incredible support they received from investors and advisors. Some of the greatest support came from one of Samphire’s earliest investors, HAX, who gave them endless resources, connections, and engineer’s time.
“As a female founder who had never built hardware at scale before, it was very daunting at first. Our journey has really been about listening to people who have done it before and learning from them.”
Samphire made it a priority to build their product with women at the forefront of the decision-making. To do this, they developed the Samphire Fellowship.
Through the fellowship, professional women were consulted on what features they wanted in the final product. In fact, the final shape was actually something that they voted on!
The final product was a very women-focused device, made to look like a regular hairband. It’s a little known fact that women are the largest consumers of technology worldwide, so designing a product for them that doubles as an accessory was important to Em.
“So much technology gets built for the “average user” – which we know isn’t a woman – and then adapted for women. We very much felt that we have to be women-first, because women deserve to have their own tech that’s specifically for them.”
Q: How do you believe the Samphire Hairband will impact women’s health and wellness when it launches next year?
For Em, Samphire’s impact on women’s health is twofold.
Firstly, she believes the Samphire Hairband will improve women’s quality of life. PMS can impact women’s mental health, career, relationships, and more.
It’s important to remember that PMS is actually a side-effect of something healthy – your period. To not have a period is a sign that you’re unhealthy, so that’s not what Samphire is trying to get rid of.
Instead, the Hairband targets those side-effects to significantly reduce the negative effects of your period.
“We’re not treating periods. Periods are fine. But by addressing the side-effects I think we’re really improving the way women can enjoy their lives.”
The second impact that the launch will offer is a shift in the way women’s health is viewed.
Samphire is making space for women in the technology and healthcare market. They’re sending the message that women deserve technology too, and proving that this technology is financially and ethically sound.
Em hopes that proving there’s a demand for women’s technology will incentivise further innovation in women’s healthcare – for example, treating depression during pregnancy and postpartum depression.
“A lot of women's health companies offer services that help you learn about your body, which is obviously important because we know so little, but what’s different about ours is we give you a solution on top of that. I think more women’s health companies should focus on providing benefits beyond understanding and actually giving people something in exchange for their data.”
Samphire’s goal is to set an example and give women a stronger voice in the health sector. They aim to prove that women’s problems aren’t ‘untreatable’ just because we don’t fully understand them.
Q: After trials, what does your sales strategy look like?
The current plan is to release a limited number of devices to the first users to have signed up on an early list. Whilst a formal waitlist won't be opened until later in 2023, you can register on the Samphire website now to be first in line when signup opens.
“We’ll be collaborating with hospitals and private clinics, but we’ll always maintain sales through our website and other platforms because we’ve seen through our user research that women often talk to each other about their symptoms, but won’t talk to a doctor.”
“We want to make sure that you can buy the product yourself and avoid needless or excessive conversations with doctors – especially because doctors often don’t know enough to even diagnose it.”
In 2023, the Samphire Hairband will launch in the UK and EU. They then plan to expand to the US mid-2024.
Q: As a female founder yourself, what do you think the biggest challenge female founders face is, if any?
“When I initially went into fundraising calls, I always knew what I was going to be viewed as – a female founder.”
People tend to operate on implicit biases, meaning female founders have a lot more to prove to get to where they need to be.
Em’s experience as a female founder goes hand-in-hand with her experience as a first-time founder.
“There are already far fewer female founders than male founders, and even fewer who are not first-time founders in comparison to male founders.”
For all first time founders, there’s a lot to prove - and even more to learn! For Em, learning from previous founders, particularly female founders, was invaluable. It helped her to avoid basic mistakes and challenge existing biases.
Being a female founder in the women’s health space also posed difficulties. Working in an area that most investors don’t have much exposure to, and trying to prove to them that you’re worth investing in, was an interesting challenge for Em:
“Being a Technical Female Founder was also interesting because the stuff that we’re doing actually has a relatively long path to market and requires a lot of investment upfront. I had to say “trust me, a lot of women feel this way” to investors who have likely never experienced these symptoms.”
For female founders like Em, creating support networks and seeking mentorship from other founders is the best way to navigate the entrepreneurial journey.
“We need to understand that we’re all figuring it out as we go along and that we need that support when we’re making those big decisions, so getting to know your fellow founders is really helpful.”
Q: Have you benefited from any entrepreneur networks, MedTech or otherwise, on your journey growing Samphire?
The Vantage Female Founders network was the only explicitly female group that Em has been a part of.
“I really enjoyed it. I think it was less about the business side of it, and more about the emotional support of being a founder and understanding that other people are going through what I’m going through. It’s been a really important network for me.”
Another great network Em used was Voyagers – a London-based MedTech/HealthTech founders community.
“It was amazing to contextualise what the market is doing and see how other founders have been getting news. It helped make sure that we were following the right news, which has been really critical.”
Finally, the founders network from Samphire’s investors, like HAX, Ayuh and Afterwork Ventures, have helped Em to connect with other hardware and tech founders and gain vital information about the development process that she would have had to learn through experience.
The underrepresentation of women in leading business positions has been an issue for quite some time. We developed our Female Founder Growth Series in an effort to address this issue.
After pinpointing the wants and needs of both female founders and VC investors, we created a six-week programme designed to get female entrepreneurs ‘investor-ready’ and maximise their chances of securing funding.
If you are interested in taking part in our (completely free!) Spring 2023 programme, you can sign up here.
Samphire Neuroscience are currently inviting people to take part in their usability trials before their 2023 launch. If you’d like to find out more about what they’re working on, or take part in the trials, check out their website and follow them on LinkedIn.