London-based femtech hardware startup Astinno has picked up an Innovate UK grant worth £360k ($450k) to fund further testing of a wearable it's developing for women experiencing a perimenopause symptom known as hot flushes.
The sensor-packed device, which it's calling Grace, is being designed to detect the onset of a hot flush and apply cooling to a woman's wrist to combat the reaction -- in a process it likens to running your wrists under a cold tap.
The aim is for algorithmically triggered cooling to be done in a timely enough manner to prevent hot flushes from running their usual unpleasant and uncomfortable course. While the bracelet wearable itself is being designed to look like a chunky piece of statement jewelry.
The femtech category in general has attracted an influx of funding in recent years, as venture capitalists slowly catch up to the opportunities available in products and services catering to women's health issues.
But it's fair to say menopause remains a still under-addresed segment within the category. Although there are now signs that more attention is being paid to issues that affect many hundreds of millions of middle-aged (and some younger) women around the world.
The team working on Grace has built several prototypes to date, per founder Peter Astbury. He says some limited user-testing has also been done. But they've yet to robustly prove efficacy of the core tech -- hence taking grant funding for more advanced testing. At this stage of development there's also no timeline for when a product might be brought to market.
Astinno and Morgan IAT, its commercial partner on the project, have been awarded the Innovate UK money via a publicly funded UK SMART grants scheme (the pair are getting match funding via the scheme, with the public body putting up 70% and Astinno and Morgan IAT funding the other 30% of their respective costs).
Loughborough University -- Astbury's alma mater -- is also involved as a research party, and is being funded for 100% of its grant costs.
"Several prototypes have been created so far, mainly by myself having received electronics and design training as part of my degree at Loughborough University," says Astbury. "Shortly after leaving university I also briefly worked with an electronics company who helped to refine some of the components within the Grace product.
"Morgan IAT has the crucial technical role of developing a number of prototypes in conjunction with Astinno. This includes both hardware and software development, building many more advanced prototypes that are being tested, refined and then tested again.
"We're working with three researchers from Loughborough University, which brings together industry leading expertise in menopause psychology and physiology. Based at the National Centre for Sports and Exercise Medicine, the researchers are using their fantastic lab facilities to test Grace, meaning that everything we're doing is being validated by professional research. Once this step is complete, we'll have more of an idea regarding product release time-frames."
Astbury founded the startup last summer -- but had begun work on the concept for Grace several years before, during his final year at Loughborough, back in 2016.
"As a member of Loughborough's business incubator, 'The Studio,' I was awarded an enterprise grant that helped to fund the business. I have also been putting my user experience design skills and expertise to good use, contracting for startups and larger healthcare companies on a part-time basis to 'bootstrap' development," he adds.
The idea for the wearable came after Astbury conducted user research by talking to women about their menopausal symptoms and hearing about their coping strategies for hot flushes and the night sweats that can be induced.
"A woman was telling me about her symptoms and how she coped with them until now. She would wake up 10 to 15 times each night due to her night sweats. Each time, she would go to the bathroom and run her wrists under cold water, which helped the flush to subside. Looking into this method in more depth, it became clear that cooling an area of skin can indeed be extremely effective and there are lots of women that use this technique," he explains.
"During a hot flush, your brain mistakenly thinks that you are becoming too warm and causes your body to lose heat. This results in sweating, a reddening of the skin and shortness of breath. The skin, however, acts like your body's thermometer, passing information to your brain. By applying cooling to the skin at the right time, we're harnessing the body's natural temperature regulation system. The brain receives signals that you are cool and, in turn, the body reacts in a way that is directly opposite to a hot flush."
"The real key to Grace is accurately and reliably pre-empting hot flushes (the automated nature of the bracelet) so that cooling can be applied at the earliest stage possible," he adds. "We're doing that using a specific line-up of sensor technology and algorithms all working together, but I'm afraid the details of that can't be disclosed publicly yet."
Astbury says he was keen to get grant funding at this stage of product development to avoid dilution of the business, given VCs would require their chunk of equity.
"One of the best things about Innovate UK for a science-based start-up like Astinno is that it doesn't contribute to the dilution of your business," he notes. "By the end of a successful grant project, a company becomes a much more attractive investment from the perspective of both investors and the startup. I have had discussions with multiple angels/VCs and will maintain those relationships. However, a grant was the best option for us at this stage."