Next up in my Healthtech lockdown series, I caught up with Alice Pelton, Co-Founder of The Lowdown, the world’s first contraception review platform. Within just 14 months, the platform has skyrocketed, partly due to Alice being accepted onto the prestigious Entrepreneur First accelerator programme where she met her co-founder David, and partly because, as Alice describes, this is a ‘hair on fire’ problem that they can and are fixing now. Since December, they’ve seen 6x (organic) growth in traffic on the platform and are up to 2650 data-rich reviews on the site to date. They have now launched their beta app to help women better track, use and choose contraception, and are beginning the whirlwind journey of raising their seed round.
Alice and I spoke about how everyone, including herself, couldn’t believe how something like this doesn’t exist already, what the Entrepreneur First course has done to accelerate the business, and how the UK healthcare system is not conducive for women’s health.
The idea spilled out of a conversation on holiday with her partner bemoaning the lack of knowledge and choice women have around birth control; “we live in a world where we review everything! I couldn’t believe we didn’t have something for contraception”. Businesses are usually borne of a personal gripe, but I don’t know a woman who hasn’t had a tumultuous and often traumatic relationship with contraception. You’re constantly having to weigh up the lesser of evils, choosing from a menu of miserable options: a non-existent libido, being 3-stone heavier and having a therefore redundant wardrobe, period pains that have you doubled over in agony, adult acne or a rollercoaster of hormones that can completely undermine a woman’s hard-earned confidence. Coined as “the TripAdvisor for contraception”, Alice hopes that recording user experiences and exposing the lack of options a woman has will force contraceptive brands to raise their game and spotlight areas for innovation.
The Lowdown aims to empower women to have more of a choice around something as life-changing as contraception. A far cry from hospital pamphlets and 1980s infographics, the platform is a slick, data-rich site with an eye for design and usability.
The Lowdown is creating that crucial sense of community that seems to be a non-negotiable for emerging brands, especially in the FemTech space. The website was their ‘MVP’ and confirmed that women are desperate for more choice, or at least more information on contraception. Community platforms often have an undercurrent of trolls who take pride in needlessly plaguing forums with unhelpful comments. Alice says that the community that has formed has been one of overwhelming gratitude and goodwill: “we have barely had to monitor the platform at all; women just want to help other women”.
Building on their website, “our app will enable us to track and measure contraceptive experience in real-time, giving a detailed picture of how contraception affects women’s lives”. Their app will support women in three ways: partnering with health professionals to provide expert help to users, providing a community with which to discuss contraception, and collecting data to better inform their support. Alice has found that a silver lining to COVID has been that healthcare professionals are easier to get hold of and more open-minded towards the value of Healthtech: “they’re so supportive of digitising this aspect of women’s health”.
“We have barely had to monitor the platform at all; women just want to help other women”Alice Pelton
Alice has spent her career in media and product development, and even a quick look at the platform indicates a respectful nod to user-centric design. Prior to this, Alice was reporting directly into the COO of News UK, garnering vital experience in pitching acquisitions: “media is all about storytelling. This is invaluable when you present and explain things and getting across your business idea.”
It was a shared background in media that drew her to her Co-Founder, David Pratt, whom she met in the first weeks at Entrepreneur First. To me, EF sounds like Love Island for the deep tech-savvy: a hive of like-minded people all frantically searching for a business partner. Alice went in looking for a data scientist and met David, a serial entrepreneur, and an expert in B2C start-ups and community-based products (The Tab, Brace Club, Ballpark) who is “fully on board with the vision”. They quickly realised they had similar thoughts on developing products and businesses: “neither of us were going after page view growth or vanity metrics, something typical of the media world”.
Is there any conflict or unspoken hierarchy between co-founders? Alice says that she’s not protective of it being ‘her’ idea at all; she’s grateful for the benefit of having a pair of fresh eyes and the support they give each other. “It’s helpful holding each other to account, coming up with ideas and getting feedback. We walk the maze of starting a business together”.
It’s also an interesting dynamic having a male co-founder in a women’s health product. In another interview I held, Alec from DAME spoke of the benefit of bringing objectivity to founding a FemTech company, viewing it as a business problem to solve, rather than a personal vendetta to avenge. Alice agrees that this helps to clearly define their roles: “I’m the voice of the customer because I’m the woman with the problem. He uses me as a proxy for the user and is freed up to do the bigger picture thinking and broader plans for the business”.
Aside from introducing her to David, the primary value of EF is the diverse network of talented people and their EIR (Entrepreneurs in Residence) programme, according to Alice. They give you mentors, a sounding board, and practical tips on everything from how to size your market to what legal advice to seek. “Ultimately, they let you get your head down and own your own outcomes: it’s important we think about how The Lowdown will operate in a world outside of EF.”
“Ultimately, [Entrepreneur First] let you get your head down and own your own outcomes: it’s important we think about how The Lowdown will operate in a world outside of EF.”Alice Pelton
Alice says she has “loved specialising in women’s health” and the community of passionate advocates that comes with it, but she says “there is so much more we can do. EF is bursting full of deeply technical people – imagine what we could achieve if more of us turned to solving women’s health issues”. We discussed some of the innovation happening in this space, namely OUI , a contraceptive method that uses mucus engineering to make cervical mucus temporarily impenetrable to sperm and Phexxi from Evofem (that’s just received FDA-approval), a contraceptive gel that maintains the vaginal pH, making an acidic environment that is inhospitable to sperm.
Why is innovation so sparse in contraception? “In general, no one wants to go near it. The route to market is long and slow, and the stakes are too high”, Alice tells me. Potential failures in healthtech are particularly conducive for court cases, media scandals and life-or-death consequences. “There’s also this assumption that there are ‘enough’ options”; the reality is the market is overcrowded with 1960s solutions that are so far away from user experience and what the modern woman wants.
Secondly, Alice tells me, sexual health services are funded by the local authorities in the UK. That means that they’re part of the same budget for parks and motorways: ultimately sexual health isn’t seen as a priority.
Another reason is that the UK healthcare system is built around General Practice, meaning gynaecology is still seen as a ‘specialist area’ in medicine. Women going to their GP for specialist knowledge means that they are often ill-equipped to give the right advice: tests are misinterpreted, contraceptive is wrongly prescribed, and women are sent to IVF clinics unnecessarily. Alice tells me 80% of contraception is prescribed by GPs, but research from the Family Planning Association shows that only 2% of GPs offer the full range of contraceptives, with 20% saying they did not offer the coil.
“80% of contraception is prescribed by GPs, but research from the Family Planning Association shows that only 2% of GPs offer the full range of contraceptives”Family Planning Assocation research
The sign of a good business idea is when you can’t imagine life without it. The traction The Lowdown has already received proves that women need adequate knowledge of what contraception they are taking, and it is genuinely baffling to me that this doesn’t exist already. The Lowdown feels more relevant than ever in providing a platform for women to share their experiences and a much-needed spotlight on where to focus efforts.
While largely limited to markets with a broad acceptability of contraception, Alice hopes that “The Lowdown has a role to play in really revolutionising this space, and getting people to speak (anonymously) about a topic so controversial to some.” In starting this conversation, The Lowdown can inform and support women in an area that has needed two tech-savvy cofounders to come and disrupt for a very long time.