Is it possible to draw blood without causing pain? This problem has plagued the medical industry for decades. The old archaic needle is getting replaced by tiny vacuums and laser beams, but for women it could become much easier than that. In 2014, an engineer at Harvard named Ridhi Tariyal hit on a far simpler workaround. “I was trying to develop a way for women to monitor their own fertility at home,” she told me, and “those kinds of diagnostic tests require a lot of blood. So I was thinking about women and blood. When you put those words together, it becomes obvious. We have an opportunity every single month to collect blood from women, without needles.”
Together with her business partner, Stephen Gire, she has patented a method for capturing menstrual flow and transforming it into medical samples. “There’s lots of information in there,” Ms. Tariyal said, “but right now, it’s all going in the trash.”
Why did Ms. Tariyal see a possibility that had eluded so many engineers before her? You might say she has an unfair advantage: her gender.
Because she lives in a female body, she had experiences that just wouldn’t be available to her male colleagues. She doesn’t have to imagine using her device, because she herself has been able to beta-test it.
Early on, she and Mr. Gire had thought about putting diagnostic chips inside tampons to give women real-time updates about their health. But Ms. Tariyal quickly realized that the “smart tampon,” outfitted with chips and transmitters, gave her the heebie-jeebies — it sounded like a torture device from a David Cronenberg film — and customers would no doubt feel the same way. That’s why she decided that all medical testing must take place outside the body, an insight that shaped the way that she and Mr. Gire designed their product.
Eric von Hippel, a scholar of innovation at M.I.T., has spent decades studying what seems like a truism: People who suffer from a problem are uniquely equipped to solve it. “What we find is that functionally novel innovations — those for which a market is not yet defined — tend to come from users,” he said. He pointed out that young Californians pioneered skateboards so that they could “surf” the streets. And surgeons built the first heart-and-lung machines to keep patients alive during long operations. “The reason users are so inventive is twofold. One is that they know the needs firsthand,” he said. The other is that they have skin in the game.
Dr. von Hippel’s principle certainly applies to menstruation. Since ancient times, women have tinkered with pads, tampons and pain cures. In Egypt in the 15th century B.C., women found creative uses for papyrus, while their counterparts elsewhere in Africa and in Asia experimented with absorbent moss. Centuries later, the nurses of World War I repurposed cellulose bandages.
In the 1920s, Lillian Gilbreth, a visionary of industrial psychology and one of the first female engineers with a Ph.D. in the United States, decided to reinvent the sanitary pad once again. (Gilbreth, the mother of 12 children, was later made famous by the book “Cheaper by the Dozen.”) While working for Johnson & Johnson, she recognized that the best ideas would come from women themselves, so she questioned more than a thousand women about their frustrations with menstrual products and asked them to describe their ideal pad.
She also gathered lists of women’s hacks and alterations to the off-the-shelf sanitary pads; for instance, one Smith College student imagined a discreet pad called the Invisos for a Jazz Age flapper who planned to dance in a clingy dress. Companies had been manufacturing diaper-like products with names like the Flush Down Ideal and the S.S. Napkin. Gilbreth’s research showed that women had been altering the pads to fit their own bodies and that they were embarrassed by the names. Johnson & Johnson used these insights as the inspiration for new product lines.
But Gilbreth’s quest to understand female customers seems to have been the exception rather than the rule at companies. According to the authors of the 2012 book “Serial Innovators,” one inventor at Procter & Gamble recalled that even in the 1980s his bosses didn’t seem to know or care that women hated the brick-like sanitary pads the company produced.
Recently, I’ve been digging through 200 patents, granted since 1976, related to tampons; I’ve found that three out of every four of the inventors behind those patents were men. Clearly men have exerted an enormous amount of control over the look and feel of menstrual products.
Ms. Tariyal points out that there are many unexplored possibilities in women’s-health technology because for so long, women have not had the power to push forward their ideas. And this problem isn’t just restricted to women’s health.
Annette Kahler, an intellectual property lawyer and scholar, wrote a 2011 paper about the gender gap in patents and its effects on the world of technology. “Opportunities are being missed,” she contended, “because the ideas, inventions, perspectives and proposed solutions of women are missed.”
Consider the story of Sybilla Masters, often identified as the first female inventor in America. After she engineered a corn-grinding machine in the early 1700s, Masters left her home in the colony of Pennsylvania and sailed to London, hoping to procure a British patent. But the laws of that time prevented married women from owning property, and so she had to file her claim under her husband’s name. Thomas Masters received the patent on “a new invention found out by Sybilla, his wife.” The contents of her mind belonged to him.
Female inventors still face barriers to patenting. According to a 2012 study, more than 92 percent of patent holders are men. And a 2006 study found that female academics in the life sciences — Ms. Tariyal’s field — were filing about 60 percent fewer patents than their male colleagues.
“Men had more helpful social networks for getting ideas and commercial activities off the ground,” said Toby Stuart, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, who was an author of the study. “A prominent male faculty member may make noise at a university’s technology-transfer office if he doesn’t get what he wants, and he also has relationships outside the university and he’s more likely to know venture capitalists.” Meanwhile, “a female professor doesn’t tend to know as many people in industry.”
Ridhi Tariyal didn’t have that problem. In 2013, as a life-sciences entrepreneurship fellow at Harvard Business School, she was expected to produce inventions. “The fellowship came with an extensive network,” she said. A chemistry professor invited her to work in his lab, and experts from Harvard’s technology-transfer office helped her refine her idea.
“Harvard even paid for our patent attorneys,” she said. “So obviously, my experience was an exception.”
And yet, even with all of these advantages, Ms. Tariyal and Mr. Gire discovered how hard it can be to raise money for a women’s-health technology. They spent a year meeting with funders, showing off a 3D-printed prototype that extracts liquid from a tampon.
The method holds great promise for the home-diagnostics industry; it is simple enough for a woman to use in her own bathroom. Initially, Ms. Tariyal and Mr. Gire envisioned their customer as a young woman who wanted to monitor herself for common infections like chlamydia. Though tests for sexually transmitted infections are now available free in clinics, “nobody wants to be standing in line” to ask for a chlamydia test, according to Ms. Tariyal. ”You know what beats a free test? Privacy beats free,” she said. “Women want to test themselves at home. And you can charge a premium for that privacy. So we were trying to push that angle.”
But it turns out that “when you say that you’re going to build a company around menstrual blood, people think you’re joking,” Mr. Gire lamented.
They attempted to sanitize their demo — for instance, they used blue-tinted water in place of blood. But there’s really no way around the gross-out factor of a wet tampon. Meetings with potential funders were “very disheartening,” Ms. Tariyal said.
A recent study conducted by scholars from Babson College revealed that more than 90 percent of the partners in venture-capital firms are male. So Ms. Tariyal and Mr. Gire often sat across the table from a man, trying to sell him on a tampon machine.
“Someone told us that the product would only help women, and women are only half the population — so what was the point?” Ms. Tariyal said. Other potential funders wanted to reimagine their technology as a product for men: Was there some way to re-engineer it so that it would measuretestosterone? And one guy suggested they develop a machine that a man could use to covertly test the health of his sexual partners, because “women are liars” who spread venereal diseases.
By the summer of 2015, Ms. Tariyal and Mr. Gire began to despair. “After we had an especially tough week, Stephen and I decided that we had to find a way to make this more palatable to investors,” Ms. Tariyal said. “And then we had an aha! moment,” Mr. Gire added.
Menstrual flow contains more than just blood; it is also rich with cells shed by the ovaries and uterus. Those cells, paired with genomics tools, might open up a window on women’s bodies and give early warning of cancer and reproductive diseases. “Stephen and I were looking to replace traditional blood tests, and we ended up stumbling across something far better,” Ms. Tariyal said.
Their new vision resonated with executives at Illumina, a company that makes gene-sequencing equipment. The company contributed lab space and technical assistance. Now Ms. Tariyal and Mr. Gire are experimenting with a new diagnostic test for endometriosis, a painful disease caused by uterine tissue that grows in the wrong places. Women drop off tampons that can be mined for uterine cells; the cells are then scanned for genomic changes that are associated with disease.
The gold standard for diagnosis of endometriosis is laparoscopic surgery, and many women suffer for years before deciding to undergo it. A tampon test, if it worked, could provide a much easier way to find endometriosis in its early stages.
They also discovered that their new idea appealed to a certain kind of funder.
“Our first big check came from Len Blavatnik,” the Ukrainian-American billionaire and philanthropist, Ms. Tariyal said. Mr. Blavatnik then asked an adviser named Patricia Benet to follow their start-up, now called NextGen Jane, because he wanted a female perspective on it — and that led to an even bigger check. The start-up also received financing from Pardis Sabeti, one of the world’s leading researchers in evolutionary genomics; she runs the Harvard lab that tracked mutations in the Ebola virus during the 2014 outbreak.
The role of women in this story suggests that female networks can transform the way we develop technology.
Ms. Tariyal told me she chose her field because she’s drawn to science’s audacious sci-fi aspirations. “I want a hyperloop! I want to live on Mars!” she said, speaking admiringly of male inventors like Elon Musk.
At the same time, she is troubled that “a small coterie of people are determining what our future looks like.” If our inventors and funders are homogeneous, Ms. Tariyal pointed out, then “our future is going to look homogeneous.”