Marje Isabelle, Founder & Managing Director Intelligent Hormone Sciences Ltd
This interview is one of a series of inspirational women leaders in health technology being profiled as part of the Women Entrepreneurs category of the AXA Health Tech & You Awards programme.
How would you describe your journey in health tech?
As a non-medic and non-techie it’s been a steep learning curve! My raison-d’etre for having started this journey into the health/fem-tech world is as an unsatisfied patient! Having gone through a forced surgical menopause at 40, it gave me an insight into a world which has always existed but was rarely spotlighted: the symptomatic menopause tribe. Until it hits, most women have no interest in or awareness of how the decline in fertility hormones can impact life as we know it. It is part of a wider problem around low comprehension of female fertility lifespan; from puberty, conception/pregnancy through to understanding menopause. Its slowly changing with lots of interesting apps and devices for younger women to manage different aspects of their reproductive lives, e.g. Clue for menstrual and pregnancy tracking, Ava women for basal temp tracking, etc. but still very little out there to easily track and manage the unmanageable symptoms that menopause brings reported by 8 out of 10 women going through it.
I came at this problem via a number of routes:
through sheer frustration and disbelief that half of the population were being ignored by everyone, from clinicians, society etc,
this group of women were also being ignored by the tech revolution
there needs to be a way to reduce the risk and or fear around hormone treatments (both pharma and non-pharma HRT)
by empowering women with personal data, tracked over time, they will begin to build the evidence needed to determine personalised eligibility for various hormonal treatments available (both pharma and non-pharma HRT) and then continued monitoring once on a treatment.
Currently, my company Intelligent Hormones is running a feasibility study with study participants who have volunteered to use our specially designed app alongside pin prick tests to match up to symptoms reported. The journey up until now has been peppered with a few highs but mainly felt like a very long juggling act!!
What were the triggers and sources of inspiration that launched you on your journey? Did anyone particularly inspire you? (Man or woman)
Inspiration one: Many of my female friends have or are going through menopause hell, struggled through and are somehow keeping their sh!t together! It’s incredible just how most women just keep going, regardless. But I’ve also witnessed the fall out; it’s not just the individual who is affected; careers, families and friendships are impacted upon when symptoms are misunderstood/not dealt with.
Inspiration two: interestingly, the trigger moment that made me realise something has got to be done is when a well-respected clinician made the following remark: “They (patients) come in with the various symptoms. I prescribe them HRT. If they don’t come back to my surgery screaming, then I assume it’s worked.” It summed up the situation perfectly which indicates there is no agency, no monitoring, no real interest when it comes to menopausal management.
Inspiration three: I have had tremendous support from my husband to feed and grow the idea I had two years ago to tackle the problems women experience when going through a complete hormonal shut down.
Do you think being a woman made it harder or easier as an entrepreneur?
I think being a woman entrepreneur with a menopause agenda is hard! It’s not a sexy ‘fad’ cause, unfortunately. When speaking to people about Intelligent Hormones, I am aware that the taboo lies in the ‘death’ of fertility in a society which obsesses and celebrates virile youth. Trying to make the menopause a relevant subject to 30/40-year olds (and not just 50+) and to both sexes, is hard.
However apart from my project being focussed on a female-centric issue, it has been my own gender bias which I have had to challenge: As a novice business person I would often defer to more experienced business people as advisors and in the early days, invariably they tended to be men. Not only were they more numerous when I was looking around for support, but they were the ones that I felt I had to get on side for the project to be a success.
Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I believe that only through an organically grown movement of women can menopause management come from real attitudinal change and proper understanding of menopause symptoms (e.g. ‘Meg’s Menopause’ is slowly building momentum due to the celebrity founder…more info/awareness/taboo breaking is needed). It will be interesting to see if the subject matter fits in to the traditional androcentric finance raising!
What is your ‘special power’ that you use when you need to get around a challenge?
Resilience. I keep plodding through until there is light at the end of the tunnel!
How do you relax? What do you do to recharge?
Currently, I don’t really get that luxury! Time is short juggling work and childcare and there isn’t much stretch in the finances. For anyone who thinks being an ‘entrepreneur’ is a glamourous thing, I would say you have to the idea you want to give up a good, consistent salary for!!! I try to do my ‘headspace’ daily meditation and try to get out for social events but I need to work in more of a buffer to manage things when things don’t go according to plan, e.g. sickness, which is quite often with little ones!
What advice would you give a 14-year-old girl knowing what you know now? What would you say to your younger self when you first started to think about "what do I want to be when I grow up?
Being financially secure when you decide to set up a company helps to make a success in realising an impactful idea (duh!)! I would tell any young girl to prepare for independence from an early age by squirrelling money away every week or month into a ‘freedom fund’ which can be used for anything to free. It could be used to travel after many years of working hard; escaping a tricky situation; or even to help provide security to work and set up a project which fulfils and that you are passionate about!
Do you think the future looks good for women in health tech? Why? Why not? What you think is exciting ahead? What exciting projects/innovations do you have in the pipeline?
The long-term future is awesome, and I truly think that gender and sex issues that we are currently battling will not be a challenge faced by the next generation of women – we are the ‘inbetweeners’! I often speak to the wonder women who are finding their voice and pushing through with ideas that are changing how we as women work, have sex (OMGYes app), seek health/medical/mental health advice (e.g. mentalsnap), plan major life events, etc. And not just in the big cities in the western world – momentum is spreading to developing countries too, where tech is one way to democratise access to health and health education (e.g. Mama app).
Back to the present time, however, there aren’t that many of us in fem-tech world looking to improve how we experience menopause. This will hopefully change over time with more women being motivated by their own experience of hormonal decline to take action.
The results of the feasibility study I’m presently running will feed into the next phase of releasing an MVP consisting of a tracking app & hormone pin prick kits. Simultaneously, we will explore, with academic department partners, the possibility of developing a device which monitors hormones in a far more efficient and non-invasive way. And I’m always on the lookout for some great female collaborators and co-founders with whom to share ideas, female health passions and business.