In wearable technology, menstrual health often feels like an afterthought. Case in point: Fitbit, the first major wearable maker to add period tracking to its platform, did so in 2018 — more than a decade after launching its first device. So is it any surprise that in the age of smartphones and smartwatches, people are still using menstrual products that have remained largely unchanged for the past 90 years? Not really, but that could soon change. Emm, a smart menstrual cup, is currently undergoing beta testing. If all goes well, the product could be launched as early as this year.
What is it exactly a smart menstrual cup? In Emm’s case, it’s a line of products centered around a portable device that looks like a shuttlecock-shaped ketchup cup. The reusable cup is made of medical-grade silicone and contains biosensors that supposedly can measure metrics such as volume, flow rate, cycle length, and regularity. Aside from obvious fertility information, these statistics can also help people with difficult-to-diagnose conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis. It is inserted with a tampon-like applicator and the design of the cup is intended to create a “dynamic seal” that adapts to any body shape. The cup connects to an app that automatically follows your flow and warns users when it is almost full. (It can also generate a downloadable PDF so you can share your concerns with your doctors.) It even comes with a portable sanitizer that uses UV to sterilize the cup when you’re out and about.
“It was during the first lockdown and I was looking at the menstrual products sector. I thought it was ridiculous that we were in 2020 and these products were still leaking, still so uncomfortable and really unsustainable with a massive global landfill problem,” said Jenny Button, CEO of Emm. “I thought that people who menstruate are not will be using these products in 20 years.”
While Button was coming up with the idea for the product, she recruited Chris van Kempen, then a Dyson engineer and now Emm’s Chief Design Officer, to bring the product to life. In a phone conversation with The edge, Kempen described some of the detection features that differentiate Emm from other existing period tracking technology. For starters, the cup has capacitive sensors that can measure the fill level and heaviness of your period and detect if the cup is in the body. The cup also features an internal frame, allowing users to easily break the seal at the base for more controlled disposal.
If you’ve never had your period, it might be hard to understand why all this is exciting. While many swear by traditional menstrual cups, they can be intimidating to the uninitiated. Insertion and removal isn’t as easy as sticking a pad to your underwear or pulling a tampon string. For many, it involves a lot of trial and error. Another factor is figuring out which menstrual cup is best suited for your body shape. For example, people with a low cervix need shorter cups than people with a high cervix. Rinsing a used cup in a public bathroom can also inspire anxiety, and proper care includes boiling the cup between cycles. Pads and tampons are easier to use, but they can be expensive, uncomfortable, and take up a lot of space in landfills. A smart reusable device that is easy to carry, records your flow for you, warns you of possible irregularities, lets you know when it’s time to empty, and is supposedly one-size-fits-all? That is the holy grail of sanitary products.
“Every part of the product addresses an existing problem,” says Button, pointing out that Emm isn’t trying to cram Bluetooth into a cup and call it a day — as is the case with some other femtech gadgets. The whole goal behind Emm, says Button, is to create a positive user experience that provides benefits in everyday life, as well as health insights for their cycles over time. “For example, we don’t take a tampon and put some sensors in it, because that sounds cool. It’s much more intentional.”
It’s easy to see why there is such a hunger for data and insights about reproductive health. In the US, Congress did not authorize women to participate in clinical research until 1993. Before then, they were effectively excluded from clinical trials because women were thought to be, as one study put it, “confusing and more expensive subjects because of their fluctuating hormone levels.” The result has been a huge health gap between men and women and poorer medical care.Today, little research has been done on menstrual health compared to other gender-specific conditions such as prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction.
Researchers and technology companies have seen wearable technology as an opportunity to reverse that. Or they did until the Supreme Court overturned Roe against Wade last year. Now, at least in the US, the privacy of health data – and reproductive health data in particular – has taken on a new meaning. For all the good a product like Emm could do, the question remains whether menstruating people will trust that their data will not be used against them.
When asked about data privacy, Button says Emm’s app, sensors and servers are built in such a way that the company has no access to biometrics or identifiable user data. “Like a Roe v. Wade-style case came to the company and [law enforcement] said ‘please provide user data’, we wouldn’t be able to fulfill the request because we wouldn’t store the data that way.”
But even if all this succeeds, it’s not guaranteed that Emm will hit the market. Health tech gadgets usually end up as vaporware, and this isn’t even the first time a smart menstrual cup has been thrown around. There was an attempt to Kickstart one in 2015, but like many Kickstarter projects, it never materialized.
Button says the company is currently beta testing Emm and is on track to launch in 2023. While there’s no word yet on pricing, the plan is to “serve as many groups and their spending habits as possible.” And while Button hopes to take Emm globally one day, the company will focus on the US, UK and European markets first. It also helps that the company itself recently raised $1 million in seed funding, as well as an official partnership with the University of Cambridge to develop biosensors.
Until you can actually buy it, it’s impossible to tell if Emm will revolutionize menstrual products. That said, it’s encouraging to see that someone thinks of ways to make menstrual products fit for the 21st century – even as some political agendas threaten to push reproductive autonomy into the past.