Most of you will likely be aware of the significant commitment made by the Biden administration toward women’s health research, with First Lady Jill Biden recently announcing a pivotal investment of $100 million during an ARPA-H forum in Cambridge. However, what you may not have known is the active involvement of women’s health-focused VC fund SteelSky Ventures in this groundbreaking initiative.

In our exclusive interview with Maria Toler, Founding and Managing Partner of SteelSky Ventures, we delve into the fund’s pivotal role in advancing women’s health, particularly through its recent involvement in the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research. Toler also shares how SteelSky Ventures is actively engaged in shaping the landscape of women’s healthcare innovation by making strategic investments in innovative technologies and care delivery models, and emphasizes the fund’s commitment to addressing critical gaps in women’s healthcare.

Maria, could you start by telling us a bit more about SteelSky Ventures and its mission? What inspired you to focus specifically on women’s health?

I am the Founding and Managing Partner of SteelSky Ventures, a trailblazing venture capital fund with $73 million in assets under management investing in women’s healthcare. Our pioneering approach pushes beyond conventional boundaries of women’s health, extending our strategy to embrace technology infrastructure and revolutionary care delivery models across the spectrum of women’s health indications. 

At SteelSky, we see a massive white-space opportunity in women’s healthcare. Data from the Gates Foundation suggests that investing in the economic power and health of women could boost the global economy by as much as $10 trillion by 2030. Despite this untapped potential, investment in women’s health has lagged behind other industries. In 2022, women’s health investments surged to an “all-time high” at just $3.3 billion in total. Compare that to the fintech industry, which saw $113.7 billion in investment in 2023 – and that’s its weakest showing since 2017.

SteelSky recognized this opportunity early and the market was ready to join us, which you can see from our corporate LP base and our industry-leading ecosystem partners. An added bonus: founders in this space are amazing to work with!

Hosting the First Lady and participating in the launch of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research is a significant milestone. How did SteelSky Ventures become involved, and what role do you see the fund playing in this program?

As the leading voice in women’s healthcare, when the White House reached out to the women’s health ecosystem, they were pointed in our direction. We were happy to help with early input and now participate in working sessions to help architect what this game-changing investment can look like. Going forward, we hope to continue to work with the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), the Department of Health and Human Services, the White House, universities, and founders to create a long-term, sustainable investment strategy for both research and start-up technologies so that we can continue to grow this sector. 

This infusion of capital into an industry that has remained underfunded will enable us to supercharge growth of important innovations in women’s healthcare. We are excited to share all of the companies in our 4000-member database to help solve some of these tough challenges that women have been facing for decades. 

The event you hosted in Atlanta prior to the announcement brought together a diverse group of industry pioneers. Can you share how collaboration with corporate, civic, and social leaders, as well as with other stakeholders, enhances your efforts to drive impact in women’s health?

In order to advance women’s healthcare, we need the support of many sectors to come together and use our resources and expertise to create meaningful change. There is a trickle-down effect from policy at the highest levels, to investment in venture capital funds, which can then invest in startups, which will enable the use of all of the wonderful technology and innovation that is in our universities and research centers. By coming together, we can figure out a strategy to commercialize and get new technologies to market in an efficient way and solve the most critical gaps in women’s healthcare.

Looking ahead, what are the key areas of women’s health that SteelSky Ventures is particularly excited about? Are there any emerging technologies or innovations that you believe hold transformative potential for women’s healthcare?

We are particularly excited about working with this consortium to expand access to care for women as they age. There are an estimated 109 million Americans who are now over 50, and this will grow by an additional 20 million people within the next 10 years. Many aging-related conditions remain underserved, which represents a potentially transformative opportunity for game-changing innovations.

A Mayo Clinic study published last year found $26.6B a year was spent on medical expenses related to menopause-related symptoms. Our portfolio company Midi Health is working to close this gap by providing comprehensive, affordable menopause care, covered by insurance. Their innovative virtual clinic for women 40+ offers access to skilled practitioners, coaching, supplements, and prescription medications.

Our portfolio company Origin is another example of the power of unlocking innovation to reimagine aging care. Origin provides pelvic floor and full-body physical therapy for women, including for women who are facing symptoms of menopause and perimenopause. Origin has opened 20 brick-and-mortar clinics across the country, offers virtual care in all 50 states, and is now in network for 35 million people.

In addition to aging-related conditions, we’ve been keeping a close eye on groundbreaking women’s health technologies across the full spectrum of innovation. For example, SteelSky portfolio company Proov offers a suite of diagnostics to provide fertility insights throughout the menstrual cycle. This includes the only FDA-cleared at-home test to confirm successful ovulation via PdG, the hormone that prepares the uterus for implantation and makes the embryo “stick.”

We’re also excited about innovative care delivery models that are poised to expedite women’s health access, like our portfolio company Zipline. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found Zipline’s drone delivery system reduced in-hospital maternal deaths due to postpartum hemorrhage by 88%. Many are surprised to see a drone company in our portfolio, but Zipline is making a measurable impact in women’s health.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in increasing investment and innovation in women’s health? How does SteelSky Ventures navigate these?

We see three primary challenges in driving women’s health innovation and investment: 

  1. The investor base. Women’s health is a trillion-dollar opportunity, but historically white, male investors (who control 93% of all venture capital dollars, according to a 2019 report) were and continue to be reluctant to invest aggressively in this space. This inherently limits the pool of capital available to invest in women’s health innovations. As one of the largest women’s health funds and a partner to the White House initiative, SteelSky is actively working to expand access to capital in women’s health.
  2. Reimbursement rates and the categorization of certain women’s healthcare as “elective.” Some women’s health indications are reimbursed at lower rates or not at all. For example, we’ve heard some investors say they believe the menopause space isn’t venture-backable (an idea with which we fundamentally disagree) given current reimbursement rates. Another example is doula care: while studies have shown doula care can reduce odds of C-sections and postpartum depression and anxiety, most private health plans don’t cover it, leaving many women to pay for these services out of pocket. As the leading women’s health fund, SteelSky has been honored to surface these issues and advocate for change at prestigious industry forums such as the Milken Institute, the Aspen Institute, and the American Hospital Association.
  3. Health equity. Millions of underserved women face barriers to healthcare access, including 20 million women who live in contraceptive deserts. Expanding access to care for underserved populations requires investing in founders and in fund managers who understand those communities and how they need to engage with the health system. By placing more capital into the hands of people who are closer to these issues that face nearly 50% of the population, we can make healthcare a more accessible and equitable industry.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs and innovators looking to make an impact in the women’s health sector? How can they align their efforts with the needs identified by initiatives like the White House’s?

My advice to women’s health entrepreneurs is to have faith in your abilities and maintain an unwavering confidence in your mission. Not everyone understands revolutionary concepts immediately, but driving progress in women’s health will require belief in yourself and what you’re building.

When the plan is rolled out for the White House initiative, founders will need to align with the selected innovation verticals and submit innovations to be considered for funding in the first phase of the program rollout. To learn more, visit the ARPA-H website and register for Proposers’ Day on March 6, where researchers and innovators can ask questions.

How does SteelSky Ventures engage with the broader femtech community? Are there specific partnerships, programs, or initiatives you’re currently involved in or planning to launch?

We think that the media plays a huge part in elevating and destigmatizing women’s healthcare. The work that Femtech Insider and others are doing is helping to amplify our voice, which is important in building a groundswell movement to continue interest and investment in women’s health.

We’ve also been discussing a program where we proactively solve problems. There is so much great innovation going on in our universities, and I would love to reverse the standard model. Instead of universities coming up with technology and trying to commercialize it, I’d like to flip that and use the model that we use in traditional marketing, one in which we find the customer insight and the problem, and we present the challenge to the university to solve. 

At SteelSky, we understand high priority challenges and can identify those that can be solved first the quickest, so if we can make a list of those and go to the academic powerhouses and have smart teams of people working on it, then we can get the innovation that we need to market much more quickly and efficiently. There is so much great technology sitting on the shelf because it just was developed at the wrong time and was not a current priority in the market. Because SteelSky is on the pulse of the market, we understand how best to prioritize and direct research and innovation activities.

Finally, on a more personal note, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your work in women’s health innovation? How do you stay motivated and inspired in this challenging yet vital field?

It was an absolute honor to stand in front of the world and introduce the First Lady as she rolls out a nationwide initiative showing her support and dedication for women’s health is very validating. A lot of us have been doing work in the field for a long time, and so to see something like this finally come to fruition, and for our work to be recognized, valued and underscored by established and respected organizations, has been very humbling, exciting and motivating for our team at SteelSky, as well as the larger women’s health community. We feel like our time has finally come and we are ready and going full speed ahead!

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