Conversation with Emilė Radytė: building neurotechnology for women
Currently in semi-stealth mode, Samphire Neuroscience is building their first medical device to treat menstrual symptoms using non-invasive neuromodulation.
Hi friend, Kristina here with the first piece for Build Better. I started this newsletter to explore how to build intentionally for the creation of a better world. Here, I ask why a company, product, or idea exists, how it works, and how it improves the world by design.
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This piece is a part of the segment on the FemTech market. Look out for more pieces on the market breakdown and builder stories.
I sat down to chat with Emilė Radytė, co-founder of Samphire Neuroscience, about building a neurotechnology startup in the United Kingdom.
Samphire Neuroscience was founded in 2021 by Emilė and Alex Cook after meeting at Oxford University during postgraduate study. Samphire Neuroscience began with questioning the current landscape of women’s healthcare1, leading the team to build a unique solution through the alignment of complementary skillsets. Currently in semi-stealth mode, Samphire Neuroscience is building its first headband-like medical device to treat menstrual symptoms using non-invasive neuromodulation. The team is set in its vision to enable women to access scientifically validated technology for their health, and is doing so with user-centricity and community in mind.
Emilė is pursuing a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Prior, she studied Neuroscience and Anthropology at Harvard University, where she worked as a research assistant during the day and as an emergency medic at night. At the intersection of these experiences, Emilė was seeing that the advanced clinical research didn’t expand in application to neglected and under-represented populations, especially to individuals with mental health needs.
Emilė developed a curiosity in bridging the gap between medical research and its application beyond academia, which added to the fuel in the creation of Samphire Neuroscience.
During our conversation, Emilė reflected on how Samphire Neuroscience came to be, shared their process of validating the idea in an ambiguous market, provided insight into navigating the regulatory environment during research and development (R&D), and reflected on data privacy and user-centered innovation. In this conversation, vulnerability led the way in sharing learnings from the building process, which I hope will allow you to garner an intimate insight into the work of growing an idea into an impactful solution.
While menstruation is a sign of a healthy reproductive system, this monthly event is impactful in several ways. It is unique for each individual, there is no standard or ‘normal’ experience, and it changes over the lifespan.
A survey of 42,879 women conducted by Shoep et al. (2019) identified that menstruation presented with dysmenorrhea (85%), psychological complaints (77%), and tiredness (71%) as the most common symptoms within the sampled population. Another study by Yonkers et al. (2008) concluded that most women experience “physical discomfort or dysphoria in the weeks before menstruation”. The study also notes that “5-8% of women…suffer from severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS)” (p. 1200), with many of them meeting the criteria for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). PMS presents with behavioural and physical symptoms, such as irritability and depressed mood, as well as bloating and breast tenderness (Yonkers et al., 2008).
There are some women who experience conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome, which may affect how they experience their menstrual cycles. The impact of menstruation stems beyond the physical into socio-economic wellbeing, too. According to another study of 32,748 women by Shoep et al. (2019), “80.7% of the respondents reported presenteeism and decreased productivity a mean of 23.2 days per year” (p.1). Menstruation directly impacts operational capacity and productivity, and some women choose to take time off from work and commitments to rest.
Women have developed solutions and strategies to manage monthly cycles, as there is limited access to medical knowledge and tools for the general consumer in alleviating discomfort and pain. Many women choose to persevere with medicine and rest. This creates space for opportunity to help women lead more fulfilling lives, and gives rise to the question: how are the builders in our world working on this?
The building blocks
Emilė’s pathway towards Samphire Neuroscience began in Cambridge, US. While working in the lab during the day and as an emergency medic during the night, she felt disoriented by the stark difference between the use of science in the two environments. In the lab, she was working with the most cutting-edge technology and advanced psychology. When working as an emergency medic, she saw that over 50% of the patients were psychiatric patients who were struggling and had no access to the technologies that were within reach at the lab.
Emilė explained that the disparity between academia and the application of research in industry is called the Death Valley — the gap between developing science and translating it into something that people can use. Emilė shared an interesting paper by Kampers et al. (2021) that looks into the challenges of bridging academia and industry. In the paper, the authors explain why academic innovation is difficult to translate into industrial applications:
“[The] reasons why new technology often does not bridge the Valley of Death include cumbersome contracting or procurement of technology requirements, lack of exposure, lack of entrepreneurial management, lack of adequate funding for further development, and lack of a strong link between technology development efforts and industrial deployment” (p. 1240).
The paper notes that only a few entrepreneurial academics “have a chance of seeing their invention graduate into an application” (p. 1241), and addresses the role of startups in industrialising academic innovation. Translating and applying research is a long and complex game, one which would ideally address varied populations with diverse needs. Hence, academic institutions are often at an impasse with industry and government in bringing research to life.
During her undergraduate studies, Emilė also had exposure to a lot of activists around the topic of pain, kickstarting her investigation into menstrual pain.
“We [as a society] have decided that all pain is pain, but menstrual pain is not.”
“We somehow decided that that's just a pain that we should deal with. Whereas everything else is kind of special.”
In coming to Oxford to pursue her Master’s and Ph.D., Emilė was surrounded by driven professional women who openly talked about the impact of menstrual symptoms on productivity and the fulfillment of commitments, which are fundamentally rooted in the social expectation to push through pain.
“That seemed like dissonance and incoherence that didn't make sense to me, especially because my Ph.D. is on the topic of brain stimulation for the treatment of depression.”
“After the age of fourteen, bleeding is no longer necessarily interesting,” Emilė reflected, “but what is interesting is the way it affects your productivity, your mood throughout your cycle, relationships with your friends, partners, and social life”.
Emilė started contemplating what can be done to empower women’s productivity and wellbeing.
“I know we have brain stimulation. I know it works for depression. I know what works for pain. Can we make it work for women, such as a modern busy woman who doesn't have time to have productivity slowdown and wellbeing loss?”
As an academic trained to question everything and assume nothing, Emilė faced inertia in conceptualising how to turn an idea into tangible reality. This is where Alex brought in his guidance and inspired a strategic process and focus to build Samphire Neuroscience. They created a symbiosis of academic and entrepreneurial spirit - finding answers to their questions through trial, and building as they went.
Samphire Neuroscience was set for steady growth and balanced ambition. Alex had a strong understanding of legal and financial processes and had experience in co-founding a fintech company Bamboo. Emilė, on the other hand, could see the application of research in the treatment of depression and could understand the mechanisms of why it works. We also know what happens when talented and ambitious people begin working with passion and discipline.
Validating the market
Validating the market started off with having conversations with women within Oxford communities and thinking through those interactions. The team wanted to know what symptoms women experienced that they genuinely had no solution to.
Alex and Emilė put out a survey to a group of people within Oxford that they didn’t know. Seventy percent of the people from the survey experienced PMS, a few had diagnoses, and a lot were looking for solutions. That is 7 out of 10 women facing menstrual symptoms every month. The Samphire Neuroscience team learned that in the search for solutions, women turned to bespoke remedies, such as aromatherapy, to address their symptoms.
Emilė reflected on that by saying that “it was kind of ridiculous that [these women] didn't have any real or authentic way to address a major complaint of theirs.”
“So then we decided to push through and we built a very, very bad prototype.” This was the kind of prototype that “a doctor would put on your head, but it doesn't look pretty, and you don't want to show it to your friends.”
When the time came to validate the hardware medical device, the team’s boots hit the ground by improving on the initial design in alignment with their vision of it being a headband for everyday wear. They recruited women with premenstrual syndrome and menstrual pain to test the device in 20-minute long sessions, observed them, and ran focus groups and in-depth interviews.
“What we were trying to validate was essentially whether we can replicate the findings from literature that have been done in women's health and with this technology, and then also [find out] what the other things they cared about are.”
“[The women] come in, they put on the device, and we do the whole screening. But the most important things are what they tell us about their 20 years of experience of having their period, when it gets worse, when they would use a device like this, how they would react to other people using the device, would they feel ashamed of wearing it in public or not. And those were all data points for us.”
The most transformative moment for Alex and Emilė was during initial user testing because it clarified uncertainty around developing the technology for women. In taking medical technology and thinking about how to commercialise it, the team learned that women’s menstrual cycles do not fit nicely within the context of clinical health.
Ovulation is a repeatable and predictable event that happens naturally in a healthy body and is incomparable to any clinical health condition. Emilė explained that premenstrual and menstrual symptoms are side-effects of natural hormonal fluctuations associated with ovulation.
Because women’s experiences vary, it becomes challenging to essentialise and categorise symptoms. Therefore, it is the women who are the best source of advice on how to build the product. During the early research stage, user-centered development became a key focus for Samphire Neuroscience.
Collecting high-quality data matters to Samphire Neuroscience more than doing a broad data sweep. As the startup is operating in a stigmatised area, the team cares about “what people actually think as opposed to what they say,” Emilė said.
Through this process, the team developed the conviction to go full-time into this venture and launched the Samphire Fellowship - a community that provides feedback to Samphire Neuroscience as they grow. Along the way, Samphire Neuroscience utilises the Fellowship as an opportunity to be fully transparent about their development, and to have women’s participatory voices every step along the way.
Emilė hopes that every individual in the community becomes an advocate for the change Samphire Neuroscience is leading, noting that in the future, the Samphire Fellowship will shapeshift into an engaged community participating in regular discussions through product development processes, book clubs, and other events.
Navigating the regulatory environment
Alex and Emilė went into the game with the mission to address the market gap in women’s health with hardware. Emilė noted that it is the hormonal imbalance occurring in the body that results in cognitive changes. The team wanted to develop a solution that would reach the real, physical problem that lies beyond the cognitive level. Samphire Neuroscience started its R&D journey alongside the ranks of other hard-tech startups through the SOSV accelerator HAX. Having HAX on their side was really important to the team, as the program allowed invaluable insights into the product development process.
Samphire Neuroscience began developing a regulated medical device, which cannot be sold until full approval. The existing prototypes are used only in user testing. Emilė explained that aiming to enter the market in mid-2023 in the United Kingdom and the European Union requires full approval of the technology as medically safe and future proof, and doing so can be strenuous for a pre-seed startup.
“[The regulatory environment] is very difficult to operate in as a startup because it requires a lot of capital expenditure and funding upfront.”
“Hardware is not easy but it’s a solvable problem. I really encourage any builders out there who have a crazy idea for a hardware thing [to pursue] it because a lot of innovation is physical. Good hardware products persist across very varied environments, economically as well.”
Undoubtedly, significant funding is required to match such ambition. A startup requires not only investors, but advocates of the work of the team, and believers in the vision.
Seeking venture capital
Venture capital firms are homes to individualistic, contrarian, and reformist thinkers who drive investments with financial acumen and foresight of market drivers, consumer behaviour, and cultural trends. The power law in venture capital is what sustains the bets that VCs make on grand ideas. To explain simplistically, a VC firm invests in several ideas, increasing the probability of at least one of them generating extraordinary reach and impact. I recommend reading “The Power Law” by Sebastian Mallaby; it wonderfully illustrates how this idea has manifested in practice by tracking through the history of venture capital. If a business reaches such a stage, its success neutralises the losses on ideas that did not take off, generates a strong return on investment, and complements other strong investments in the portfolio. Venture capitalists do not simply serve as the agents of change — they do so in a financially viable way. They diversify their portfolios with ideas with commercial potential that address undetected market gaps.
Looking ahead of the curve, AfterWork Ventures and SOSV have invested in the startup’s pre-seed round, just as the team was beginning to address two unique market gaps. The first gap is in research and development in women’s health, and the second is in commercially available hardware for non-invasive neuromodulation.
Some investors would question whether there is enough existing research to deliver good solutions for women. The team at Samphire Neuroscience is up to the challenge of pushing research and development in women’s health. Emilė said that the answer that resonated with their investors addressed the need to break the self-perpetuating cycle around data.
“If you need data in order to create outcomes, you need physical things in order to gather that data and to understand women’s health better. It’s a question of getting that ball rolling.”
One of the challenges of collecting and organising data about women’s health lies in the non-systematic language used to describe symptoms.
Emilė said that the team at Samphire Neuroscience “will work with women [using women’s own words] to describe their symptoms, [who] can call the same neurobiological mechanism many ways. [The team] will be able to de-code what [the women] mean, and actually deliver them the solution they need.”
The VCs Samphire Neuroscience has interacted with were supportive of businesses focused on women’s health. The team has, however, faced investors’ reluctance towards hardware.
“I feel like a lot of people operate under the assumption that women's health and software is the way to go. And in many ways, I think that women's health is such a big field, and there should definitively be a ton of software and definitely a ton of hardware.”
In the process of bringing their idea to life, Samphire Neuroscience has thrived from the input of diverse and bright individuals whose competencies span across different fields.
The team at Samphire Neuroscience is small but mighty, approaching problem-solving with agility and care. Samphire Neuroscience is currently in critical R&D mode, ensuring that the device that enters the market won’t require further hardware iteration. The goal is to run all updates via Bluetooth, without needing to change the hardware functionalities.
This places great responsibility on the team to manage their goals and resources, all while navigating hardware and regulatory challenges, namely processes such as filing documentation, finding manufacturing partners, and undertaking technical iteration. Besides those, the team is also navigating the building of software, privacy and responsible data use during R&D, marketing, and growth.
As Emilė explained, the team members have very distinct responsibilities and fundamentally different functions from one another. Advancing through these crucial milestones requires fluidity, and every person who has worked with Samphire Neuroscience, including the Scientific Advisory and the Business Advisory Boards, as well as those in the Fellowship, has been instrumental in building this complex idea into reality.
“I think people have been really flexible in offering their resources at the stages when we want to work with them so that we could grow into a sustainable business.”
Ervinas Bernatavicius joined as a founding team member in January 2022, providing expertise across software and hardware development and tackling the complex questions around technical execution. Samphire Neuroscience also worked with a UX designer on setting the tone for the brand and developing the first app wireframes. An exterior designer helped Samphire Neuroscience to dive into understanding the visual design of the hardware product, such as its shape, and consumers’ colour preferences. There are a few more individuals operating at the core of the community function, working on developing a strong understanding of what people really want, what they are really saying and not saying, and how the company can increase engagement.
The future of innovating for women’s health
Samphire has an opportunity to seize a significant market share. While some companies monopolise on such an opportunity, to Emilė, it comes down to “pushing the innovation to where it’s never been pushed before”.
With such a high percentage of women (see the introduction for statistics) not having any tailored solutions to manage menstrual symptoms, the situation definitely looks like a business opportunity, but a slightly comedic one, Emilė said.
“I see ourselves moving in an inspirational direction. I think that this is just part of the movement of showing that women's markets are big enough already as they are, and they can grow.”
“There are huge opportunities for people who are choosing where to put their efforts. Equally, they can do it for everyone, for men or for women, [but] I really want to push the research in the women's health sphere because it hasn’t been pushed for a while.”
“I really do hope that we will have competitors to deal with because I think that not every solution will work for everyone. And I really do hope for a world where in five years’ time, everyone has a couple of alternatives to operate with.”
Failures that others considered wins; wins that others considered failures
In discussing past choices made within the first year of operation, I prompted Emilė to think about whether there is anything she would consider to be a failure while others consider it to be a win or vice versa. Emilė reflected on two crucial decisions that have impacted the startup at its core.
“One, I would say is choosing to do manufacturing in-house and building the product ourselves.”
VCs advised outsourcing product development, and those who have built hardware before advised to do it in-house because one “relinquishes a lot of power” the moment product development is outsourced.
“What we would relinquish is the promise to women to build alongside them, listen to their needs, and implement on the thing.”
Keeping product development in-house led to a few tough conversations with investors and within the team. Ultimately, it came down to the team staying true to being a hardware-first company.
“I'm really proud that we persisted because even though that was something we did for the first time, it helped us understand our product in and out, [and] understand all of the possible risks
Keeping the manufacturing close also allowed the team to institute bespoke safety features that go beyond those normally seen in consumer health devices.
The second choice revolved around deciding to run the startup in stealth or non-stealth mode. Currently, the startup is in a semi-stealth mode - operating the Fellowship and being open to community members. The public, however, has not heard anything about the device, in order to allow the team to develop in silence.
“We are still working through a lot of challenges and wanting to stay as close to people as we can. And as transparent.”
“The cost of us not engaging with women is going to be so much higher than whatever we lose out on, [such as] people [learning about the brand].”
Navigating the political
Emilė and I had this conversation during the aftershocks of the overturn of Roe v. Wade in the United States. Such a political event has larger implications for women-centric companies in social responsibility, management of data, and generating trust.
“I think anything that concerns women's health is subject to political shifts, and also influences the decision making of [the] regulatory bodies that are critical for us being able or not being able to sell our device. The way that we communicate about [what the product does], as well as how we go through the regulatory process, have to be very mindful of what's happening in the world.”
As a company representing women’s needs, Samphire Neuroscience must be also mindful of their users and what they care about. Listening to women is at the core of the startup’s operations.
“There were probably as many women against Roe v. Wade, as there were women supporting Roe v Wade. It's important to recognise those worldviews.”
“However, at the same time, we need to stand up for what we believe in, and work to protect our ability to solve issues that we know a lot of women deal with and have no solution to.”
As Samphire Neuroscience operates in a regulatory gray zone, a question arises — if most healthy women have menstrual symptoms, then is Samphire Neuroscience treating a clinical condition?
“For example, one of the clinical conditions that we treat is called dysmenorrhea, which is essentially the clinical term for menstrual pain. And is menstrual pain, a form of pain? And is, for example, premenstrual depression, a form of depression?”
Emilė continued: “that sounds like a clinical question, but nothing clinical is non-political”.
Politics affect regulatory bodies and their decision-making, which certainly entails the prioritisation of the needs of different populations.
“When political matters are so embedded with women’s health, and you’re operating in a regulatory environment, you have to always have your fingers on the public opinion pulse.”
To become a builder
What ‘building better’ means to Emilė
“To me, it means two things, I think one of them is oriented towards society as a whole. And by ‘build better’, that would mean building for people who are not usually built for. So, in our case, this happened to be something very common for and commonly spoken about by women, but really ignored by pretty much all research and development, and innovation.”
“I think that, we as a society, need to build better for every member of society. We still have so many under-addressed challenges that will end up trickling up, and we need to address those.”
To Emilė, building better also means maintaining user-centricity.
“[It’s about] building something that serves the needs of women scientifically, but also serves their lifestyles as busy women. I think most of the innovation that has been done for women has been adopted in a pretty inconvenient way”.
“I think that's a very high standard to keep because all of us are different. All of us have different preferences, and how do you marry those together? It’s a big challenge but one that we’re definitely standing up to.”
Emilė shared a few resources to help us understand her work deeper.
This is a well-designed, thorough resource that dives into what Samphire Neuroscience is working towards.
A powerful read about how ingrained gendered data gaps have shaped the design of our world.
An incredibly thorough analytical piece about the state of the FemTech market.
Samphire Neuroscience is riding an industry wave by bridging the gap in commercial technologies for women’s health. They are doing so with integrity, focus, and care — ensuring the uttermost reliability of the product, as well as genuine connection with communities and key users.
A big thank you to Emilė for having this conversation, and for allowing others to learn from it. Huge kudos to the whole Samphire Neuroscience team for working on their mission.
Here are some key takeaways from this conversation:
Women experience significant menstrual symptoms that impact every aspect of life — physical, social, and economic.
It takes a team with different skills to build out a complex idea.
Building to solve someone’s problem well requires user-centricity and mindful iteration.
It is possible for business and advocacy to go hand-in-hand.
The FemTech market has a bright future with a lot of potential that is yet to be realised.
I also recommend reading AfterWork’s excellent memo on investment in Samphire Neuroscience.
Thank you for reading. I will be posting more long-form conversations and analytical pieces exploring markets and products. I warmly invite you to read and engage.
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Thank you again, and keep building ✌🏻
While I refer to the company’s key user demographic as women, it is important to recognise that the experiences discussed in this piece are not unique to gender but rather to physiology. Samphire Neuroscience also notes this (first sentence, pop-up note):
“While our language focuses on symptoms, diagnoses and clinical realities of women and is based on data that, when gender-segregated, only captures the experience of people self-identifying as women, we recognise that the issues we address are not limited to the experiences of women. If you experience periods and/or cycle-related cognitive (brain fog, fatigue) and/or mood (low mood, irritability, mood instability) and/or pain symptoms, we’re here for you regardless of your gender.”