For the past four years, the San Francisco-based RH Capital, a venture fund of Rhia Ventures, has been assembling a pipeline of companies in women’s health by seeking out innovative science and passionate entrepreneurs to invest in. In this search, the venture fund came across the BII start-up, Cirqle Biomedical, and offered early funding to support the development of its non-hormonal contraceptive Oui.
“We fund companies that will improve the health of women in the US and underlying all our work is a continued commitment to focus on innovations that address health disparities. One of our primary focus areas is non-hormonal contraception, which is why Cirqle Biomedical caught our attention” says Stasia Obremskey, Managing Director at RH Capital, who recently joined BII’s Women’s Health Innovation Panel.
RH Capital invests in companies primarily in the US but increasingly in Europe as the start-up environment for women’s health matures in other markets. We sat down with Stasia Obremskey who, as a mother of three young adult children, is committed to finding better solutions for their health.
What is currently on your radar in women’s health?
A lot! In the contraceptive space, we’ve invested in two companies innovating in male contraception. Currently, there are only two options for men: a vasectomy or condoms, but we see a couple of promising non-hormonal products within both drugs and devices. That’s great news for women’s health because new solutions offer an opportunity for shared responsibility among heterosexual couples. Recent market research focused on the US market found that over time 75% of men would use a new male method. We’re seeing a generational shift in the attitude and willingness of younger men to take their turn and give the female body a break by taking primary responsibility for contraception.
How do you see women’s health gaining momentum?
Since we started RH Capital four years ago, we’ve seen exponential growth in several areas including company formation, capital invested, and strategic acquisitions in the women’s health space.
In the decades prior to this, large pharmaceutical companies with a women’s health focus – Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, and Pfizer – abandoned R&D efforts in areas such as contraceptives and that means we don’t have a pipeline of new products. While pharma companies follow commercial potential when deciding on where to invest in drug development, it doesn’t take a lot to imagine who was sitting around the table when Pfizer was deciding to invest in Viagra versus next-generation contraceptive products.
Today, things are accelerating in the start-up community, and it is encouraging to witness, but there’s a long way to go as we’re making up for 30 years of underinvestment. Capital is, without doubt, the biggest challenge, but we’ve gone from little drips of funding to a trickle. What we need now is for the large mainstream health venture funds to recognize the unmet need in the market and the financial opportunity.
What is, in your opinion, the biggest funding gap in women’s health investment?
Menopause. Women have always been told to just deal with it, so we are seeing a huge white space here as we call it. There is a lot of innovation going on and many dialogues around a more holistic approach where lifestyle, nutrition, and therapeutic intervention play a role.
Personally, I have a particular passion for finding better biomarkers for women’s fertility. The popularity of period tracking apps – many developed in Europe by the way, help women track their cycles to identify their window of fertility allowing them to avoid or attempt pregnancy. However, today, we only have calendar tracking and basal body temperature, and we clearly need more cutting-edge science to allow women conveniently and with a high degree of accuracy to determine their fertility window.
If a woman had more precise information to determine her fertile days, she could take precautions during these few days instead of relying on systemic, continual methods of birth control. Cirqle Biomedical’s product, Oui, is an on-demand method that could be ideal for women who want to use an effective method drug during their fertility window.
How do you see the European landscape within women’s health as opposed to the US?
The US has the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which provide over $40 billion in annual funding for discovery research and some translational work across many areas of health. With the resources of the NIH, the US has a more advanced model of funding basic research in university labs, at other research institutes, and with companies. We’ve been doing it for a longer time in the US, but we see this important funding mechanism growing in Europe.
Several countries and institutions including Switzerland, Israel, France, and Denmark with an initiative such as BII are providing that critical grant funding to spur innovation in labs and with start-up companies. It can have an enormous impact because it provides the funding for that crucial point in time where a team must translate initial promising lab data into proof of concept to gain additional funding.
In terms of the research environment, Europe has a lot to offer so in combination with more and more non-dilutive funding we expect great things over the next 20 years. In addition to funding, French and UK leaders have raised the visibility of women’s health by launching women’s disease initiatives – endometriosis – and appointing a Women’s Health Ambassador.
Why did you dedicate your career to this area?
From my worldview, the two most important things we can do in society are to educate women and give them tools to manage their fertility. When we accomplish those two goals, we unlock 50 percent of the world’s human capital. Why not tap into this huge resource?
It is not only the additional brain power that is unlocked but also a more diverse set of perspectives, bringing new approaches and skills to solving problems. Given the magnitude of the challenges ahead of us, the world needs this diverse and talented pool of human capital.
About RH Capital:
RH Capital, a Rhia Ventures fund, invests in early-stage high-impact companies that are driving innovation, access, and equity across the reproductive and maternal health landscape while delivering strong financial returns to investors. As impact investors, their unique mission of seeking both financial and social returns attracts inspiring and talented entrepreneurs who share a common vision—to improve the health of all women in the US. Underlying all of RH Capital’s work is a continued commitment to gender and racial equity.