Editor’s note: This article is part of a series spotlighting female medical entrepreneurs who serve other women.
Marje Isabelle’s entrepreneurial journey began with a cancer diagnosis.
She was 35, in the midst of a thriving career in London and trying to conceive a child with her husband when she learned she had uterine and ovarian cancer. That was the start of a lengthy, painful and formative ordeal. Over the course of the next 2 years, Isabelle’s battle with cancer took her through a partial hysterectomy, in vitro fertilization, a preventative surgery to remove her remaining ovary, surrogate pregnancy and early menopause.
That harrowing, roller-coaster experience showed Isabelle firsthand the dearth of effective treatment options for women struggling with both fertility complications and menopause symptoms. And it exposed her to the blatant insensitivity some women face while seeking treatment.
At one point, a male gynecologist who was treating her told her that ”if a woman comes in and says she has hot sweats or can’t sleep and is tired or has mood swings, he’ll put them on hormone replacement therapy.” Then he added: “And if they don’t come back screaming, then it’s the right dose.”
“That’s how they dose us as women,” she says.
Isabelle became determined to bring more respect and personalized treatment to women like her. So, in 2014 — the same year her daughter, Sienna, was born — she launched Fertile Matters, followed by Intelligent Hormones in 2016. The two companies endeavor to help women navigate fertility and menopause, respectively, by monitoring hormone levels. “We’re looking to dose hormone replacement therapy more precisely,” she says.
Isabelle also wants to raise awareness about hormone-related challenges that millions of women worldwide struggle with every day. “We want to make people wake up around something that happens to half the globe’s population.”
And she believes that the most impactful way women can take part in these conversations is to start companies, saying: “It does help to disrupt things.”
Before starting her two companies, Isabelle earned a sociology degree from the University of London in 1998, then worked as a fundraiser for over 15 years. She took on both project management and event planning roles for outfits such as Whittington Health NHS Trust, a hospital and community-care services coordinator, and HemiHelp, a charitable organization benefiting people with hemiplegia, a form of paralysis.
But after her cancer diagnosis and subsequent journey to recovery, Isabelle realized that women needed easier ways to stay informed about what was happening to their bodies during significant biological and hormonal shifts.
So she launched Fertile Matters, a consultancy which offers tests of both women and men’s hormone levels, allowing couples to track their collective fertility and make more informed family planning choices, “instead of leaving it to the last minute at an IVF clinic.” Down the road, Isabelle hopes to make this testing even easier. She envisions selling at-home, easy-to-use kits, similar to those used by diabetics to test their own glucose levels.
Two years later, she founded Intelligent Hormones to create products that can help clients weather menopause. Still in developmental stages, Isabelle is working with researchers at Cambridge University to perfect a patent-pending wearable patch, which pairs with a smartphone app that will deliver updates on hormone levels to users and their physicians.
How it Helps
Both firms address pressing problems that affect scores of women. In the United Kingdom alone, one in seven couples, or about 3.5 million people, struggle to conceive, according to the National Health Service. And approximately 13 million women are currently going through or are now in menopause in the U.K. — about a third of its female population, Menopause UK says.
These issues are far from unique to women in Isabelle’s home country. Roughly 48.5 million couples were unable to conceive worldwide as of 2010, the World Health Organization found. And as of 1998, roughly 477 million women were postmenopausal — a figure expected to rise to 1.1 billion by 2025.
So while Isabelle’s companies may be in the early stages, they are eying enormous markets. However, she has different visions for the size of each venture.
Fertile Matters is a small-scale, one-woman show, though clinical experts are brought in to help. It doesn’t generate a great deal of money, either — she says she only makes around £9,000 per year from it. But she’s content to keep it small. “I know it is not a scalable business for any investment — it is an advisory and navigation service.”
Intelligent Hormones, meanwhile, is on the path to growth. The firm has received cash infusions via a £100,000 Innovate UK grant and £15,000 in friends and family contributions. And, Isabelle plans to pursue a small seed round of funding early next year, in a bid to expand her two-person team (which is also aided by clinical advisors).
Why it Matters
Isabelle admits that she comes to the world of health entrepreneurship from a different perspective than some of her contemporaries. “I don’t have a medical background. My eyes and experience are different from a typical pharmaceutical executive.”
While medical experts have taken a central role in the development of her companies’ products, she sees her non-clinical background as a valuable asset, arguing that she brings a fresh perspective that the industry needs and that more women like her are needed to shake up the health industry.
“There’s a long way to go before the other half of the population is heard” in conversations about their own wellness, she says. And all kinds of women’ voices are needed in discussions about women’s health.