Serious business: the opportunities in men’s health taboos.

A men’s health startup issued a member-get-member referral promotion recently. Despite the serious addressing of issues like erectile dysfunction and hair loss by the company, its promotion was forwarded by many of its audience to poke fun at their friends. Anecdotal as this evidence is, there remains, in the men’s health area at least, a snigger barrier that has yet to be broken through.

Our Future of Health pod is focused on the massive opportunities for startups in areas of healthcare traditionally thought of as taboo. Our investments in companies like Elvie and Big Health are proof to us of the power of changing attitudes. But we’ve yet to invest in a company that specifically addresses taboo areas in men’s health. So what are we waiting for?

It’s unfair to judge the existing crop of startups on their current manifestations. We’ve met some truly impressive teams with inspiring visions and fully functioning platforms. The opportunity is unquestionable and the issues are far from trivial. Whilst it is widely recognised that erectile dysfunction (ED) is common amongst older men where 50% of all 40 to 70 year olds will suffer from the condition to some degree (NHS Inform), it is also becoming increasingly prevalent amongst millennials. A recent study showed that 25% of patients going to the doctor for the first time for ED were under the age of 40 (WebMD).

Whilst many of the new crop of startups offer similar products to their US competitors – mainly centred on ED, hair loss and skin care – their ambitions reach further than their current form. They each intend to create trusted brands that deliver holistic wellness platforms spanning physical, lifestyle and mental health offerings. Then there are the ones that deal with fertility (Exseed, Dadi and Legacy, for example). They are chipping out their foothold through a single hardware product but they too have the endgame ambition of building a moat around their customer base and, like their ED/hair loss counterparts, creating trusted, holistic brands capable of tapping the taboo wellspring.

It’s early days and there’s no clear winner yet. Pastel colours, sleek packaging, and non-stereotypical images of fresh-faced men characterise these companies’ websites. The difficulty many of them face is their ability to defend their customer base when – so far – the products they’re selling are largely generic. Another large brick in the wall that must be breached is the fact that men are 70% less likely than women to seek medical help for their ailments, physical and mental. This is changing, but the men’s health winner will need to take a hammer to that statistic if it is to shift perceptions, behaviour and ultimately product. The holy grail will be an engaged male audience, taking the taboo issues seriously. Success will look like a bunch of lads in the pub talking about sperm counts without sniggering. How do we know it’s possible? Because women are already doing it.

Traditionally, wives and girlfriends have been the way to a man’s heart and pocket. Gillette’s long-running (and now starkly out-dated) “the best a man can get” campaign was never aimed at the “man” in the strapline. Men are more engaged with their appearance and health than ever before but their female partners still play a large part in their purchasing decisions. Perhaps something more radical, more unexpected is needed to not just crack, but smash the taboos surrounding the more delicate parts of men’s health. What Brewdog did for beer, or one of our portfolio companies, Deadhappy, is doing for life insurance, this winner will do for the intimate, and in some cases really serious, issues hidden in the shadows of men’s health. Huge opportunities are out there, the pioneers are getting their acts together and cracks are beginning to appear, but the precise size and shape of the victor(s) is yet to show itself.

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