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Japanese startups focus on fertility issues to help retain female staff

With government commitment, companies keen to offer such support to women

Femtech startups offering services that help companies retain female staff are emerging in Japan. (Nikkei Montage/source photo by Getty Images)

TOKYO -- Okayu cared deeply about her job in IT sales -- and also about the fertility treatment she was having. Eventually the 30-year-old decided it was impossible to reconcile both and unwilllingly resigned after concluding that her workplace could not accommodate her need to attend the fertility clinic at short notice.

"I gave up on my career to concentrate on the treatment," she said, complaining of a lack of understanding colleagues. "People told me that work and fertility treatment are easily compatible and some even told me I should put off the treatment if I want to be promoted."

Her experience is far from unique and show the issues facing Japan as it confronts its demographic challenges -- in particular the twin goals of raising the fertility rate and getting more women into the workforce.

But this is creating an opportunity for several startups in a field that has come to be known as femtech -- technology that focuses on female health. The emerging companies are creating services that help companies retain employees who are undertaking fertility treatments.

"More companies are starting to think about introducing supporting measures for those who are undergoing fertility treatment," said Yusuke Ishikawa, founder and president of FamiOne, one of the femtech companies, which in April raised 150 million yen ($1.4 million) from several venture capital firms and investors including KVP and Aflac Ventures.

According to a survey conducted by Tokyo's Juntendo University, nearly 20% of women who were under fertility treatment left work. In a similar vein, the Ministry of Welfare reported in 2017 that 16% of those who had fertility treatment left work while 8% changed their employment status.

And a study by Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Fine found that total financial losses caused by resignations due to fertility treatments could be as high as 208.3 billion yen every year.

FamiOne, which has 12,000 registered users, was founded in 2015 and offers clinical consultancy services via a chat app to people who want to undergo fertility treatment. It receives referral fees from clinics and also works with companies to advise them how to support employees. Odakyu Electric Railway and Mixi Group, which operates a social networking website, have adopted FamiOne's consulting services. FamiOne has also given seminars to employees of companies such as Sony, All Nippon Airways and Mercari.

Ishikawa said he understood why some employees feel awkward in the workplace. "As few people have accurate knowledge about fertility treatment, it is still difficult for the patient to openly speak about their treatment," said Ishikawa. "By offering the services, I want to help companies to retain talent."

Other femtech are also moving in this direction. Startup Sutelura offers a platform that matches clinics with women who want to freeze their eggs. Sutelura's platform is offered only to companies to help them retain female staff. Companies that sign up can then offer employees financial support to access Sutelura's services, given that fertility treatments tend to be expensive.

Shiori Nishi, who founded the company in February last year and is now CEO, said: "I want to help women choose both work and having a child."

In February, airline Skymark introduced Sutelura's service on a trial basis as part of benefits it offers employees. "Large companies are especially interested in our services as they want to raise the ratio of female managers," said Nishi.

Sutelura will not disclose its financial figures but aims to sign up 150 companies in three years.

The number of births in Japan fell to a low of 918,000 in 2018 at a fertility rate of 1.42. The government hopes to increase that rate to 1.8 by the mid-2020s and is expanding support for child care and infertility treatments to that end.

According to the Ministry of Labor, the number of women in the workforce has increased to 30 million, but nearly half of them are not regular employees and are in part-time jobs.

Against this backdrop, U.S. market research firm Frost & Sullivan said that worldwide femtech market could reach $50 billion by 2025.

According to Japan's Fermata Inc., which provides services to femtech startups, there were 318 companies focused on women's health worldwide in March 2020, up from 221 in 2019 and 50 in 2017. In Japan, there are 51 femtech companies as of April.

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