Investment Notes: Samphire Neuroscience - neurotech for women's health
Our Investment Notes deep dive into our investment decisions. We unpack what we loved, where we needed to build confidence, and how we ultimately gained conviction to invest.
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Samphire Neuroscience is a neurotechnology company that makes products which enhance women’s1 health and lifestyles. Their first product is a device that can be worn as a headband. Using a form of non-invasive electrical neuromodulation, the headband stimulates certain parts of the brain, and in doing so, alleviates some symptoms commonly associated with menstrual cycles: such as brain fog, fatigue, mood variability, and pain.
AfterWork Ventures are proud to be pre-seed investors in Samphire Neuroscience, alongside HAX, the most prestigious global accelerator for hardware companies.
What we loved about the opportunity
The problem is enormous, but has been routinely dismissed
Half the female population are of a reproductive age, and experience menstrual cycles. Most women menstruate for between two to seven days every month, and 90% of them experience some kind of associated discomfort both before and during their period. Symptoms extend from fatigue, brain fog, mood variability, and cramps, through to debilitating pain, nausea, and depression. In a survey of 30,000 women, 80% reported they lost more than nine days of productivity per year due to the impact of menstrual cycles. Women estimate that, on average, they lose 2.9 days of productivity every month due to pain, 3.9 days due to fatigue and tiredness and 4.3 days due to psychological complaints linked to menstruation. In addition to the personal cost, the economic cost of lost productivity is massive - estimated at $2,000 per woman per year.
For a problem experienced by 26% of the world’s population (that’s 1.8 billion people!), the impact of menstrual cycles on women has been grossly and routinely understudied.
Samphire Neuroscience will be the first to apply neurotechnology to alleviate the impact that menstruation has on cognitive function and menstrual pain. If successful, the upside is huge: Samphire could not only alleviate a huge amount of unnecessary suffering, but also restore control to women’s lives.
Extending on proven technology, while learning about an understudied cohort
Samphire’s headbands use non-invasive electrical neuromodulation technology. Non-invasive means that the device sits on top of the head, rather than inside it, and it directs electrical currents to stimulate specific parts of the brain. These currents trigger neuronal activity in specific regions; Samphire’s device can tune this process to specifically target menstrual pain, brain fog and fatigue, and mood variability.
This type of neurotechnology has been clinically studied since 1964, and has been shown in clinical trials to be effective in mitigating brain fog, mood variability, and pain. In particular, it has shown promise in alleviating the symptoms of people with clinical depression. Additionally, its safety is well established; more than 30 years of studies have found no evidence to suggest risk of adverse side effects with long-term and repeated use.
Samphire is leveraging this rich body of knowledge, and extending the research by applying the technology to a different population, and a different root cause of cognitive impacts. While the technology is well-researched in clinical contexts, it has never been made accessible for use in a manner that allows for use by women for menstrual cycle related challenges.
Samphire is acting as a democratiser; enabling women with no medical background to use the devices safely at home. Samphire will also represent the first time the technology has been applied to multiple symptoms; this is enabled by Samphire’s combination of hardware with software - its app will allow users to configure their hardware device to treat their specific symptoms.
Team that combines deep neuroscience knowledge with regulatory and commercial nous
Samphire was co-founded by Em Radytė and Alex Cook. Em is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, studying Neurobiology and Neurosciences. Her PhD research is focused on modelling deep brain stimulation for psychiatric applications and finding neurocognitive biomarkers of response to the treatment of clinical depression. Prior to her PhD, Em studied neuroscience and social anthropology at Harvard, graduating summa cum laude (the highest honours). Impressive as she is on paper, Em is even more formidable in person.
Alex and Em met at Oxford, while Alex was completing his Masters in Law and Finance. We came to know Alex first as an AfterWork community member. Alex joined the community in May 2021, and quickly became our go-to expert on everything related to regulation and intellectual property. Alex developed this expertise first as a founding team member at Bamboo (founded in 2017, Bamboo is a micro-investing platform that made it seamless to invest in alternative assets such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, gold, and silver), and then as a technology and intellectual property lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills. Alex combines commercial canny with the ability to see around corners in ambiguous regulatory environments and navigate curveballs with grace.
Em and Alex represent a founding team who not only have the deep requisite subject matter expertise; but also the passion, energy, and commercial nous to shift the needle in women’s health, and help bring neurotechnology products to a mass market.
The challenges we saw
Can customers get over their initial wariness to electrically stimulate their brains?
Despite the scientific literature that attests to the safety and efficacy of neurotechnology, it’s not well known outside of clinical settings. Indeed, this may be part of the reason that neurotech companies have yet to achieve mainstream adoption.
However, these fears can be somewhat allayed by many promising success stories, which show that non-invasive neurotech can be highly effective in treating clinical conditions and beyond. Where it has comes unstuck before is in the user experience, which, put simply, sucks. Neuroscientists spent so long validating the tech, they have neglected thinking about user experience. The Samphire team understands that a lifestyle neuromodulatory device should also look and feel differently to a clinical device, and are designing a device that not only does the job, but is comfortable, stylish, and delightful to use.
The results from Samphire’s early tests boosted our confidence that adopters become passionate promoters. Samphire’s cohort of 25 users of the prototype responded overwhelmingly positively; 95% of users would recommend the device; one customer even begged the Samphire team to let her buy the prototype.
This early focus on designing and testing with and for women is a consistent trend in Samphire’s design philosophy. They’re currently working in lockstep with a small community of women to refine their product design, pilot their technology, and establish themselves as a company that approaches women’s health with the type of attention, humility, and detail that it deserves. This community, known as the Samphire Fellowship, is looking for founding members, globally! You can find the details here.
Can the team build and scale a hardware company, against the backdrop of severe disruptions to global supply chains?
You’ve probably seen dramatic images and read sensational headlines about the global supply chain crisis. From container ships stuck in narrow canals to boba tea shortages in America, nearly every business who sells a physical product has been impacted. Some hardware companies face month-long waits for critical components, and others have seen the price of their supplies double. Scaling a hardware company is always hard, but against this current backdrop, it’s ultra-hard.
Luckily, Samphire is working through these challenges with some of the most experienced operators globally. Alongside AfterWork Ventures, Samphire attracted investment from the most prestigious global accelerator for hardware companies, HAX (part of the SOSV family). Through HAX, Samphire has unlocked access to a deep bench of engineering talent, as well as on-the-ground sourcing and supply chain expertise in Shenzhen, China.
The team has also gotten creative in solving the supply chain issues. Samphire’s 3D printer lives next to Em’s desk in the UK, allowing for the rapid testing of prototypes as the team in other cities iterates on specific component design.
Questions we had for the team
Why do you believe no one has developed a solution for a problem that impacts so many women every single month?
There are two layers to this question: 1) why has no one deployed neurotechnology in the domain of women’s health, and 2) why do many of the solutions for women’s health issues leave so much wanting?
On the first point - neurotechnology is an emerging field. It’s still small, but growing fast. There aren’t many people in the world who have the requisite knowledge and experience to build, or regulate neurotech companies. To date, entrepreneurs have focused on other populations and flashier goals, such as creating a brain to computer interface.
On the second point - women’s health is systematically understudied. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that clinical trials are often conducted on male-only populations, precisely because women’s cycle-driven hormonal variations can be hard to control for. Samphire is motivated to be a pioneer in attracting more research and investment into women’s health issues.
Some of the products on Samphire’s roadmap will be regulated as medical devices. What does this mean for you?
Regulation exists for a reason, and we’re very mindful of operating within a regulatory framework. Some products on our roadmap require regulatory approvals and clinical trials; we’re very excited about this - we see these approval processes as ways we can help our customers build their conviction that our product will actually help them, as well as contribute to defining regulatory frameworks for technology that is still emerging for user-friendly use.
What is your long term ambition?
We are motivated to use our scientific knowledge and technical expertise to have an impact on how women’s health issues are responded to in the health system, in the workplace, and at home. Every woman is on her own journey, and has her own needs. Samphire’s mission is to understand and accommodate these needs, with solutions that can be tailored to any woman, at any stage of her life.
In a world where only 1 in 5 women in the UK feel like they have a satisfactory amount of information about menstrual wellbeing, we aim to become a trusted partner to women who menstruate - acting as a source of information, support, and comfort.
How we built conviction
Samphire is tackling a pain point that many women have experienced intimately: the monthly onset of fatigue, irritability, and moodiness that makes you think you’re losing their mind, until you realise it’s your period making its impending arrival known.
For far too long, women have become resigned to the fact that monthly suffering is part of the feminine condition. For just as long, the scientific community has routinely dismissed or underplayed women’s pain, and judged it to be unworthy of dedicated study. The Samphire team was unwilling to accept either as given, and we’re proud to be backing them to trailblaze a new chapter for women–and science!
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While Samphire’s language focuses on symptoms and diagnoses of women, and is based on data that, when gender-segregated, only captures the experience of people who identify as women, Samphire recognises 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, Samphire is here for you.