Hybrid healthcare and the future of women’s health
Nabta Health was co-founded by Sophie Smith and Saba Alzabin in 2017. It is a purpose-built technology platform for women’s health in the MENA region.
Saba Alzabin and Sophie Smith of Nabta Health want to empower women in the MENA countries to manage their health using a new model of Hybrid Healthcare. They believe that giving women access to affordable, evidence-based, and fully personalised healthcare will give them the time and the power to live healthy lives. We spoke to Sophie about how she came up with the idea for Nabta Health, what her biggest challenges are, and her vision for the company.
Can you tell us a bit more about where the idea of Nabta Health came from?
“Nabta was born of a desire to change the dialogue around women’s health in the Middle East. Many aspects of women’s health in the MENA region are considered taboo, particularly issues relating to fertility. As a result, women are reluctant to seek advice and treatment and experience poor health outcomes – 80% of breast cancers are diagnosed at Stage 4, for example. We wanted to build a destination for women’s health that would be seen as a safe space for local women; a place where women felt empowered to manage their health with privacy, autonomy, and convenience. Today, Nabta is pioneering a unique model of hybrid healthcare – combining the best of digital and traditional healthcare on a care pathway by care pathway basis – to help women identify and manage reversible causes of infertility.”
What brought you to F-LANE?
“We applied for F-LANE because we wanted to be part of a network of individuals focused on building companies with social impact in emerging markets. Today, we are the only female-led, female-oriented HealthTech company in the MENA region. It has, at times, been a struggle to be taken seriously (whipping out babies to breastfeed them in investor pitches hasn’t helped!) and to get people to recognise the potential of the women’s healthcare market in MENA in terms of need, impact, and opportunity. But the tide is slowly turning in our favour, thanks in no small part to the traction we have been able to demonstrate, and the universally positive response we have received – from the local community and beyond.”
What challenges and obstacles did you face as a female founder?
“My biggest challenge to date has been related to fundraising. Last year, female-led companies secured just 2.8% of venture capital. I believe this is for a few reasons. Perhaps the most obvious one is that women and men pitch in different ways, and investors are used to hearing pitches from men. In health-tech companies in particular, women highlight as an advantage the fact that their companies have a positive impact on the lives of their customers, whereas men would tend to emphasize this less. I suspect that success rates in terms of securing VC funding have a lot to do with the impact or non-impact focus of women when they pitch.”
And what difficulties do you face on top of that as a female social entrepreneur?
“Women historically have run a lot of charities. Social enterprises, particularly female-led social enterprises, are seen by many as a sort of charitable equivalent to a business. In some ways, this is true because most social enterprises have a double or even triple bottom line but they are not charities, and the focus on profit is still paramount. Investing in a company like ours, which delivers social good, is often not perceived by potential investors as a way of generating returns. We hear a lot of: “I don’t expect to get the money back but at least I did some good with it”.
As a society, we need to make more conscious decisions to invest in women-led businesses, and in social enterprises, and to perceive those investments as precisely that – an investment. Until there are more impact investments, people will not consistently, unquestioningly invest in female entrepreneurs and vice versa.”
Do you see any trends towards a more inclusive system?
“In general, yes, but this year, no. If you look at statistics from Techcrunch, investments from the first half of 2020 dropped to 2017 levels from a diversity perspective. Investors are more cautious at the moment, so I think it will be harder for women, social entrepreneurs, and minorities, in general, to secure funding until the global economy stabilises and appetite for risk increases.”
What can help entrepreneurs to cope with these challenges?
“I think hands-on mentorship for new entrepreneurs is important from a time- and money-saving perspective. There are so many things, particularly when it comes to fundraising, that you can learn upfront and use to save time. For example, investors rarely tell you “no” outright. If investors don’t believe in you, your team, your mission as a company, and (depending on the stage) your unit economics, they will make excuses like “it’s not the right time” or “you just need to update a couple of slides and then we can look at it again”; they are reluctant to say, “sorry, I’m not interested”.
So you need to be able to read the signs. Some signs are obvious, and some signs are not. For example, one sign that an investor (angel or institutional) is serious about investing in you is that they will make an introduction to a trusted third party as a sort of emotional investment, and also as a way to get someone they trust to validate their impression of you. Knowing the signs and having the courage to write off potential investors, no matter how much time and energy you have invested in them, is critical.”