Bladder health isn't the sexiest subject in the world, so it probably won't surprise you there are so few startups focused on the area. Only one, actually, according to Jude founder Peony Li -- who's just closed a $4.24 million seed round for her London-based bladder health startup to expand into the U.S. But that huge attention gap is what makes the opportunity so enticing, with a big real-world problem that's wildly underserved up for grabs plus the chance to have a positive impact on so many people's quality of life.
The startup says there are 2.3 billion people experiencing some form of bladder problem, whether it's an overactive bladder, leaking or incontinence, or recurring urinary infections. Both men and women can suffer from bladder issues. However, Jude's initial focus is on women's health, as Li says she wants to establish the business as a category leader in a space that's been overlooked and even unloved and certainly hasn't had this kind of full-focus attention before. "It's easier for women to talk about health issues -- especially this issue in particular," she suggests. Tackling male-specific bladder issues, such as those linked to prostate health, falls later on the roadmap.
"There are no competitors out there -- it's a complete white space," she tells TechCrunch. "What that means for us is we're all learning about bladder care. We're all learning about what customers really want. It has been a space that's completely untapped and we have time to do it."
It's true that earlier waves of women's health startups have tended to focus on issues affecting younger women. Such as period tracking and care, or contraception and fertility. Even the early mover U.K. startup Elvie, which began with a focus on pelvic floor exercises -- an activity that can help with bladder issues -- put its emphasis on supporting postpartum women, rather than centering middle-aged women as Jude is, given its total embrace of bladder health. (Elvie, meanwhile, has since doubled down on new mothers by building out a range of breast pumps.)
Li, who is Jude's sole founder, doesn't fall into its core target demographic herself -- being younger. But she had a personal interest in bladder health having suffered recurring urinary tract infections as a teenager and young adult. She found traditional healthcare routes unhelpful at that time and says it took her own effort and research ("lots of googling") to, eventually, land on a solution. But she was left with a lasting impression of how poorly traditional care pathways served people with bladder problems. So the seed of the idea for Jude was planted.
It took a little longer for Li to get going with the business. Her early career was spent working in investment banking before moving to Founders Factory for a couple of years, including as its head of investments. Then she joined Daye, a period care women's health company, as its head of ops. But when COVID-19 hit, Li also got involved in supplying medical-grade PPE -- an experience she says brought her into contact with lots of "vibrant and confident" middle-aged women who had set up their own businesses.
"I was quite inspired," she recounts. "And I thought every minute, probably, there's a startup spinning out for Gen Z and Millennials and there's so little attention . . . to this not heard, quite underserved, not seen demographic. And when I do a little bit more research, I found actually bladder issues really impact this demographic the most."
It's still early days for Jude, which launched in the U.K. in January last year and has reached some 18,000 customers so far. The service is also still developing as the team works to expand the range of support it can offer. But flush with fresh funding, and with its U.S. launch looming, it's expecting growth to step up from here on in.
For now it's selling a bladder strength supplement that doesn't require a prescription since it contains only natural ingredients (the main ingredients are pumpkin seed extract and soy germ extract). Jude's marketing cites three third-party studies to support a claim on its website that says the product is "proven to reduce leaks by 79%." It is also in the process of applying for a medical license in the U.K. attached to the claims it makes for its supplement as a way to boost its ability to defend a product based on natural ingredients.
"We will be patenting the claims that we can make," she explains, saying once the license is obtained, it will be able to distinguish its supplement from others being sold on the U.K. market that contain pumpkin seed extract and/or soy germ extract by being able to state on the packaging that the product has undergone validity studies to prove bladder strengthening efficacy and that it contains pharmaceutical-grade ingredients (so customers can be sure the supplement contains the stated concentration and purity of ingredients). Li says she's hopeful Jude will obtain that license by next summer. "The exercise here is deepening the defensibility whilst investing more in the formula to do more studies behind it," she notes.
In addition to selling its own brand supplement, Jude's e-shop has a range of absorbent pants, liners and pads for purchase. Plus it offers a support hotline with free advice from trained specialists -- such as help with retraining problematic bladder habits. "Anyone can call up our hotline and discuss a bladder care plan," says Li. "With that bladder care plan our specialists will be able to advise minor lifestyle changes, peeing habits, etc. We also have a pelvic floor exercise plan, which means we can discuss how they have been doing the pelvic floor exercises, do we need weekly reminders for them to do their pelvic floor exercises more. We also have a community that does weekly exercise together -- we have 4,000 women there."
More support services are planned and on the way, as Jude works to build out its digital proposition. Notably it will also be launching a digital consultation service, likely early next year -- which will let customers respond to an online questionnaire that is then submitted to partner e-pharmacies to prescribe appropriate treatment.
Li also doesn't rule out adding more in-house urologists and doctors in the future as another layer of reassurance for customers. She notes that it currently has a medical board and a number of in-house GPs but says it may look to deepen the medical expertise and resources it makes available to customers.
"I do believe, with this area of bladder health, you need something in the middle -- between, you know, invasive, intolerable medication and surgery and just [wearing diapers or pads] and we want to fit that gap," she says, adding: "For our supplements, we do recommend it because it's low side effects, is very efficacious and lots of women have really good results with it."
"What really makes [our approach] scalable -- I believe, in the future -- would be a whole system around people coming to Jude for different services and different products that they can subscribe to and be a part of, and as a part of all that onboarding we will collect a lot of customer data, being able to further tailor [what we offer] and make it more efficacious."
Being the first startup to really obsess about bladder health means Jude has, necessarily, been experimenting to figure out what works best for people experiencing various urinary issues. So it actively involves customers in product development -- an approach Li likens to how the community-focused beauty brand Glossier built up its user base.
"Although I have suffered from bladder issues, I'm not in that [middle-aged] demographic, so it's extremely important we have thousands of these women telling us when our brand is getting too far, when our brand is actually giving a useful, optimistic outlook for our customers," she says. "And so we vote on packaging . . . on what's the next product iteration that we need to do? So, for instance, we're launching our vegan supplement next week -- and that has been the biggest ever request by the community. They also wanted beige underwear, for instance. So a lot of that product creation is coming from our customers and from our community."
Jude's seed round is led by Eka VC and Joyance, with follow-on investment from June Angelides at Samos VC and Dr. Fiona Pathiraja of Crista Galli Ventures joining as a new investor. It has also received a grant from Innovate UK.
The seed funding follows a £2 million pre-seed round in March last year, which was led by Samos and also had 12 female angel investors participating, along with Access VC, Reckitt’s innovation fund; Stephen Bourke, founder of Echo Pharmacy; and David Rowan, founder of Voyagers and founding editor-in-chief of Wired UK.
On the growth front, Li is projecting that Jude will be able grow U.K. usage 4x over the next 12 months. She's also bullish it can manage a strong start in the U.S. -- where it'll begin by selling its supplements via retail outlets at the end of this year and then expanding to offer direct-to-consumer sales in early 2024 -- saying, overall, she's hopeful the startup will be reaching around 100,000 customers next year.
As well as working hard to reach many more women, and growing its understanding of bladder health issues as it pulls in more data, the aim is for Jude to support advanced research, such as in areas like nutrition and bladder health. Li suggests this data for research track could be of particular interest to health insurance companies.
"We believe there is a really good product market fit for us to go to market with insurance companies -- to really reach at scale the customers for us," she suggests.
This report was updated to clarify a remark made by Li; Jude does already have some GPs on staff to support customers but she tell us it may look to further expand the medical resources it can offer.