Olivia Cotes-James founded one of Hong Kong’s first femtech companies, Luüna Naturals, in 2019 after a decade of navigating troubling menstrual symptoms.
After building her start-up into one of the city’s biggest femtech players, she turned her attention to eradicating period poverty – the lack of access to menstrual products – across Asia, work which in 2021 landed her on the Forbes 30 under 30.
As an early-stage start-up, Cotes-James raised over US$1 million in seed funding between 2019 and 2021 through individual investors from Hong Kong and Shanghai.
“Finding them was not easy,” she said. “I was a first-time founder with no traction, I do not have the knowledge and certainly not the network.”
She met a lot of resistance from investors of both genders, because the topic is so stigmatised. “A lot of the people we were pitching to never had someone walk into a room and talk about something that was so awkward, so that was very challenging,” she said.
Funding secured, the company developed eco-friendly sanitary pads made from organic cotton and got them onto shelves in major supermarkets across Hong Kong. However, Cotes-James wanted more.
“We had some really good early success, but the experience people have when it comes to menstruation at workplaces and schools has always been a point of interest for me,” she said.
“Institutions were focusing on mental and physical health, but menstrual health was still being ignored. So in 2019, we took an institution-first approach to tackling menstrual stigma.”
For the past four years, Luüna has worked with offices and schools to dispense free menstrual products in washrooms, reaching over 300,000 users across Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore.
Companies Luüna works with include UBS, Visa and Bloomberg.
Education is also an important part of their work to eradicate stigma.
The company holds workshops in schools, communities and workplaces to encourage conversation about menstrual health and equity, engaging both men and women in these discussions.
Over the last few years, Luüna has been the first in its markets to knock on the doors of organisations asking to speak with human-resources leaders or other decision-makers about the topic of menstrual health, Cotes-James said.
“You’re also carrying a lot of weight on your shoulders when you’re the first one to start these conversations,” she said. “It’s been tough, especially during Covid when new initiatives were not the priority.”
In March, Luüna received B Corp Certification, which means it meets high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability.
With menstrual health being one of the fastest growing sectors in the femtech industry – the number of menstrual health start-ups in Southeast Asia doubled in the past year – Cotes-James welcomes the competition as it helps to keep her and her people “on their toes”.
Cotes-James was recently chosen as the East Asia Fellow for the Cartier Women’s Initiative 2023, which celebrates female entrepreneurs worldwide. She told the Post over a phone call from the UK that she is excited not only about what’s to come in the femtech scene in Hong Kong but also about building a greater network across Asia.
“I met so many players at the Women’s Health Innovation Summit in Singapore recently, and being in the same room as them was really inspiring, to talk about the challenges we face as an industry,” she said. “There is strength in numbers.”
Hong Kong needs to develop its femtech community, Cotes-James said.
We don’t have a specific kind of femtech community, but there are people working to change that, to make sure Hong Kong has its own ecosystem around femtech,” she said. “How long will that take to scale up I’m not sure, but it’s happening.”