Tackling taboos through research in ventures

26th January 2021

As part of its venture builder programme that built start-ups with a mission to add 5 high quality years to later life, Zinc established a number of ventures tackling taboo topics related to ageing.

Seeing the need to address issues that are commonly avoided or seen as not appropriate topics of conversation, Zinc has developed a programme to support start-ups working on taboo topics, in ageing and wider aspects of health.

Led by Zinc and funded by a Public Engagement Award from the Wellcome Trust, we are running a programme that brings together researchers, entrepreneurs and the public to tackle health-related issues that are too often not addressed or spoken about – issues that are taboo.

Taboos can negatively impact on health outcomes, the fact that talking about them breaks social norms can mean that people may be under-served by existing systems and less likely to seek help. It can also mean that innovators don’t create products to address those challenges, or the solutions that exist are stigmatised.

Our new programme aims to tackle important taboo issues that affect people’s health. We will give underserved user groups an active role in shaping and evaluating health products and services by bringing together researchers and start-ups to produce person-centred health research.

Tackling taboo topics and reaching underserved groups brings particular challenges to research, and to building start-ups. We will develop and share expertise in research methods that are particularly well suited to tackling taboo topics. This may involve exploring user research methods to hear the voices of groups that may otherwise not be involved, learning how best to measure effectiveness of products and services in diverse populations, and how campaigns can be used to raise awareness.

We are building a community of people and organisations who have an interest in research methods that can help to address taboo topics. We also would like to partner with people who have expertise in working with underserved populations. If you would like to join this community of people tackling health-related taboo issues, please contact research@zinc.vc.

Here are some of the start-ups already involved:

EarGym is developing immersive and entertaining auditory training games to help people improve their hearing skills and reduce the effects of age and noise-related hearing loss. Through this programme on taboos they will work to understand differences in the negative connotations of hearing loss as compared to vision loss, and differences across socio-economics groups, as they engage people with a positive message to ‘love your hearing’. Co-founder Amanda Philpott says ‘People are reluctant to come forward to say they may be worried about their hearing; it’s known as a sign of ageing and frailty so people would rather avoid situations where hearing makes interactions uncomfortable, rather than do something to address their hearing. We’ve had to build our business around a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of looking after your hearing, so that people will welcome the opportunity to proactively protect it.’

Tonus is creating wearable robotics that help people stay active for longer. There are taboos around ageing, mobility (for example relating to the undesirability of a walking stick) and augmenting human abilities, that they will work to understand and address through co-design activities. Co-founder Marianna Recchia says ‘People are not yet used to talking about body augmentation but analogies, like the one of the electric bike, help people to connect to a new form of augmentation and to tell us about positive and life-changing experiences when they got in touch with new products.’

Samson is developing support to help older men who experience erectile dysfunction. This is a topic that men often don’t feel comfortable talking about, and that can mean they don’t reach out for help. Samson are working on how to reach people who can benefit from support. They plan to extend their user research to understand the impact of erectile dysfunction on men’s partners, so they improve their understanding of how to address this highly taboo topic.

Parla provides personalised fertility support, empowering women with expert advice and assessments. As part of the taboos programme they will work on finding how best to reach and support women who have experienced miscarriage. Ines de Santiago, who is leading Parla’s research on taboos says ‘Pregnancy loss can have a serious psychological impact, yet it’s not widely talked about and it is often linked to a sense of humiliation and personal failure. Breaking the taboo around miscarriage will break the stigma and shame that many women experience, which will, in turn, improve their chances of receiving appropriate and respectful care during such a difficult time.’

Ferly is your audio guide to mindful sex. Through guided practices, programmes and the SexEd you never had, Ferly encourages women and folx with vulvas to have healthy, confident and pleasurable sex. To further tackle the pleasure gap and promote sexual wellbeing, their work will extend to focus on empowering people with sexual difficulties (e.g. low libido, inability to orgasm, anxiety during sex, sex after trauma, etc.) to improve their relationship to sex. Co-founder Anna Hushlak says ‘When we don’t talk about sex, when we don’t question our beliefs about sex, when someone else’s hands know our body better than our own, we give away our power. We fuel shame and stigma, create isolation and feed the fear of being ‘broken’ or ‘not normal’. To tackle this we need to create psychological and emotional safety for women and folx with vulvas who haven’t always had a positive relationship with sex.’

Method X Studios, the creators of Wakey.life, are building a mass market solution that promotes good mental health, informed by clinical expertise and research evidence. They will be developing and testing ways to make their product engaging for under-served groups (particularly people in lower socio-economic status households, including minority ethnic communities), so people keep coming back. Mariliis Öeren, Chief Scientific Officer, says ‘People from lower socio-economic groups, bisexual and transgender people and minority ethnicities are more likely to suffer poorer mental health. Our aim is to provide an inclusive mental well-being platform to people who are more likely to be affected by the existing inequalities.’

Bold Health creates digital therapeutic tools for digestive health. They have found there can be misconceptions around the taboo issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and irritable bowel disease, and around cognitive behavioural therapy as a treatment, which may reduce people’s engagement. They will work to understand these issues better in order to help more people access support. Nessrin Younes, a behavioural scientist working at Bold Health says ‘As talking about many of the symptoms surrounding gut health disorders is such an ingrained taboo in our society, those who would benefit most from our treatments are often hidden in plain sight. We have made it part of our mission to help break down misconceptions and be a part of the conversation around gut health issues, which will hopefully also help diminish the stigma and taboo.’

To find out more about Zinc’s work on taboo issues in health and to join the community of people tackling health-related taboo issues that we’re building, please contact research@zinc.vc or fill out this (very) brief survey.

Photo Credit: Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

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