Say hi to Dama Health: making precision medicine a reality starting with contraception
Frontiers for Good Interview Series
Welcome to Frontiers for Good Interview Series (suggestions welcomed for a better name), where we chat with the folks building at the frontiers of tech for good 🌍🚀
I am lucky enough to meet great pre-seed and seed stage startups all the time and thought I might as well create a space on the internet to highlight them. So expect to get to meet some of them in your inbox every month.
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In this first interview I sat down with Paulina Cecula and Elena Rueda Carrasco, the co-founders of Dama Health, a precision medicine startup.
What does Dama Health do in one sentence?
Dama Health is bringing personalised and precision medicine to women’s health, starting with helping women and people assigned female at birth find their contraceptive fit.
What’s the story behind Dama Health? How did it come about and why have you decided to build this?
There’s a huge unmet need: over 1.1 billion women globally are in need of contraception. 840 million of these women currently use contraception as birth control or to treat a number of symptoms and gynaecological or endocrine conditions. Unfortunately, 4/5 women will experience side effects and 1/3 will opt out due to the severity of these side effects. The remaining 23% do not use contraception yet report wanting to avoid pregnancy. Reasons linked to this number are a lack of access, medical concerns, strong side effects and difficulty of use.
What’s our founding story? We both have backgrounds at the intersection of science and business. Elena studied Medical Science and Epigenetics and later Entrepreneurship at Imperial and Paulina is a current doctor from Imperial, having studied medicine and management. Elena had a personal experience with a contraception prescription that she later found out was causing extreme side effects among women taking it and was subsequently banned in certain countries. This experience sparked the idea of innovating within the contraception space and using genetics to understand individual contraception side effect risk.
Paulina was studying medicine at the time and was actively experiencing the consequences of the trial-and-error process of contraception prescription from a clinician and healthcare perspective . Motivated by her experience as a Clinical Entrepreneur working at other startups Paulina was particularly interested in whether a digital product could help users be matched to contraceptive methods using evidence-based research. We were put in touch whilst at Imperial and together we decided to start Dama Health to solve the trial and error process of prescribing contraception.
What’s been the highlight of your journey so far and what’s been the biggest challenge?
Highlight: Conducting novel research in the field of women’s health, specifically in the genetics and contraception space. Being able to work with incredibly bright and passionate people every day and seeing the Dama team grow from strength to strength every day.
Biggest challenge: Science vs speed - women’s health and pharmacogenetics are both evolving areas, and the intersection that we are working on is quite novel and unique, which means we can’t fall back on large volumes of datasets or historic studies, eg. Radiology startups can utilise vast amounts of imaging data to create their algorithms which is very rare in the women’s health field. Consequently but also quite excitingly, we have to run and source our own research and data sets which can take longer and require more upfront resources.
What makes your founding team a winning team?
We have a unique team of scientists & doctors with business experience. But what makes us a winning team is really the shared vision and passion for bringing personalised and precision medicine solutions into clinical practice in women’s health.
How will the world be different with Dama Health in it?
We are moving the needle forward into asking the questions, conducting the research and building the products that will help women and people assigned female at birth find more effective, safe and comfortable contraceptive options suited for their bodies and current circumstances. Our team’s mission is to try and reduce the burden of unwanted side effects, adverse reactions, unwanted pregnancies, switching methods and enable better health outcomes.
In the future the insights and knowledge we are generating can help us in other areas of women’s health too, such as HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and fertility treatments where the same trial and error problem currently exists. While we started Dama Health in a high-income country setting, part of Dama’s long term mission is to expand personalised medical access and education to all women and people assigned female at birth.
What’s your edge? What makes what you’re building “the solution” in the market?
Dama Health has conducted novel research in the field of pharmacogenetics and contraception in collaboration with the University of Colorado and Illumina for Start-ups. Our proprietary genetic panel and unique genetic dataset gives us a competitive position to provide insights on targeted drug prescribing and personalised care plans and education for both the patient and the provider.
We are currently running a research study in the UK, with over 950 research participants. We have analysed over 1500 patients and 600+ genomes to date.
Where is Dama Health 10 years from now?
A day to day reality in clinical care!
Have you raised?
We’ve raised a pre-seed round in June 2022. We are raising again, so get in touch if interested to be part of our journey too.
Femtech is finally having its moment. We’re seeing more startups building in the women’s health space and finally some governments are actively trying to close the gender health gap. What have you seen (trends or startups) that makes you really excited about the future of the industry?
We’ve seen a lot of very exciting biotech companies & novel areas on the rise - from companies tackling endometriosis (EndogeneBio), gynaecology device engineering and design (Butterfly Biosciences) and non-hormonal forms of contraception (Cirqle Biomedical) which we are very excited to see hit the market and transform quality of care for millions of women worldwide.
What gaps are you seeing in women’s health that you’d like to see solved?
Here are a few:
Lack of innovation and new non-hormonal methods of contraception being developed. Unfortunately if you do not want to take or react poorly to hormones, your contraception options are far more limited, so there is a large unmet need for addressing this space and population group.
Massive Inequities in healthcare and health outcomes between different groups of people. E.g the maternal mortality rate for black and brown women (they are 4-5 times more likely to die during childbirth) in both the US and the UK compared to white women is a gap that must be tackled. How? Through healthcare system infrastructure changes, through shift in prioritisation of patient health, and through companies committed to training and educating providers to care for all patients equitably and actively reduce these care gaps (Maven clinic).
Long diagnosis time for certain reproductive conditions such as endometriosis (e.g. average 8-10 years to get a diagnosis) is still embarrassingly long and we need to do better by women by researching, investing and developing early diagnostic tools and solutions to reduce these stats.
Why I’m excited about Dama Health?
They’re taking out some of the guesswork that comes with figuring out which contraceptive method works best for women and people assigned female at birth. No more spending hours online trying to read about lots of different methods, and crossing our fingers that the method you’ve chosen won’t give you side effects. We’ll be able to answer a quick online questionnaire, do a quick genetic test and voila: here are your contraception recommendations that are least likely to cause you side effects. How cool is that 😎?
The potential of what they’re building and the research they’re doing goes way beyond contraception. Whether it’s endometriosis, PCOS, menopause etc, trial and error is a part of figuring out which treatment option works best for someone. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way ?
But let’s zoom out even further. Dama Health is working to unlock precision and personalised medicine for women. I’m pretty bullish on personalised & precision medicine - it’s the future, duh 🤷🏾♀️. But it won’t happen if 51% of the world’s population isn’t included. And our precedent in medical research (treating the male body as default) still plagues us to this day. I’ve written about this already here in detail but TL;DR we still don’t know enough about women’s bodies, or how they might react to different meds. Women experience adverse drug reactions nearly twice as much as men. Most of the meds that have been removed from the market were pulled because they posed a greater risk to women (who are still not represented enough in clinical trials. So of course I’m going to be excited about a startup actively working to make precision medicine a reality for a section of the population that has been too often ignored by healthcare. And the fact that they’re doing that by focusing on pharmacogenetics = 🥰
That’s it for this first interview! Thank you to the Dama Health team for the chat 😊
Keen to do your bit to help Dama Health with their research? You can join their UK-wide contraception research study looking at genetic differences behind side effects on hormonal contraception. The study involves a short online health questionnaire followed up with a genetic test (using your saliva) that’s shipped directly to you.
For more study information, visit their research page here or start the study using the QR code below:
Thank you for reading.
Until next time,