Innovating the £27bn industry that hasn’t changed for 80 years

Posted on 7 Feb 2019 by Maddy White

The global femcare industry is worth £27bn. Despite this, innovation in the industry is glacial. One invention plans to be the first market disruptor in over 80 years, and it is long overdue.

Ewa Radziwon, product development lead, and Thang Vo-Ta, co-founder & CEO - image courtesy of Callaly.
Ewa Radziwon, product development lead, and Thang Vo-Ta, co-founder & CEO – image courtesy of Callaly.

“I realise it is ironic that I am a man, but I have two daughters and so this is extremely important to me,” Thang Vo-Ta, founder and CEO of Callaly, tells me in their West Hampstead HQ.

“We believe in innovation that improves people’s lives, and there hasn’t been any innovation in the femcare market for decades, nothing significant since tampons were invented in the 1930s,” he adds.

For a market predicted to rise to £31bn by 2020 and one that is relatively untouched, surely it is about time something disrupted and challenged the status quo.

Introducing the ‘Tampon 2.0’

Callaly believe that its award-winning invention is the next global innovation in femcare. The B-Corp certified business, design, manufacture and distribute its product in the UK. It is a member of the Made in Britain campaign, and it also received £1m in funding from Innovate UK last November. What is their invention? The Tampliner. A cross between a tampon and a mini-liner, both made from organic cotton.

“People are calling it the ‘Tampon 2.0’” Vo-Ta says. “But actually, when someone says ‘this product has changed my life’, and when you receive that feedback on a regular basis, that’s when we knew we had something that could transform the market.”

Vo-Ta worked in finance prior to co-founding Callaly, though he says it “never quenched my thirst, I wanted to be an entrepreneur.” He then spent ten years working in property development. In one of the offices he was working in, he befriended one of the tenants, Alex Hooi, his now co-founder and the chief medical officer at Callaly.

Feedback has been positive for the product - image courtesy of Callaly. Tampliner
Feedback has been positive for the product – image courtesy of Callaly.

“Alex had been a gynecologist in the NHS for decades when we met. He had many women telling him of their issues surrounding different types of menstrual products over the years.”

Vo-Ta continues, “It occurred to Alex to combine current products on the market, to take the pros and try to remove the cons of them, and so he made some prototypes. We assumed it must have already been invented and patented by one of the market leaders. But, we took a chance and decided to see if we could patent it.”

He explains, “Though to make the product a reality, I went to the London College of Fashion. I asked them, ‘Who is the most talented and gifted garment technologist that you have?’ They suggested Ewa Radziwon, our now product development lead. I managed to convince her, some stranger, to help us advance our product. She definitely thought we were crazy, but also that we had something great.”

The biggest challenge

Vo-Ta explained that a seven figure sum has been spent on patents at present, with patents secured in 30 countries, covering 85% of the world.

However that has not been the biggest challenge. He says the major hurdle they faced, and still do, is that femcare is a “taboo topic”, adding, “No one really wants to talk about menstruation products, they would much rather talk about wine or food.” This is despite around half of the population having periods at some point in their lives.

He explains, “If you ask women how many of them are happy with their current products, 70% say yes. But, if you also ask them how many of them use multiple products at the same time, 70% of them also say yes. Why should you need to use two different products at the same time, when they are supposed to do the same thing?”

The Tampliner combines current products on the market.
The Tampliner combines current products on the market – image courtesy of Callaly.

The Tampliner is 95% biodegradable in five years or less, and the company is undertaking advanced studies to see how that compares to other products.

In contrast, the majority of tampons sold in the US (the biggest market) and UK are with plastic applicators, which aren’t biodegradable.

Vo-Ta says, “It is not just another product improvement, it is a completely new invention. Last year we stealth launched, to test sales of our product, and this year we are officially launching it. We expect to sell a minimum of five million Tampliners in 2019.”

Akeel Khan, engineering manager at Callaly, explains that they are now looking at the next steps in order to take the product to very high volume manufacture.

“Our process at the moment is fairly low volume, we can make 3-4,000 products a week. We have a semi-automatic process in development, which we have finalised the design and software of the machine for. It will be able to make almost 10,000 products a day.”

A fully automatic process could see production reach 1,200 Tampliners made an hour, something the team are confident could be achieved. Khan adds, “With semi-automation, we are reducing the cost to one-fourth of what it is now. If we invest in full automation, then the cost could be one-seventh of what it is currently.”

“Vo-Ta concludes, “The most important thing is to continue to listen to unfiltered feedback from users. Although we’ve already sold tens of thousands and tested thousands more before that, it’s critical to always act and improve upon real feedback from buyers.”

Callaly has also supplied tens of thousands of period products to charities including Bloody Good Period, The Red Box Project, Street Cramps, Solace Women’s Aid and Southall Black Sisters.