- A growing market ripe for disruption
- AI-powered robots and apps that enhance intimacy
- Redefining what pleasure toys should look like
- A high-tech solution for long-distance relationships
- Investing in sextech startups can be lucrative
- Making sure that people stay romantically engaged
Sex, or a lack of it, plays an important role in people’s lives. It’s essential to reproduction and represents an intimate experience that, among other things, strengthens relationships, boosts your mood, and improves sleep. The public notion of physical intimacy, however, is mostly shaped by male sexual pleasure, while female sensuality still faces a social stigma. This approach guides not only how we talk about these topics, but also how companies design and treat sex-related products.
However, things are changing, as the current cultural climate, influenced by female-led social movements and the pro-sexual health attitudes of young generations, positions women’s pleasure as a necessity, not a luxury. Now, technology is used to enhance intimacy and pleasure for all genders, giving rise to the sextech industry, which is dominated by smartphone apps, innovative gadgets, artificial intelligence (AI), and robots. And as the appeal of these tech-based solutions increases, entrepreneurs and investors are entering the market, hoping to cash in on new trends.
A growing market ripe for disruption
The global sexual wellness market is set to reach revenue of $39 billion by 2024, driven by the demand for sex toys and various other physical and digital products. Andrea Barrica, the CEO of the online sex education platform O.school, says that Amazon alone sells $800 million worth of sexual wellness items each year, featuring around 60,000 pleasure products. However, the industry achieved these impressive figures not because of the ease of online sales, but rather in spite of the difficulties it faces in the digital arena.
Amazon, for example, makes it hard to find certain adult products. Stephanie Alys, the chief pleasure officer at MysteryVibe, a British manufacturer of sex toys, says that shoppers “who want to search for vibrators or other pleasure products are forced to really dig on Amazon to find them”. What’s more, Facebook and Google restrict ads for sex-related items and often block them from appearing. That’s why half of all sales in the sextech industry are still made at thousands of small local shops, and the market is yet to witness the emergence of major international retailers in this sector.
Traditional investors typically shun sextech startups, but things are changing as more entrepreneurs become aware of the potential of this profitable and overlooked market. The angel investor Laura Behrens Wu says that investing in sextech is like investing in any other healthcare market. Those who overlook its potential “just because it makes some people uncomfortable, may regret it in five years”, she notes. Other investors, such as Cyan Banister from the Founders Fund, a venture capital firm, agree. She claims that some sex toys are increasingly embraced even by major retailers such as Walgreens and Walmart, which motivates other startups to develop new, technologically advanced products.
AI-powered robots and apps that enhance intimacy
Some people, however, want more than just regular sex toys. Human-like sex robots, known as sexbots, are growing in popularity. Let’s take Harmony as an example, developed by the US-based company Realbotix. With a silicone body and an AI-powered brain, ‘she’ is more than just a sexbot and far from ‘dumb.’ As a matter of fact, it can communicate with users and answer questions. But for those that can’t afford the Harmony sexbot, they can just download the Harmony app and interact with an AI-powered chatbot in the form of a customisable 3D avatar. Though exciting, there are concerns that human-robot relations might prevent individuals from forming healthy human relationships. But Matt McMullen, the CEO of Realbotix, disagrees. He thinks that sexbots may not be for everyone, but there are people who struggle with human relationships, and as he argues, “if the AI is making a person feel love, and they really feel it, does it matter if it's real or not?”
The London-based firm Desire Technologies decided to take a different path. Instead of replacing humans, it uses AI to enhance intimacy in relationships. The Desire app analyses communication between partners, and then suggests intimate challenges and games that help couples stay erotically engaged. The idea is to use gamification to motivate people to create romantic memories despite the stress and anxiety of their daily lives. And with millennials having less sex than any previous generation, the mission of Desire Technologies is increasingly relevant.
Redefining what pleasure toys should look like
Apart from sexbots and games, startups are also redesigning pleasure devices. Unbound, a New York-based sexual wellness company, has moved away from phallic-shaped toys towards genderless and minimalist products that wouldn’t look out of place on a bedside table. One of its most popular products is Squish, a soft, egg-shaped device that users can squeeze to increase the vibration. Other popular vibrators include the microphone-shaped Ollie and the discus-shaped Bean. And it appears that these products have been quite successful, as the company reported revenue of $4 million dollars in 2018.
The Swedish brand Lelo, founded in 2002, is also developing gender-neutral devices. Its vibrator, named Lily, is loved by many customers for its minimalist look, typical of the Scandinavian design philosophy. The company’s brand manager, Stu Nugent, says that they wanted “to produce something that was genderless or versatile and didn't dictate how it was used”. Recently, Lelo also launched Sona, an innovative product that stimulates the body using low frequency sound waves.
A high-tech solution for long-distance relationships
But the sextech industry isn’t only focused on hardware. OhMiBod, an American producer of intimate toys, has developed an innovation for couples in long-distance relationships that consists of both hardware and software. Its recent release is an app for the Apple Watch that monitors a person’s pulse. As the heart rate of one partner increases, so does the vibration of the OhMiBod vibrator held by the other person. A smartphone app connects to the massager via Bluetooth and grants the far-away partner control over the device. The company also plans to enable users to control pleasure products using Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa. This hands-free and voice-based interaction is supposed to increase intimacy between partners.
Investing in sextech startups can be lucrative
These examples illustrate that while traditional investors might still shy away from sextech startups, those who venture into this emerging industry can earn a hefty profit. For instance, the backers of the German sex toy e-commerce company Amorelie achieved great returns on their investment, as the company was valued at $38 million when the mass media firm ProSiebenSat bought the three-year-old startup. And Telmos Capital, a London-based private equity investor group, bought a majority stake in the British adult toys and sexy lingerie firm Lovehoney that boasted more than $126 million in sales in 2017. And sexual health technology startups that can’t find investors can always try their luck on crowdfunding platforms. OhMiBod, for instance, used crowdfunding to finance the development of its smartphone app.
Making sure that people stay romantically engaged
Fuelled by social movements and pro-sexual health attitudes of younger generations, the pleasure revolution is well under way. More and more people openly discuss their sexuality, and this has boosted the growth of the sexual wellness industry. Female designers and sextech startups develop intimate products that are suitable for women, while cutting-edge technologies open new frontiers in the way we explore and satisfy our desires. Clearly, adult toys can’t replace the value of human-to-human relationships, but that shouldn’t be their goal, either. They can enhance intimacy and ensure that people stay romantically engaged well past the first butterflies in their stomach.