While studying at the Harvard Affiliated Center at Sofia University, Valentina Milanova came up with the idea of founding a feminine hygiene and health research initiative to help women safely and effectively deal with painful periods.
“There wasn’t an ‘aha moment’ for my decision to become an entrepreneur. By researching and going deeper into the topic of female healthcare, I realized how monopolized the tampon industry is. I was negatively taken aback by the lack of clinical trials for the products for vaginal health and of testing on how different products affect the vaginal microbiome. These injustices motivated me to found a company that would introduce ethical innovation in the field of gynecological health,” Valentina explains as we are strolling along one of the city parks in Sofia.
In the beginning, Daye, which is now a gynecological health startup that creates CBD tampons and other products and services for vaginal treatment, was not meant to be a company but rather an NGO-type of research organization. “Then, it turned out that the structure of a startup would allow us to raise funding fastest in order to do our first clinical trials and start commercializing our products,” Valentina Milanova points out.
Today, Daye is used by more than 60K women and has raised over $20M from notable health-focused VCs and companies including Hambro Perks, Simplyhealth, MassMutual Ventures,and Khosla Ventures. Daye has also attracted the support of angels such as Martin Varsavsky – founder of the largest chain of fertility clinics in the world, Anne Wojcicki – founder of 23andMe, and the CMO of Spotify.
Recently, the feminine health startup raised an $11.5M Series A round and revealed plans to launch a new at-home vaginal microbiome screening test to make vaginal health testing more painless and convenient.
Being a female founder with no medical or engineering background, who develops femtech products, Valentina Milanova is by no means unfamiliar with the feeling of being an outlier in the traditional startup world.
I met with her while she was in Sofia, working from betahaus, where Daye’s Bulgarian team is located, to find out:
- What it means to be the epitome of a taboo-breaking founder
- What is the science behind CBD-infused tampons
- Why does founder-to-founder support matter so much?
- How does the future of genealogical health look like?
The science behind CBD tampons
I couldn’t help but ask Valentina how it occurred to her that coating tampons with CBD would be the answer to menstrual pain.
“We don’t only use CBD, but the full spectrum of cannabinoids,” she corrects me, adding that besides CBD, the extraction of Daye includes CBG, CBN, and CBC. “I started reading more about the use cases of industrial hemp, which is the plant from which CBD is extracted, while I was studying at the Harvard Affiliated Center for Economic Strategy and Competitiveness at Sofia University.
“Industrial hemp was one of the biggest industries in Bulgaria before communism and our country was the biggest exporter of industrial hemp in Europe. This all changed with the introduction of legal changes which prohibited both the production and the processing of industrial hemp in terms that equalized it with marijuana. Nowadays, Romania, which has more liberal policies toward the plant, has made industrial hemp its fourth biggest industry, while Bulgaria is losing on this economic opportunity,” Milanova explains.
She found it interesting that industrial hemp has two main properties – its extracts act as a pain reliever while its fiber is super absorbent. “These two properties stuck in my mind and as you can tell, that is how the idea of our pain-relieving tampon was born,” Valentina says.
The stigma around industrial hemp comes from the fact that it is often associated with and mistaken for its sister plant – cannabis. The main difference between the two is the existence and the ratio of THC, or the substance that gives people the feeling of being high. Industrial hemp usually contains as little as 0.2% THC which can be removed from the final extract. Another difference is that, unlike weed, industrial hemp contains more cannabinoids, which do not have any psychotropic effects. But because the two plants look very much alike, the production of industrial hemp was prohibited in Bulgaria around the same time marijuana was made illegal.
Daye does not perform CBD extraction in-house. Ever since the beginning, the startup has partnered with the Bulgarian company for production, processing, and research of cannabinoids PBD Global.
The early days of Daye: at-home prototyping and support from mentors
“Everything happened <With a Little Help from My Friends> as the Beatles say,” Valentina jokes. “I was not shy to ask people for help. One of my friends helped me create the first prototypes of the tampon by making 3D-printed molds for tampons. I used my LinkedIn network to look for advice from clinical trial experts. Many of my Bulgarian friends entrepreneurs, such as Svilen Rangelov from Dronamics, have helped me understand how to build manufacturing and engineering teams,” she shares.
“I wouldn’t say that I have one main mentor but I do have a large group of contacts due to the fact that I have worked and studied in many different places. Being a very curious person, I have built a network of people with different fields of expertise to whom I can talk if I have specific needs and questions. This is another thing that I have learned in my entrepreneurial journey so far – you shouldn’t be scared or shy to ask others for help. For example, Dr. Dimitar Georgiev – the person who helped us do our first clinical trials in Bulgaria, agreed to meet me and explain everything about clinical trials after I simply messaged him over LinkedIn,” Valentina remembers.
Right now, Daye has a clinical advisory board that consists of 27 doctors and female health specialists. The startup did human clinical trials at the Sofia Institute for Medical Research and at the Liverpool Women’s Hospital which is the biggest hospital for gynecological health in Europe.
In parallel to the human clinical trials, Valentina and her team did testing on animals in order to ensure that their products are safe for use in the long terms. They tested Daye’s cannabinoids extract on mice and their experiment showed that the cannabinoids stopped their uterus contractions, which cause menstrual cramps. They also did tests to show that Daye’s CBD tampons did not negatively affect the vaginal microbiome and did not cause toxicity in any of the intestinal systems or the liver. All of these tests were the most expensive and complex components of the early-stage development of Daye.
Then came the first early-day challenges. Without a single day of manufacturing background, Valentina had to set up a whole manufacturing process for the in-house production of the CBD tampons. Even though she tried to partner with some of the tampon manufacturing companies, none of them were interested in the idea of a pain-relieving tampon. This left her with no choice but to get her hands dirty and open a factory. Now, she is glad that the circumstances developed in this direction because in-house production allows Daye to innovate faster and more ethically than it would by partnering with a manufacturing company.
“My advice for people who are just embarking on their entrepreneurial journeys is to do everything step by step and avoid thinking about their perfect future product. This end vision will always seem too far and too far of a reach. Just ask yourself what’s the next small thing you can do that will push you forward,” she highlights.
What does a pitch for a startup producing CBD tampons startup sound like?
“I heard that your products are great, not that I have used them myself,” is something that Valentina often hears from men.
“There is no way I can pitch Daye without making the male investors in the room feel uncomfortable, and this is a huge setback for us. Before raising the first seed round of Daye, I had to talk with more than 180 investors. And if you think this is a lot, believe me, it is not. In order to raise our latest Series A, I had to talk with more than 400 funds. Fundraising for me feels like a marathon, in which I have to sprint in every phase.”
Valentina shares some quite gloomy statistics – 0.004% of venture capital and less than 2% of public funding goes to gynecological health, despite the fact that 1 out of every 3 women suffers a chronic gynecological illness in their lifetime. Moreover, only 1% of venture capital goes to female founders.
The gender funding gap is large when it comes to scientific research as well. Even though 19% of males experience erectile dysfunction and 90% of women experience menstrual pain, the funding for scientific research on erectile dysfunction is five times more that the funding that goes to research for female health.
“Venture capital is not the ideal mechanism, but with all of its disadvantages, it is the fastest way through which we can realize our vision for Daye,” Valentina explains.
The telemedical gynecological health platform of Daye
After raising the latest funding, Daye’s growth will focus on three main pillars. The startup will use the investment to enter the US market, to develop an entire platform for genealogical health which includes vaginal microbiome screenings and sexually transmitted diseases screenings. In addition, Daye will strive to achieve a clinical milestone in the field of at-home HTV (human papillomavirus) tests.
The company plans to commercialize a vaginal microbiome screening kit which would allow women to replace the need for pap smear procedures. Daye has already done small-scale tests to show that its tampons can detect the existence of HPV and will now go about doing more tests on a larger scale.
“The HPV testing would be done using a PCR methodology. After using Daye CBD tampons, the client would send them back to a Daye laboratory where the team would extract the DNA and search for infections and pathogens which are associated with vaginal infections and fertility complications. In order to do that, we will partner with laboratories that have PCR technologies. The timing is favorable for us because now laboratories, which acquired the technology due to COVID-19, do not use it at its full capacity anymore,” Valentina shares.
“It is a very cowboyish industry, and we receive a lot of skepticism. But on the other hand, I like the fact that there is a rising criticism toward products for genealogical heath. This is the only way to show that many of the existing products are not completely safe and lack initial tests. The purpose of Daye is not to reinforce negative statistics but to give women one new day, a beginning in gynecological health,” Valentina concludes.