Sextech startups: What is the future of sex?


Bryony Cole, entrepreneur and founder of the Future of Sex podcast, speaking at startups Hackathon

Bryony Cole, entrepreneur and founder of the Future of Sex podcast.

Featured | Tech

By Momoko Metham

Melbourne recently held Australia’s first Sextech Hackathon of the decade, hosted by podcaster and entrepreneur Bryony Cole and Gavin Heaton, founder of Disruptors Co, to support sex-related startups. 

Fintech, edtech, proptech and healthtech you might have heard of, but sextech – what on earth is that? Truth is, it’s exactly what you think it is – sex technology.

Sextech is any technology that is designed to enhance the human sexual experience and sexuality.

“Often when people think sextech, they just think sex, but sexuality really encompasses everything from orgasms and pleasure and relationships to education, health, crimes, assault reporting, medicine and gender identity,” said Cole.

Sextech goes beyond the stereotype of bright-coloured garish sex toys to cover everything from dental dams and vegan condoms to chat bots for sexual assault reporting and sex therapy apps.

“A lot of the sextech products don’t look super sexual – they’re not what we think of in our mind as this triple x type, neon, sleazy product,” said Cole.

The two-day Hackathon gave 57 participants the opportunity to workshop their sextech product ideas into prototypes under the guidance of a mentor, before pitching their idea to a panel of judges.

The 2020 Sextech Hackathon hosted at Creative Cubes, South Melbourne.

As people become more open to talking about sex, the sextech industry is experiencing phenomenal growth, with a AU$45 billion worth as of 2020.

The sexual wellness industry is forecasted to hit AU$182 billion by 2026, slowly rising up to the ranks of the beauty industry which is currently worth AU$791 billion.

Cole credits the rise in sextech to alternative wellness startups such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and vice industries such as the cannabis industry going mainstream.

“We’ve seen this rise in sexual wellness, particularly in women, where sexual pleasure is no longer being presented as something that’s strange, weird or funny, which was typical in the 90s,” said Cole.

Another shocking figure? Women made up 90 per cent of participants in this year’s Sextech Hackathon, despite the technology industry and hackathons being typically male-dominated areas.

Cole said Melbourne “is the best place to be when looking for diverse, female-driven businesses and experts to lead critical conversations and education about sexual health and intimacy to shape global conversations.”

The Hackathon saw participants from many minority groups, including queer, transgender and people with a disability groups pitch their sextech ideas.

Popular female-led sextech startups include MysteryVibe, Maude, Dame Products, Lovability and Lioness.

Last year, Lioness was controversially asked by Samsung to remove their product from a display at a women’s tech event, revealing how the stigma surrounding sex is still quite apparent.

“Sextech is the most interesting area of technology no one is talking about. No one’s talking about it because it’s so taboo – sex is still so stigmatised wherever we go in the world and yet has such a meaningful impact on our lives, it’s a big part of our human experience and how it intersects with technology,” said Cole.

Many sextech startups face significant barriers when trying to enter the industry as they are grouped under the ‘adult’ category, rather than as ‘wellbeing’ products.

Such barriers include sourcing funding for a topic that investors consider “taboo” and advertising on social media platforms which censor sextech products.

Cole also revealed the difficulties for startups to source manufacturers who are willing to create sextech, finding a payment processor which won’t categorise sextech into the adult category and finding partners to work with.

Cole spoke of the difficulty in even finding a location to host the Sextech Hackathon, revealing that she had been  “turned away form a number of venues because they didn’t understand what we were doing or viewed it as too taboo and too risky.”

At the last minute, Cole was able to partner with Creative Cubes South Melbourne, which was the only location willing to host the hackathon.

“Creative Cubes has been such a supporter of the sextech industry in Melbourne and its’s made a huge difference,” she said.

The Sextech Hackathon fosters a hub of innovative ideas, seeking to expand Australia’s sextech landscape, from accessibility for differently abled bodies to sustainable condoms.

“We are seeing amazing teams and solid products emerging from our global hackathon program and want to provide more access to people who are interested in joining the industry,” said Cole.

The Hackathon has attracted sextech-heads globally, having been hosted in Singapore, Copenhagen and New York, with plans for more cities underway.

“You really need power in numbers in this industry. Big part of doing the hackathon here is developing this local ecosystem. That’s the sort of infrastructure you need to start an industry,” said Cole.

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