A Guide on How to Make an Impactful Synbio Cosmetics Startup

Do you think your innovation can impact the beauty industry? Then, this brief guide may help you shape your idea for impact and hopefully integrate it successfully into a consumer brand!
Biomanufacturing, Chemicals & Materials
Konstantinos Vavitsas, PhD
April 23, 2024

Last month, Katia Tarasava wrote a fascinating article on how synthetic biology impacts the cosmetics industry, mentioning several successful innovators and initiatives. The cosmetics industry is an area where synthetic biology can really leave a mark fairly quickly. Consumers desire the best products, and they care about where the ingredients are sourced and what the environmental impact of their cosmetics is. It’s an industry where the big players understand and look for innovation and are keen to adopt new technologies.

The beauty industry will be one of the first areas where many synbio startups will divert their products, either as a primary focus or as an intermediate, before their more ambitious technologies mature enough for the market. After speaking with several people from the industry, I tried to list a brief guide of how a synbio idea can enter the beauty sector.

Knowing the challenges and how to proceed efficiently is the key to any startup. [DALL-E]

Identify the Challenge and Build a Solution

The first question most startup founders need to answer is what problem their technology is solving. And it needs to be a real problem that has a measurable impact on the industry. A new fragrance is useless if the producers can’t incorporate it into the product. A biobased alternative to a rare and expensive compound may not have market value if the industry is phasing out this molecule. 

The good news is the cosmetics industry faces a lot of challenges that synthetic biology can help with. “Synthetic biology startups have significant opportunities in developing new bioactive ingredients, bio-based raw materials, personalized cosmetics, and bio-fermentation technology,” Xiwen Qing, Director at Plug and Play China accelerator, told me. “These areas can meet the market demand for efficient, eco-friendly, and customized products.”

Amy Trejo, Director of Responsible Materials Innovation, Beauty Care at P&G, emphasizes the need for new materials or solutions to integrate with the existing products. “Don’t come to us with something hypothetical; come to us with data,” she said when I asked her what would be her advice to startups that would like to collaborate or partner with P&G. Trejo also highlighted the value of solutions that can be applied in a wide variety of products and spaces. 

Moreover, innovation can target industry-wide problems that aren’t a novel compound or a new way to produce existing molecules in an environmentally friendly way. “Low penetration of new products - how to get the active compounds into the skin - is a significant industry challenge,” Yongbo Lu, VP at BioRegen Med, said. BioRegen Med is a Chinese startup offering in vitro high throughput screening for new compounds using a platform that reconstructs in vitro human skin. Their technology is primarily aimed at medical applications, but the company branched out to the cosmetics sector and serves big players in the field, such as P&G and Unilever. The company is a good example of how a company may enter the cosmetics market as a side activity, having started as a biomedical company.

An image that illustrates the process of transforming natural products into skincare products, which then reach the consumer. The image shows a progression from harvesting natural ingredients, through their processing in a laboratory, to the final consumer application at home. [DALL-E]

Both Qing and Lu highlight the large interest the Chinese biotech ecosystem displays for biotechnology uses in cosmetics. “According to data from iiMedia Research, the Chinese cosmetics market size is expected to reach 579.1 billion yuan by 2025”, Qing noted. “Policy support also provides favorable conditions for the development of synthetic biology in the cosmetics industry.”

Find the Right Partners at the Right Time

Creating a product that performs well and serves a defined need is a requirement for success, but not enough to penetrate and establish itself in the market. Although the cosmetics industry contains a multitude of brands and products, it is dominated by a few big players who have the network, distribution, marketing, and regulatory capabilities to integrate a new product. Therefore, it is very likely that startups will seek input and partnerships with those big players early on. 

P&G actively seeks new technologies and solutions to adopt and monitors innovation in the academic and startup ecosystems. Trejo describes a good partner as someone who “understands the needs of P&G and that  the product development times are long, is patient, and recognizes the product scales that we are looking for.”

Finding and engaging with a big player early on might be a sensible thing to do. But there might be another way: create your own brand! K18Hair did just that and launched a product that repairs hair at a molecular level. “We studied the keratin proteome for ten years and discovered a peptide that could reconnect the broken chemical bonds that are responsible for the strength and elasticity of your hair,” Suveen Sahib, founder and CEO of K18Hair, recounts. The company launched its own product, K18PEPTIDE™, and started marketing it directly to beauty salons and hair stylists. Their new product, AirWash™, is a dry shampoo that eliminates odors from hair. K18Hair was recently acquired by Unilever for an undisclosed amount. In their case, it seems like the brand's success made the startup appealing, more than if they had stuck to product development and just delivered a technically excellent but unknown haircare solution.

Don’t Forget the Consumer

Social media influencers can be an integral part of the startup strategy for successful commercialization. [DALL-E]

But how easy is it to make a direct-to-consumer product? “On the one hand, it might seem easy for almost anyone to create a beauty brand. They appear seemingly every day on Instagram and TikTok. On the other hand, creating category-defining brands is very challenging and time-intensive,” Sahib told me. “We prioritized and focused on teaching stylists and consumers about the biology of hair. We learned that stylists and consumers are hungry for science education, so that is a very important part of what we do.”

Lu echoes this sentiment. “Tech-wise, it is not difficult to make a synbio cosmetic. The challenge is that we have to sell to consumers,” he said. “Once the product is finished, we need to invest a lot in promotion, engaging Key Opinion Leaders, social media platforms…”

Cosmetics need to hit the right balance of performance, appeal, and visibility. Even though many startups will not engage directly with consumers, they need to know how their product will be perceived and build a powerful story that supports their innovation. 

The cosmetics industry can become an experimental playhouse where synbio companies can create brands, provide compounds, and introduce themselves to the general public. The beauty industry is expected to grow globally, so I hope to see many more startups in the next few years, as well as a new generation of synbio ambassadors that combine impact with playfulness and science with successful branding.

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