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Skincare and the biotech industry

Have you ever thought about what goes into the making of a spa product? In an age when consumers want to know exactly where the things they put into and onto their bodies come from, shockingly little is known about how cosmeceuticals and other skin care products are developed. Most product companies don’t develop their own products. They outsource the research and development to biotechnology companies like Nautilus Biosciences Canada and POS Bio-Sciences, who extract ingredients from natural sources and put them into functional forms. Product companies like DermTek Pharma then use those ingredients in their products.

Nautilus Biosciences Canada

When University of Prince Edward Island professor Russell Kerr founded Nautilus Biosciences Canada, in 2007, his goal was to build a global microbial library and find natural marine-derived products that could be exploited for different applications, such as human health, animal health and nutraceuticals. The biotechnology company’s focus on the discovery and development of marine-derived natural products has since expanded to include skin care and cosmetics applications. These applications now represent more than half of the business. Nautilus collaborates with multinational companies who have the capabilities to turn the marine-derived bioactives it discovers into skin care and cosmetic products. Nautilus’ role is to find the bioactives and natural products with certain attributes the multinationals are looking for, and do the applied research. “We focus on one simple part of this, the discovery of the actives from this microbial collection,” Kerr says. 

Nautilus has a very high standard of clinical proof that the actives it presents cosmetic companies with will work as advertised. The bar is being raised across in the cosmetics and cosmeceuticals industry, Kerr says. “In the past, a lot of companies got away with essentially selling snake oil,” he says. “But now, the [cosmetics] industry and our partners are very much focused on proof of efficacy and safety, and our partners are adamant about that. There are some products out there that have fantastic claims and they don’t work. But what is changing in the industry is a recognition that that has been going on for too long.” 

POS Bio-Sciences

POS Bio-Sciences specializes in developing the processes associated with developing ingredients and putting them into stable forms. The company usually works with ingredients destined for the food industry, but when it comes to cosmetics companies, there is a lot of overlap. “Typically, the client comes to us with the ingredient concept or they know that there are some human trials or application trials,” says Rich Green, Vice President of Technology. “They come to us with the concept and the reason they want to develop this ingredient.” POS helps companies develop the process, test the concept and work out the product specifications. The goal is to understand how the physical and chemical factors for processing may affect the ingredients, both the process of extracting an ingredient out of a material and the process of putting it into stable form. 

Green recalls one project that involved the company working with pomegranate seed oil which the client was putting into a cosmetic emulsion. POS has also worked with protein extracts, which Green says can also serve as emulsifiers. “[Protein extracts] can also be used as natural, biological clean label ingredients to replace chemicals or synthetics,” he says. 

As with food ingredient trends, cosmetic ingredient trends tend to emphasize clean label, natural and sustainable ingredients, and plant-based when possible, Green says. Through two of its spin-off companies, POS is positioning itself as a major natural ingredients supplier for both the food and cosmetics industries. Algarithm is a vegetarian omega-3 oil supplier, an ingredient that has a proven effectiveness in reducing wrinkles, and Lakessence, a 50-50 joint venture with POS and a Sri Lankan company called Apeiron, sources raw materials from Sri Lankan crops like ginger, clove and nutmeg. With the raw materials from Apeiron, POS can produce essential oils and oleoresins, says Ben Kelly, Business Development Manager. “We see an opportunity where in the future we may be an ingredients supplier to the cosmetic industry, because there is this move toward naturally sourced ingredients,” he says.

DermTek Pharma

In the 1990s, family-owned dermatology company DermTek Pharma launched one of the world’s first sunscreen products that protected against UVA rays. Ombrelle quickly became the most recommended sunscreen in Canada by dermatologists. The brand was eventually sold to L’Oreal in 1997. The company has gone on to develop dermatology products to treat acne, psoriasis, roscacea, dandruff, warts and eczema, as well as a cosmeceutical anti-aging product called Reversa. 

“As a whole, we’re really a medical dermatological company, but of course there was such a demand for cosmeceuticals,” says Michel Lavoie, President. “You have to innovate and you have to have the patient close to your heart. That’s really why we’re in this business. There’s always a financial aspect to it but there’s a real gratifying aspect to it as well; receiving messages from patients that we’ve helped cure their acne or their psoriasis, or their roscacea.”

DermTek Pharma employs an industrial chemist and microbiologist in-house, but its research capabilities are limited. Clinical trials are beyond its budget, but the company does sometimes conduct blind testing. More often, DermTek uses ingredients that have already been tried and tested, and have considerable data behind them. 

“We have great rapport [with dermatologists],” Lavoie says. “We really value their opinions and it’s usually their recommendations that will lead us to product development.”

More and more biotech companies are entering the cosmetics space, seeing it as an opportunity to diversify their businesses. Spa product companies will no doubt reap the benefits with higher quality ingredients and higher standards of clinical proof. 

Hermione Wilson

Hermione has a background in lifestyle and entertainment journalism. After graduating from Humber College’s journalism program, where she wrote for the school’s newspaper and various magazines, Hermione interned at TV Guide Canada, writing television reviews, and at Canadian Living, where she sampled goodies from the Test Kitchen.

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