David Koo Hjalmarsson
”As the biotech era starts to unfold, beauty products will become more sustainable and effective”
On how microorganisms can facilitate a transition to a more innovative beauty industry
17 May 2022

Two years ago, entrepreneur Koo Hjalmarsson started working on what would become Tiny Associates, a new breed of skincare. 

— We brought with us the latest science along with what is technically possible to achieve. This is certainly not to say that it’s the most high-tech skincare on the market. What we mean instead, is that we have taken a big step in a much more progressive direction driven by biotechnology. This proposition is in stark contrast to the current ’Natural’ skincare segment, but it can also be a sensible evolution of that segment. In North America however, the discussion is much more centered around the word ’Clean’, which somehow incorporates what we in Europe mean with Natural. And same there, biotech ingredients will likely help catapult ’Clean 2.0’, so to speak, he suggests.

Why do you think biotechnology will play such a big role in the future of sustainable beauty?

— Well firstly, it’s a necessity. The wider environmental crisis demands it, and so do conscious consumers. The use of biotechnology allows the industrial-scale production of cosmetics ingredients with a much lower environmental impact, and not to mention safer as well as of higher quality, than obtaining the same ingredients from plants or from the petroleum industry. In essence, these microorganisms are ’biofactories’ that can be harnessed to produce ingredients in large amounts that may be readily purified, thus reducing the amounts of energy, water, and other resources it takes to obtain the pure ingredient, says Koo Hjalmarsson. He continues:

— But the main reason is due to its ’concept-neutrality’. Biotech ingredients has the potential to be widely adopted by cosmetics brands regardless of their concept and legacy. 

— You see, brands have invested significantly into their market positioning and find re-calibration of positioning risky. But biotech ingredients offer a less risky re-calibration of concept and communication. Let me elaborate a bit: the natural skincare segment, which is still growing, has carved out a strong market position. They have successfully done so by letting consumers assume that ’natural’ equates to sustainability and beneficial and safer to the skin. An assumption completely divorced from reality. Recalibrating too much from a concept which is in demand and growing, will be evaluated by natural brands as too risky. Consumers may also perceive it as illegitimate. But framing biotech ingredients as ’nature-identical ingredients’ or ’lab-grown natural ingredients’ should be very attractive to the natural skincare segment. Although biotechnology enables much more opportunities than creating nature-identical molecules, this is a low-hanging fruit that can enable biotechnology to become more widely adopted. And, subsequently, unleash its full potential.

David Koo Hjalmarsson.

Biotechnology has been around for a while, why are we just now really talking about it?

— Well, I think there are multiple reasons. But firstly, as you point out, biotech-derived ingredients is nothing new. Cosmetics companies have been using them for long. Take Hyaluronic Acid for example, a staple cosmetics ingredient, is often biotechnologically made. Shiseido pioneered the biotechnologically made Hyaluronic Acid in the nineties. But back to the question, I think that the Natural Skincare segment has had a lot to do with the somewhat delayed rollout of biotech. The Natural Skincare segment has to a large extent created a narrative around buzzwords such as ’clean’ and ’natural’, which have led to portraying synthetic ingredients — including biotech — as dirty. In my opinion, this is also to a certain degree linked to the characteristics of the industry in general. The low barrier to entry is leading to a large influx of indie brands oftentimes led by marketers, not formulators. And natural skincare is easy to make and offers a persuasive narrative. Natural skincare has become the bread and butter of contract manufacturers, which have had an impact on needed knowledge and capabilities to formulate others sorts of products. In a way, the natural skincare segment put a wet blanket on innovation, says Koo Hjalmarsson, adding,

— The reason for why we are hearing about it now is linked to lower costs of biotech, a crowded natural skincare segment ready to re-invent itself, biotech innovation in other consumer sectors such as food. The impossible burger is one such example that helps to shape consumer perception; synthetic leather is another. Investors – with investments into biotech beauty – are certainly also helping in instilling some certainty around the future of biotech.

What do you mean when saying that ’the natural skincare segment put a wet blanket on innovation’?

— I mean that comparatively to other areas, natural skincare offers fewer innovation avenues. Resources that could have been allocated to other areas such as biotechnology have instead gone to the natural skincare segment. There is so much potential and opportunities within the realm of biotechnology that has yet to be explored. At some point, performance will start to do drive adoption, not sustainability. One exciting company to follow is Arcaea, a spinout from Ginkgo Bioworks, with a USD78 million Series A round. Arcaea is looking to capture the full potential of biotechnology, by not necessarily focusing on nature-identical molecules, but by creating superior — yet to be imagined — molecules. 

— In other words, as the biotech era starts to unfold, beauty products will become more sustainable and effective. Exciting times are ahead of us, Koo Hjalmarsson concludes.