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When Beauty Meets Biotech

By: Marie Alice Dibon
Posted: September 3, 2009, from the September 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

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In the early 2000s, I was working as a science communications consultant with a large beauty corporation while also working on business development with young French biotech companies—specifically, helping them connect with new partners and clients in the U.S.

One such company, DBV, had developed and patented state-of-the-art delivery technology based on an especially elegant patch delivery system for powdered ingredients, using only electrostatic/electric forces to hold any kind of active ingredient. It sounded like a good idea at the time, and indeed it was. And as a partnership developed between DBV and its U.S. partner, I and the companies I worked with found ourselves crossing the beauty line more and more often. By 2008, it was clear that there was great potential in actively seeking partnerships and technologies that could be developed for the beauty industry. The benefits for both sides of the equation were undeniable. For beauty companies, there was an advantage in gaining technologies uniquely sourced and developed for them, and, for biotechs, the advantage of working with beauty companies is, simply, that it offers one avenue toward faster financial realization of a technology (see “Exploring Outsourcing—Challenges and Opportunities” in the June 2009 issue of GCI magazine or at www.GCImagazine.com). The beauty industry and its consumers gain a higher level of science in the products. This is a definite raising of the bar in terms of efficacy, as many of these biotech technologies come to a beauty company with clinical trials, and the overall standards for toxicity and efficacy testing are simply higher than those practiced in the beauty industry as a whole.

The Hurdles

To anyone involved in this evolution for the past few years, it is evident that there are many hurdles and stumbling blocks toward successful partnerships and the merging of biotech and beauty. These are very different industries, with different expectations in terms of deal terms, return on investment and timeline, practices and approaches to science. In short, very different cultures. To that end, the way both industries deal with each other is in its infancy, yet, there is no question that the future of the beauty industry lies, at least in part, with biotech—as it will mean higher standards of efficacy, toxicity and research, and the way for the beauty industry to elevate consumer trust through real technological breakthroughs and advances. The relationship between biotech and beauty poses communication and structural challenges, but the results of overcoming these challenges will be well worth the effort. As with any innovation strategy, one cannot expect the status quo to be enough or to even be a viable option. Survival is at stake.

Jean-Francois Biry, CEO of DBV, knows that not every biotech company will be open to this. “When I came onboard, I was coming from the entrepreneur side of pharma, and my former company had signed deals with dermo-cosmetological companies. So, for me, taking the leap was easy. It was different for the starting team, that was essentially constituted by scientists. They just never thought in terms of consumer applications.”

One of the most frustrating aspects of building a working relationship between biotech and the beauty industry is the unilateralism of the relationship. “We are asked to provide a lot of information, but we hear very little in return. We get virtually no feedback,” says Biry. “That is a fundamental difference with the dealings we are used to having with pharma, where partners are really treated as equals, no matter what their size. The challenge in this [new biotech/beauty] relationship is for everyone to level with their counterparts, understand that there is a rupture in culture but also in modus operandi. Most biotechs won’t know how to do that, so it will work only if there is, inside the beauty company, a pertinent project manager understanding those differences.” This is the key to finding interesting projects in biotech that can potentially become a differentiation point from a beauty company’s competition—particularly as a brand owner.