What Lab-Engineered ‘Naturals’ Mean for the Beauty Industry

If a naturally occurring molecule is replicated in a lab, is it still natural?
Who knows?
But companies like Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston and Amyris in California are making them, and industry experts contend their increasingly widespread availability could transform the ingredient-sourcing process for beauty companies. Ginkgo has a partnership with flavors and fragrance house Robertet. And Amyris, in addition to bioengineering ingredients for outside beauty companies, has its own brand — Biossance — which uses lab-created squalane as the core ingredient in its formulations.
The brand's tagline is: Biology by nature, human by design.
Biossance's squalane is molecularly identical to the naturally occurring molecule, which can be found in shark liver or olives. It just happens to be made in a lab in Berkeley, Calif., from a process that feeds sugar to yeast to brew an endless supply — no fishing or picking required.
"Because we handle the production of it all the way through, our squalane is almost 100 percent pure," said Caroline Hadfield, president of Biossance. She joined Amyris as a senior vice president in 2015 to oversee the lab's consumer products division after a career that spanned LVMH, Sephora and The Body Shop. "There's no waxes, there's no ingredients being absorbed from the environment."
The ingredient is said to help with the skin's moisture levels, and has long been featured in high-end beauty formulations.
Biossance refers to itself as "clean clinical," according to Hadfield. "What we've tried to demonstrate is you don't need to have a huge amount of ingredients in one formulation, and there are a lot of plant-based ingredients that perform as well as a petroleum-chemical synthetic ingredient," she said.
There are a number of reasons some companies have migrated toward lab-engineered naturals. For one, it can provide alternatives for certain synthetic ingredients. Secondly, it provides a way to include natural ingredients without depleting natural resources. Plus, lab-based ingredient growing doesn't come with the side of environmental side effects that hold sway over pricing and availability.
"A lot of the idea is replacing chemical production and chemicals with biological systems and biologically sourced molecules," said Christina Agapakis, creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, which bills itself as an organism design company.
Swapping out ingredients was one of the reasons companies originally started approaching Amyris, according to Hadfield.
"We started being approached by companies in the flavor and fragrance industry, where they had ingredients that were either becoming short in supply or demand, or that they were affecting the environment by them farming it so much, and also the price was erratic," she said.
By taking something like patchouli oil and replicating that in a lab, Amyris was able to provide a sustainable alternative to the real thing, Hadfield said.
That ingredient, a Firmenich product called Clearwood, smells different than full-fledged patchouli.
"It's a patchouli that actually shows this in-between," said Agapakis. "It creates a new product. It smells like patchouli, but it's cleaner, and it doesn't have all of the products that you get in a patchouli oil — it has 10 or 13 components and that gives you the roundness, but it's less leathery and it's greener."
Agapakis, who holds a unique role as creative director of a biologic engineering business, combines her Harvard Ph.D. with an artistic sensibility to help people understand Ginkgo's technologies. The company works with beauty companies to replicate naturally occurring molecules in the lab.
To do it, Gingko essentially cuts and pastes sequences of DNA into a yeast genome, which creates enzyme pathways that lead to the creation of whatever DNA was implanted. So instead of the yeast naturally turning sugar into alcohol, it turns sugar into squalane — or another ingredient.
"If you've changed the DNA of the yeast and they have these enzymes that make the product, now you have this miniature factory that's making the product," Agapakis said. "You can put in a big tank and grow it."
The molecules produced in the process are identical to those harvested from nature, Agapakis said.
"There is a sense that natural and synthetic are not enough to describe what this is," Agapakis said. "It is natural because it's a living thing and it's biological, but it's also been genetically engineered."
The process also allows for the production of rare or extinct materials. One of the projects Agapakis is overseeing includes re-creating the smell of an extinct flower by sequencing its DNA and growing more of it through yeast. Ginkgo's instruments should be able to detect the list of molecules that are produced from the project, and the scent will be unveiled to the public in 2019.
"It becomes an art and science project where you have the interpretation of the perfumer and that art based off of the molecules we'll be able to identify based on the science," Agapakis said.
Robertet, which bills itself as a leader in sustainable materials, considers the molecules it gets from Ginkgo natural, but genetically modified.
"The supply is more stable," Agapakis said. "You're not hunting things to extinction or harvesting plants until they die like sandalwood or oud, and you're often using less land because you're feeding it sugar."
Companies like Ginkgo Bioworks and Amyris also have a different business model — one that can be expensive when projects aren't produced in large batches.
"The things that limit us right now are usually costs and volumes," Agapakis noted. "The cost is expensive at first to spend on research and development and perfecting the process, but once that's in place, the cost comes down."
Those costs are something to keep in mind, according to Bob Weinstein, the president of Robertet USA, who also happens to hold a Ph.D. in organic and inorganic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Initially drawn to Ginkgo because it was primarily staffed by fellow MIT Ph.D.'s, Weinstein has now worked on several different projects with the firm for Robertet.
The long-standing naturals house has commercialized two flavor projects, and is likely to initiate two more projects on the fragrance side in the next few months.
For beauty companies, understanding the broader market is crucial when working with synthetic biology, Weinstein said. He cited an example: At one point in the Nineties, a company approached him with an offer to produce an ingredient for $400 per kilo that he could sell for $4,000 — the only problem was, the market for that product was tiny.
"The market for that particular product was 1,000 to 1,500 kilos," Weinstein said. "It was good money, no problem, but no way underscoring the investment necessary to create something."
Understanding the task at hand is also important, Weinstein says. Something like replacing the entire Bulgarian rose market with "bio rose" is not feasible, he said, but providing an alternative could certainly work.
"If you said, 'I want to make a rose that's useful for a natural rose, that's more cost-effective, that doesn't impact the world's biodiversity, that could go further into different beauty products or personal-care products, that would be a project worth pursuing because your target is achievable. You're not looking to replicate an odor, you're looking to potentially create a niche in a market," Weinstein said. "If you set out trying to replicate a molecule, an odor…you will probably fail because there will be a perfumer that says, 'Oh, I like the natural stuff better.'"
The emergence of synthetic biology — what this whole process is technically called — comes at a time when consumers are demanding more transparency than ever in terms of the ingredients and processes behind their beauty products. Today's end consumer is also more frequently looking for products that have less of an environmental impact than those of prior generations, shopping for brands with cruelty-free or sustainability theses behind them.
"We are moving toward a much more transparent marketplace where people want to know where their products come from and what their products mean," Weinstein said.
"There's a different kind of supply chain that goes into making things biologically," Agapakis agreed. "There's an opportunity for a shorter supply chain and a more transparent supply chain, where , 'I know where the sugar came from that went into this yeast, and I know exactly what this yeast is that '" she said.
How Beauty Brands are Using Proprietary Molecules 
On a quest for differentiation, beauty companies are licensing and testing new, potentially more effective molecules for their product formulations.
Here, we look at two different ways companies are differentiating their formulations. At Nerium, the direct-selling beauty business, several key products — including the popular Eye-V Moisture Boost Hydrogel Patches — contain molecules that the business licenses from Signum Biosciences. Over at Living Proof, the strategy is one of internal development. The business has a group of non-beauty scientists working to create materials that primarily work well with hair, but could have other uses.
Signum Biosciences' Nerium Molecules
Nerium, the social-selling company, uses several exclusive ingredients from Signum Biosciences in its formulations, called Sig 1273 and Sig 1191. Sig 1273 is used in antiaging night and day creams, and Sig 1191 is in the Nerium's eye serum and eye patches, according to Maxwell Stock, president and ceo of Signum. Both, according to Stock, are considered natural.
The molecules were developed out of research that Stock's father, the company's founder (also named Maxwell Stock), had done on G proteins. He determined that those proteins affected behavior of certain cells, and had the idea that they could be used for skin-care technology. "In terms of building additional molecules from that starting point — G proteins are very well known — the novelty was that he copied what was already present in nature," Stock said.
How Living Proof's Team Honed WBPU 
At hair-care company Living Proof, which is stocked with an unusual number of research and development staff, the goal was to optimize WBPU (Waterborne Polyurethane). "It's a widely used material in personal care, hair care, skin care and the medical fields — but when we really studied WBPU we realized the material is not fully optimized and not well designed to bring out perfect performance on hair," said Soo-Young Kang, senior director of research for the business.
Kang, who joined Living Proof after working in cancer research, public health and drug discovery, is part of an R&D team that joined from scientific fields that had nothing to do with beauty.
The team created 300 different versions of WBPU and studied their performance. "We tested in our lab, and finally understood the key parameters governing the material properties that are optimal for hair application," Kang said. "Our focus is obviously hair application, but this material has a bigger opportunity…this can be used for skin and this same invention can apply for different industries, like surface coating and potentially textiles — there could be a medical application — this is just the beginning."
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