Solving the Industry’s Palm Oil Problem and Beyond

Biotech is really the future of sustainable ingredients, but sometimes there is the challenge of a barrier to entry, whether that’s through the necessary funding or having the resources to explore it. Were there any challenges on your end in getting into that space and being able to bring these things to market in a scalable way?

We’re starting to see biotech in beauty emerge, which is exciting for us, but it’s definitely still nascent. We’ve had to figure out a lot of the playbook as we go, especially as we look at climate change being something we have to figure out in the next 30 years. It’s very good that we have deep-pocketed individuals like Bill Gates and investors that can help drive a lot of this for sustainability.

People, talent, that’s always part of it. Biotech in general is such a broad category. A lot of people go into pharmaceutical-related biotech, but I describe C16 as a consumer biotechnology company. Getting people with that skill set onto the consumer side, it’s new. Our team loves it because the timeline to market is much faster, and they can see the impact. Capital and talent are probably two of the [biggest] challenges.

Building a lab in New York City, it’s not to be taken for granted, but the city and state have invested in this a lot. New York is a very good place to build this company, given who our customers are.

There are so many ingredients across beauty or consumer products that could be looked at in terms of not having the most ethical or environmentally friendly sourcing practices. I’m curious as to why palm oil was the ingredient that was spotlighted.

It’s essentially a platform. It’s widely used, first and foremost, because it’s really good at what it does. If people could change, they would, but they actually lose important performance elements in their products. This was a big “a-ha” for us because everybody knows it’s a problem and they’re trying to get rid of it, but they can’t because it’s so good at what it does.

Close to 30% of palm oil production goes into personal care ingredients. It is used as the basis for surfactants: body wash, face wash, shampoo. No other ingredient can create the foaming and cleansing properties that they need. But then it’s also used as an emollient, it’s requisite for the functionality in creams and moisturizers.The Torula Oil by itself has a really nice texture. It’s this luxury emollient that feels like a silicone, but it’s not. This essentially comes down to the chemical makeup of the oil, which [is] why we thought it was important to replicate that because we don’t want to lose the performance.

Are you looking to keep it as a standalone product or is it something that you’re potentially interested in expanding across the industry, offering it as a palm oil alternative to different manufacturers?

Definitely. Palm oil is massive. It was a $60 billion industry when we started and it’s projected to grow to a quarter of a billion, so $250 million, over the next 30 years. There’s a question of, if population growth continues and demand for products from the beauty industry is growing as it’s projected to, where is this [ingredient] going to come from? It can’t keep coming from deforestation or the current mechanisms. It’s a huge growth opportunity, and we can’t get there fast enough alone. We want to work with the existing big players in the industry to scale this as quickly as possible. Our first product. is the introduction of Torula Oil, and it showcases why it’s a great ingredient. It shows how we can formulate with it, and it tells our story. But ultimately, we’re going to drive this growth through the leading brands and innovators in this space―both the challengers and major users.

Not that it’s the most important aspect, but the oil is also a strikingly vibrant color.

One of the coolest things is the color comes from natural carotenoids, which are produced through our yeast. You’re probably familiar with beta carotene; our oil also produces carotenoids which have never really been commercialized. It illustrates so well the power of biotech to make sustainability but also interesting performance elements like totally novel antioxidants.

Biomolecular scientist Jesse Adler recently created color cosmetics through fungi. It’s fascinating what beautiful hues and properties we can find in nature, in these things that seemed to have been forgotten by the industry for a long time.

It’s beautiful, and it’s natural, right?  We’ve seen so much innovation for the last few decades through chemistry, which is great, but biology allows us to do a lot, and I think forgot about it. It’s this renaissance where we’re able to unlock things from performance, novelty, new colors, but also a sustainability perspective.

On the subject of performance, were there any challenges in matching the texture or performance of regular palm oil?

That’s how this whole product was even born. We make our oil and then we’ve got to do a bunch of product development. We put the oil in solid form factors, like soap, or in a moisturizer, sunscreen, oil cleanser—doing the work to say, where does this perform well, less well, as expected, differently than expected?

We’ve worked with a lot of formulators, and also brands that we’re in evaluation with to understand that. That’s how we ended up having this nourishing oil to launch. We just had a product that we loved, and said, “We’ve got urgency to solve this problem. Let’s be the first to bring it to the world.”

It took a bit. Some of the use cases, like surfactants, it’s chemically identical and going to be a total drop in. There should be no formulation challenges at all. But some of the applications, for example, Torula Oil, it is slightly different. Those carotenoids are new, they interact with oxygen, and so we had to test all of those things. Most of it was learning and formulation ratio standards to get the inclusion levels right.

In terms of the launch, what are your future plans with the product?

The Save the F#$%ing Rainforest Nourishing Oil is the first time we’re getting the product to the world outside of C16. It’s highlighting our biodesigned Palmless oil, but we featured a lot of other beautiful, high sustainability, high performance ingredients as well. The goal is to showcase and elevate how you can win on both performance and sustainability in the industry and raise the bar there. This is a call to action, we hope it raises awareness of the problem and starts to get this problem on the agenda of the challenger and indie brands, but also the major brands in the industry. For the largest beauty brands in the world, palm oil has risen to the top, but how do we start saying: now there’s an alternative, it’s time to take action.

From our perspective, from the climate change mandate, we don’t have time to move slowly, nor do we need to. We have some of the best innovators in the beauty industry that want to incorporate our product. After we launch the oil, we will be launching with our first set of customers. We’ve got two in the personal care industry this year. We’re going to launch with some of the most exciting, innovative brands in the space and fundamentally, that’s how I believe change gets driven in this industry: you see these upstarts pushing it, the big brands are watching it. Sometimes they acquire those brands, sometimes it pushes them to take on the technology. 

What are your thoughts on the future of biotech, especially within beauty?

Biotech is the future of beauty. We’re starting to hit critical mass in terms of awareness and uptake of some of those ingredients. Historically, this industry, especially funding, has been driven through brands. That’s starting to change; we’re seeing platform technologies―whether data, traceability, a software or technology solution for retail. Maybe it’s a fundamental innovation technology; we’ve seen a lot in haircare or skincare. We’ll start to see investment shifting there as well; that’ll help catapult it.

But the appetite from brands, it’s there. They want novelty. They love the story of how the innovation of biotech can drive both performance and sustainability. It’s exactly what they’re looking for. How do we scale it up and get it into the industry with capital and otherwise, is the big question.

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