The concept of customization is not a new one, but the ability to execute it at scale has remained a hurdle. Patented technology powers MIT-born skincare brand Atolla, which formulates customized serums using data science and machine learning delivered in a monthly subscription. Monthly diagnostics ensure the formulation adapts to changes in skin health.
BeautyMatter caught up with the three founders of this new cutting-edge skincare range to learn more about the science, the brand, and the people.
Many beauty brands seek patents for ingredients and names, but Atolla’s patent is a “utility patent” connected to its technology. Can you explain what this means? Co-founder and COO, Sid Salvi: One core area our patent specifically provides for is the repeat iterative process of developing skincare with a particular user’s ongoing information and the changes that occur with each new set of inputs. Simply put, we have the unique opportunity to approach skincare predictively, rather than reactively.
We collect the data via an at-home skin test (in addition to extensive intake information and preference testing), rather than relying solely on potentially biased quiz data. This is because our research revealed people often don’t know how to answer if their skin is “oily” or not. Rather, we take a precise measurement to determine different attributes about people’s skin. That data, combined with other information about the user’s lifestyle, diet, environment, skin concerns and existing routine, creates a unique formula. As any of those factors change, the user’s custom formula adjusts to always address what their skin specifically needs at that precise moment in time.
When you embarked on the process of creating Atolla, was obtaining a utility patent part of the vision? Why is it important for the evolution of the brand?
Co-founder and CEO, Meghan Maupin: We filed our first provisional patent when we were grad students at MIT, even before we started building the brand. Because we had experienced our own skin issues, we knew the model we were building could help millions of people like us who couldn’t figure out what would work for their skin.
From a brand perspective, the patent helps us explain what’s differentiated about our approach of using measurable skin health data to create personalized products. As Atolla continues to grow as a leader in skin health, we plan to further develop technology that enables us to help customers solve and prevent their skin issues.
What is the process that the consumer goes through, step by step?
Co-founder and CEO, Meghan Maupin: To start, the customer registers via the Atolla website and then receives a Skin Health Kit to test their skin. After completing the test and uploading results through their online account (which takes about 10 minutes), the customer instantly previews their formulation. Their custom serum arrives at their door a week later. Each month, they receive tools to retest the skin and Atolla tweaks the appropriate necessary adjustment to the formula. It’s a subscription model so the customer receives their new monthly serum.
How does the Atolla process work, e.g., what makes it special/unique enough to receive a patent?
Ranella Hirsch, MD, co-founder and board-certified dermatologist: Atolla delivers adaptive skincare by predicting what works for your skin using machine learning. We’re building the world’s first model to predict skin outcomes based on someone’s skin attributes and the products they use. We empower the customer by both identifying the cause of their skin issues and offering them a personalized solution. Think of it like a personal skin experiment—the more we can measure, the more we can learn.
You say that Atolla’s goal is to create skincare that is “predictive, rather than reactive.” Can you explain?
Ranella Hirsch, MD, co-founder and board-certified dermatologist: The Atolla platform is set up to be like a measurable experiment that keeps getting smarter over time. What this means is we can identify the cause of a skin issue and create a personalized solution that adapts to the way your skin changes. Each month our algorithm interprets changes in your environment, diet, and your skin, and improves your personalized formulation. We’re focused on preventative rather than reactive skincare, addressing issues before they happen.
Are the Atolla formulations customized or personalized?
Ranella Hirsch, MD, co-founder and board-certified dermatologist: These are custom-formulated serums, fresh and made to order for each user. The great thing about our formulations is that they are a one-month supply of serum that doesn’t need to sit on a shelf because it’s made uniquely for each user. Because of our direct delivery model, we create serums that have less preservatives and higher concentrations of actives.
There are theoretically hundreds of thousands of combinations because we calibrate the exact dosages of the active ingredients to the customer, and the base ingredients to the customer’s skin condition and absorption preferences. Our product development is data driven and so our formulations constantly evolve as our database grows larger and larger.
Personalization and customization are huge buzzwords in the industry right now. How does Atolla differentiate itself from other “personalized” skincare brands such as Proven and Curology?
Co-founder and CEO, Meghan Maupin: Our industry worldview emanates from the intersection of science and access. By using real data (obtained via our at-home skin test) combined with information about your preferences and overall lifestyle, we are truly positioned to meet your skin where you are, right now.
Whereas many of our competitors rely on quizzes to personalize, we believe that only provides half of the story. Thus our more holistic view of adapting with you over time: our product keeps getting better based on your feedback and your measurable skin changes.
We’re not just a beauty brand; we’re a skin health company that helps you manage your skin health holistically by providing a custom solution, along with insights about your skin and routine.
The consumer-facing technology is an important part of the personalization and customization equation; however, it is also quite complicated in the execution from an operational and manufacturing side. How is the execution of the personalization happening on the back end?
Co-founder and COO, Sid Salvi: Because we have taken a data-driven approach, we are able to manage the operational and manufacturing complexity of personalization. Our data and insights help the operations team forecast inventory needs and leverage batch processing to make fulfillment scalable. Our team has significant prior experience in customized manufacturing and thus we’ve been able to make operations an asset rather than a challenge.
Our predictive model allows for us to understand how an individual’s skin changes with the seasons, environment, and age. We’re able to group people based on how similar their skin is to each other and predict what their skin will need. Therefore, we’re able to model out our entire supply chain to understand what ingredients we will need to have when.
Atolla launched in 2019 after a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $38K in funding. Why did you choose this platform to raise start-up capital? Do you have any tips you could share building and executing a successful campaign on the platform?
Co-founder and COO, Sid Salvi: While the business was funded through venture capital, we did a Kickstarter to prove out that we could market and sell a direct-to-consumer model for personalized skincare that leveraged an at-home test. Kickstarter was a great community for this test because the members are incredibly excited about using new technology to improve their lives. The response was amazing and some of our best customers today are Kickstarter backers. For other companies thinking about doing a Kickstarter, we suggest planning months in advance and investing their Kickstarter page with compelling content.
What is next for the brand in terms of growth? Are you currently seeking additional funding?
Co-founder and COO, Sid Salvi: Our pre-seed round was led by Brand Project, consumer and subscription business experts, who have invested in other brands such as Daily Harvest, Coveteur, and Freshly. Since our launch in August 2019, we’ve shown that our personalized serums are highly effective, identified our target customer, optimized our website, and tested how to best acquire and retain our customers. We are currently closing our seed fundraising now to launch new products and continue to grow our customer base.
Atolla is currently DTC; however, you launched with a pop-up shop in Soho last summer. How do you feel about expanding into brick and mortar? What would that look like for the brand?
Ranella Hirsch, MD, co-founder and board-certified dermatologist: Exciting things to come include expanding further into retail partnerships. Our customers did indeed love our pop-up, the Atolla Skin Lab, because it’s such a fun way to learn to interact with our brand and learn more about their skin. Look for an exclusive retail launch in Q1.
The founding team of start-ups is crucial to success. What is special about the Atolla team that sets you apart?
Ranella Hirsch, MD, co-founder and board-certified dermatologist: We three were uniquely positioned to create a personalized skin health company because of our combined backgrounds in design, data science, and dermatology, the three core tenets of Atolla.
CEO and co-founder Meg Maupin, CEO, has a graduate degree in Engineering and Management from MIT, and previously worked in design roles at Patagonia, The MIT Design Lab, and Formlabs. With deep experience in mass customization and the future of manufacturing, Meg directs all of our branding and creative direction, including designing the user experience for Atolla at-home skin testing.
Co-founder and COO Sid Salvi left MIT Sloan after the first year of his MBA to start Atolla. Before MIT, he worked at Kurt Salmon (now part of Accenture Strategy) helping retailers and brands incorporate predictive analytics into their operations, and he is our data guru, leading our work on the customization algorithms and data science.
Co-founder and board-certified dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, MD, is a renowned authority in Cosmetic Dermatology. Called an “Expert Derm” by Allure and a “Beauty Guru” by Marie Claire, Dr. Hirsch is the Past President of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery. She guides our ingredient selections as well as keeps us tightly on task to dermatologic best practices and careful consideration of the skincare consumer.
“It is our unique individual expertise that has really defined the story of the Atolla brand,” added Hirsch, “because we are channeling our deep individual knowledge of customization, manufacturing, data and dermatology to bring our efforts to the consumer.”
Will Atolla be launching any new products or services in the next year? If yes, can you give BeautyMatter a sneak peek?
Ranella Hirsch, MD, co-founder and board-certified dermatologist: Because our understanding of our customer is the product of both the subjective preferences they share with us and the objective data we collect, we have deep insights into precisely what they want and need. Towards that end, look for product line extensions including cleanser, moisturizers, and care for complex combination skin concerns.
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