The fluctuations and harmonizing (or in some cases, disharmonizing) dynamics of the bacterial colonies of the microbiome could be compared to the daily workings in a beehive, a universe defined by designated roles and working dynamics. Two years ago, David Koo Hjalmarsson started working on what would become Tiny Associates, a new breed of skincare that focuses on how biotechnology can facilitate a transition to a more sustainable and innovative beauty industry. As Chairman of Kind to Biome, an in-vitro microbiome-friendly certification enterprise, as well as the Director of Growth for the Asia region of international Swedish cosmetics distributor Svenska Krämfabriken, Koo Hjalmarsson has been exploring skincare and microbiome science for years.
Tiny Associates presents a pro-biotechnology premise, offering a sustainable solution to product formulation through the use of synthetic molecules. While we have witnessed huge growth in the natural skincare category, which favors earth-grown materials and eschews a long list of synthetic ingredients, the post-natural era, a self-proclaimed “Molecular Meritocracy,” entails harnessing the power of technological innovation and microbiome-compatible testing to create optimal products.
The brand launched with five skincare products (a day and night moisturizer, serum, cleanser, and lip balm) as well as three food supplements (targeted towards moisture, antioxidants, and fatigue reduction). Tiny Associates employs the Niiice Molecules for skincare and Niiice testing standards for supplements. The former entails vegan, microbiome-gentle, biotech-made molecules that are also naturally occurring in the skin and of low-enough molecular weight to penetrate the epidermis; the latter ensures the quality and bioavailability of the supplement’s active compounds.
BeautyMatter sat down with Koo Hjalmarsson to discuss the future of skincare ingredients, the clean beauty paradox, and how science will ensure sustainability for decades to come.
What was the process of building Tiny Associates from the ground up?
We basically disconnected ourselves from the outside world and all its influences. We went into a black box; into it we only brought with us the latest science along with what is technically possible to achieve. Out came Tiny Associates. This is certainly not to say that Tiny Associates is 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. Tiny Associates proposes a Post-Natural Skincare Category 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.
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 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.
But the main reason why it can play a big role is due to its “concept neutrality.” Biotech ingredients have the potential to be widely adopted by cosmetics brands regardless of their concept and legacy.
Brands have invested significantly into their market positioning, and find recalibration of positioning risky. But biotech ingredients offer a less risky recalibration of concept and communication. 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 being more beneficial as well as safer for the skin. An assumption which is completely divorced from reality by the way. 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.
Biotechnology has been around for a while; why are we only really talking about it now?
There are multiple reasons. But firstly, as you point out, biotech-derived ingredients are nothing new. Cosmetics companies have been using them for a long time. Take hyaluronic acid for example, a staple cosmetics ingredient, which is often biotechnologically made. Shiseido pioneered the biotechnologically made hyaluronic acid in the nineties.
The “natural skincare” segment has had a lot to do with the 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 the required knowledge and capabilities to formulate other products. In a way, the natural skincare segment put a wet blanket on innovation.
The reason why we are hearing about it now is linked to lower costs of biotech, a crowded natural skincare segment ready to reinvent itself, and biotech innovation in other consumer sectors such as food. The Impossible Burger is one example that has helped to shape consumer perception; synthetic leather is another. Investors in the biotech beauty sector are certainly also helping to instill some certainty around the future of the category.
With Tiny Associates we wish to become the proof of concept for established and new brands to adopt biotechnology. It’s our Post-Natural Campaign.
What do you mean by “the natural skincare segment put a wet blanket on innovation”?
Compared to other areas, natural skincare offers fewer innovation avenues. Resources that could have been allocated to the likes of 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 drive adoption, not sustainability. One exciting company to follow is Arcaea, a spinout from Ginkgo Bioworks, with a $78 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 ahead of us.
Are there any molecules that are patented or specifically unique to your brand?
No, and we were quite pleased with that because we would like to propose this concept and show that these biotechnologically made ingredients are already available. Researchers are already working on this but they're neglected because marketers don't care much for them. That needs to change. Any brand that would like to do this can do it because the value chain is out there.
Our objective is to use Tiny Associates as a vehicle, or platform if you prefer, to show how sustainable and exciting the future of beauty can be by harnessing the power of biotechnology. We want to become that proof of concept, so others can follow.
Do you feel like a certain demographic might be more drawn to your brand as opposed to others?
We want to target the early adopters, people who are more knowledgeable around skincare. If they like it, we'll see the more mainstream crowd coming in. In that sense, we are looking at the mid- and long term. From a business perspective, we have, whether we wanted it or not, focused more on building long-term competitive advantages. It is becoming increasingly evident that the future of beauty will be powered by biotechnology and the skin microbiome, amongst other things.
As to setting up the company, is it self-funded? Did you get investment or are you hoping to stay independent?
We have some angel investments, which made it possible to work on this for the past one and a half years. We know it's a difficult industry, but we've worked on trying to be commercially viable as well. We’re trying to be true to the science part and believe that's what we should be doing. In that sense, we´re a very product-focused company. Then we worked hard on trying to make it an attractive, distinctive brand. We have had a couple of investors reaching out, and we are certainly open for more. It would be too early to say that we see traction, but we definitely notice a huge interest in what we are working on.
Aside from publishing content on your editorial platform, what are your future plans?
We are targeting more mature skincare markets: Europe, US, Canada, UK, Korea, Singapore, Japan. I am currently in Seoul having discussions with numerous retailers. We wish to have discussions with distributors and retailers who understand what we are working on—essentially carving out a new category of skincare. We offer the world something very different, which for the right partners, could drive attractive top-line revenue. In other words, we want to be having our business and strategy discussions with other industry professionals; then, we believe that if there is an interest there, it will trickle down to the consumer later on. It’s not necessarily about DTC. If we are true to our guiding star, this impact that we can have, if that’s validated, it will spread.
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