The world’s population is getting older. It is forecasted that the global population of those over 60 years old will reach 1 billion by 2020 and 2 billion by 2050. Due to these trends, the cosmetic procedures and anti-aging markets are growing rapidly, forecasted to reach $27 billion in 2019 and over $300 billion by 2020, respectively.
This presents an opportunity to invest in healthier aging processes and technological development to enhance the efficacy of products and procedures.
Carolina Reis Oliveira and her team are doing just that. As a PhD student focused on stem cell and tissue engineering, Carolina, along with two of her PhD colleagues, saw the potential of turning more than 10 years of research into a business. Today, their team of five PhDs and biotech entrepreneurs are building OneSkin Technologies, a Silicon Valley-based startup with $2.4 million in funding that mimics human tissues to understand how they age.
I chatted with Carolina about her journey into entrepreneurship and the disruptive technology she and her team are building at OneSkin.
Interview condensed and edited for clarity.
Tiffany: You’re a PhD student turned entrepreneur. How did that happen?
Carolina: I’ve been passionate about science since I was very young, and I always wanted to use science as a means to help people.
Every time I was involved in a scientific project, I always tried to see something that could be transformed into a product or service, or at least had a more clear application.
In Brazil, biotech — and technology in general — was not a field where people were becoming entrepreneurs. We snuck into the tech community to find our way and learned the tools needed to build our community.
This transition would not have been possible if we didn’t have the courage to disrupt a new field. I remember some people asked us, “Are you going to create your own company?” Most people in academia didn’t appreciate this entrepreneurial attitude some years ago. But now, we are an inspiration for the next generation in our field and are paying it forward to those willing to embark on the same journey.
Tiffany: What was it like raising your seed round?
Carolina: Closing the first round was a big challenge. For us, we were in the U.S. without having made a name for ourselves or credibility yet. It took a while to prove ourselves and our potential and show that we were serious and committed to our mission.
Outside of that, there was also a “right moment” for our company. In the beginning, we were still evolving our proposal to the best product/market fit. That took four months. After we found our fit, we needed more traction and more clients who wanted to buy what we were developing, so we focused on establishing some pilots. After about a year, we were almost running out of money and needed to focus on fundraising.
We put all of these pieces together after another co-founder joined our team. We had the right product/market fit, had gained some tractioned, and were ready to show OneSkin to investors.
In the beginning, our conversations with investors were more focused on getting feedback. We were not too focused on raising money, because I knew that it was not the right time. Once we had learned enough from our market, potential clients, and investors, it was the right time to fundraise.
The process was painful and it was easy to get discouraged, but I was super confident about what we were building. If I felt that someone was not giving me the right valuation, this was someone that I didn’t want to work with.
In the end, when we had checked all the boxes and had the right pieces together, things worked faster and we were able to close our seed round.
Tiffany: Why did you move your company from Brazil to the SF Bay Area?
Carolina: Silicon Valley is the place where things are really happening every day, and we are surrounded by these brilliant entrepreneurs. By being here, we have become part of this ecosystem, which makes us believe that we are as capable as other Bay Area or international entrepreneurs. We came to Silicon Valley with a purpose so we want to make the most of this time — of this experience — here. We are here to build a great company and compete with the top players in the world.
Being surrounded by this mindset has been very empowering.
I will always feel like I am connected to the Bay Area, but I also feel that eventually, I will go back to Brazil. I want to share everything I have learned here to promote the development of my country.
Tiffany: Tell me more about how OneSkin works.
Carolina: OneSkin’s mission is to reverse (skin) aging. One important differential of our technology is that we are replicating aging in the lab using real human models (versus animal models). By applying tissue engineering techniques, we grow 3D human skin tissues from human cells acquired commercially or isolated from leftover aesthetic procedures. Once we isolate the cells from the tissues, we can expand them in the lab until we put these diverse cells types together again to rebuild the tissue.
Human models (versus animal models) allow us to accelerate the translation to the market with higher rates of success. For instance, if you delete a specific gene in mice, you might see a 30% increase in their lifespan, but the reality is that we cannot simply delete a gene in humans.
We are replicating skin ageing by creating skin models of different ages (baby, young adult, older adult). That way, we are able to “track” changes that accumulate in our DNA with chronological age, which works as a ruler to identify the tissue’s age. This means that by reading the DNA we isolate from each tissue, we can measure its age, i.e. 30 years or 60 years. When we apply products on these tissues to see if a product can really rejuvenate the tissue, we can see that it reduced sample age from 50 to 47 or 45, for example. The reduction in the molecular age is the first quantitative parameter to validate the efficacy of any product in the market that targets skin rejuvenation.
Tiffany: What role does OneSkin play in the booming cosmetic procedures and anti-aging markets?
Carolina: It’s clear that those markets are very appealing, with companies making billions of dollars per year, but we still don’t know which products do and don’t work. Up until now, we didn’t have a tool that we can rely on to measure or quantify if these products are really rejuvenating your skin.
We are developing a system that allows us to test and validate the efficacy of such products. DNA is the most reliable measure to account for the age of our tissues. By applying our patented machine learning algorithm, we are able to predict the age of any skin tissue, creating a parameter that quantifies the efficacy of a product.
There are other important benefits arising from this technology. First, consumers are empowered to make the best choice through product comparison. Second, companies can develop more effective products backed by our technology, once it becomes available to the market. And finally, we are strategically positioned to develop new and better products since we not only have the right tools but we are also approaching skin aging with a new and more holistic concept.
Tiffany: What are you working on now?
Carolina: We spent the past two years developing our platform. Now, we are comparing the efficacy of some new molecules for anti-aging against the classic ones in the market, like retinoic acid.
Our hypothesis is that by specifically decreasing the number of “old” cells in the tissue, called senescent cells, you can basically induce the tissue age reversal, resulting in a healthier and younger tissue.
Several experiments were done showing that this treatment of eliminating senescent cells can ameliorate conditions of many age-related conditions, such as osteoarthritis, for instance.
We want to be the first company to prove this is also true for human skin, that if you can eliminate or decrease the number of senescent cells in the skin, you can promote skin rejuvenation in a more effective way.
Tiffany: What is your vision for OneSkin?
Carolina: We associate aging with physical and emotional pain, because as we age, we may experience physical or cognitive limitations that prevent us from doing the things we love. But once we develop ways to avoid this pain, people will be able to age and continue enjoying life.
We want to contribute to promoting ways to live and age healthier. In the future, we expect to have different treatments for “aging.” This will include topical, oral products, as well as local injections, and we will play a significant role in this scenario.
This will have a huge impact on the healthcare system. If we can avoid/prevent/reduce the incidence of several age-related diseases, including cancer, this could mean an enormous reduction in healthcare expenditures, a resource that can be invested in several areas, like education or social programs.
As you may have noticed, OneSkin’s vision goes beyond the skin. We intend to prove that a given compound that works for rejuvenating skin can also work for rejuvenating other tissues. The mechanisms of aging we are targeting are also present in different tissues and accounts for several age-related diseases.
With this new perspective, our company is well-positioned in this new era of age reversal and longevity. We truly believe we are helping to build the future where all of us can age better.
Tiffany: I’m on board with that future! Any advice you’d give aspiring entrepreneurs reading this?
Carolina: You need to be very determined to go through this journey. You should think, “Is this your passion? Is this your mission?” because it will require a lot from you. It requires resilience and courage, and it’s a very tough and long journey. But if you are confident, and if you feel that intuition that this is your purpose, you should go for it.
There’s nothing more rewarding than the feeling of creating something new in the world, the feeling of helping and changing people’s lives. You can also inspire others to change the world and make this a better place to all for us.
It also goes without saying how important my team has been in supporting me during this whole journey. Juliana and Mariana are the two PhD colleagues who started with me. Although they stayed in Brazil, they and still present and still make a huge difference for the company.
I also had another partner, Don, who came to join me when the company didn’t have any guarantees of success. He was a fundamental part of the fundraising process and is our CTO today. We also had Alessandra join us as our latest cofounder. She’s our scientific officer today and she simply rocks in the lab.
I look to all of them, including our new team members, with pride and I feel lucky to have the best ones by my side, sharing the same desire of creating new ways to help people age better.
Tiffany: Thank you, Carolina! Like the saying goes, “it takes a village.”
Carolina Reis Oliveira is a Brazilian biotechnology entrepreneur and the Founder & CEO of OneSkin Technologies. She holds a biochemistry degree and a PhD focused on stem cell and tissue engineering.