Natural beauty start-up goes more than skin deep
Research is essential in the natural products space, where consumers need evidence that products are effective and safe.
But for a small company, doing research isn’t simple. Projects and lab equipment are costly. It’s difficult to find and attract specialized talent. Making connections and fostering relationships between industry and academia is invaluable for a small company like Bend, which wants to maintain leading-edge work.
Mitacs postdoc boosts Bend’s capacity from within
Dr. Steven Hall, a postdoctoral researcher in pharmacology from Dalhousie University, is working with Bend to determine the best scientific basis for enhancing and building out their product line. Through a Mitacs research fellowship, he’s able to dedicate his time to the company for two years.
His research looks at the effect of specific natural product components at the cellular level. Bend’s anti-aging formula is unique because it’s taken orally, in a capsule or liquid, so it addresses the foundation of skin health from the inside out. An eight-week clinical trial showed that it increases the skin’s resistance to UV-induced sunburn by 84 percent.
But although the product was proven effective, the mechanisms behind how it works are not fully known. Steven is exploring how the groundbreaking formula manages to do what it does.
“It’s all well and good to say we have this effect,” says Steven. “But if we can understand what’s happening at the cellular level, we can improve our products further, as well as find new avenues to develop.”
Cell-based research unlocks potential for more anti-aging products
The work is painstakingly detailed. There are multiple ingredients, and each must be tested individually. “There was a lot of trouble-shooting initially,” explains Steven. “For how to do this succinctly.”
The first task was to replicate the clinical trial at the microscopic level. Steven treated cells and then exposed them to UV-A and -B light. With no treatment, over 90 percent of cells died, but with treatment, only three to four percent did.
Steven is now investigating the effects of different natural ingredients, as well as analyzing the formula’s impact on genes. Initial research suggests that increasing levels of antioxidants in the cells can alter more than a thousand genes. The challenge is to see what’s happening in each case.
“The idea is that the impact might extend to aging generally,” Steven says. “Are there other applications? Are there other beneficial effects elsewhere?”
Expanded R&D capabilities unlock potential for Bend
Support is critical for this type of work. “I think fostering these research relationships is important for small companies,” says Anna-Jean Reid, Product Development Manager at Bend Beauty. “With Steven’s expertise and connections, we are able to complete biological analyses internally, opening up a new area of research for us.”
In addition to a research partnership, access to lab equipment and space at Dalhousie provides an advantage. Cell culture work requires specialized facilities in order to prevent infections in the cells. Equipment is also costly. One of the microscopes Steven needs has a price tag just under a million dollars.
Working with Steven also connects Bend to an ecosystem of opportunity. “The fact that Steven’s just coming out of school is helpful because he has connections with other researchers,” says Anna-Jean. “His background in pharmacy branches into a new area for us and opens us to additional academic connections that can support our business.”
Partnership keeps Bend and Steven at the leading edge of their fields — while staying in Halifax
For Steven, working with Bend provides industry experience. “After my PhD, I wanted to gravitate toward industry, but it’s hard to do. This was a good way to get a foot in the door, and it’s right here in Halifax.”
The Mitacs fellowship also focuses on management training as well as research. Being in the company helps Steven learn about the business.
“I learn a lot just by being surrounded by the other employees and hearing what they’re working on,” he says. “And seeing all the great things that make a company successful — things like product packaging: how to package a bottle so it doesn’t break while shipping, and the importance of design, making sure your product looks good. There are so many things that as a scientist working in a lab, I didn’t get to see.”
Important for Steven is the fact that he gains industry experience while also doing cutting-edge research. “I love this because I’m not shutting any doors. I’m still doing research and publishing papers while learning about industry as well.”
For Bend, they stay ahead of the curve in a competitive health and beauty industry. “Our product is unique,” says Anna-Jean. “Right now we are definitely leading edge.”
This research will help them continue to offer exceptional products. “When it comes to better understanding our Anti-Aging Formula, Steven’s been very valuable,” says Anna-Jean. “His expertise in cell-culture research allows us to carry out research for which we did not previously have the capabilities.”
Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada for its support of the Elevate research fellowship in this story. Across Canada, the Elevate program also receives support from the Government of British Columbia, the Government of Quebec, and Research Manitoba.