More and more of us are striving to make purchases that are in line with our personal values, whether it’s to use more sustainable ingredients, reduce pollution, or to avoid animal cruelty. So when we consider buying that vanilla cupcake, that snow parka, or even that mushroom leather purse, many of us are asking ourselves: Will my choice help make the world a better place?
Nowhere does this trend stand to have a bigger impact on industry than in the beauty and personal goods market. We may not realize it or want to think about it, but many of our most beloved consumer products are made by killing animals. Common animal-derived ingredients in beauty products include lanolin (wool grease), squalene (shark liver oil), carmine (crushed-up beetles), gelatin (cow or pig bones, tendons or ligaments), allantoin (cow urine), ambergris (whale vomit), and placenta (sheep organs).
And what’s not made from animals is often derived from petrochemistry. So it’s not only cruel, but it’s also terrible for the planet.
It’s a little like the old days of insulin. Up until the 1980s, when we started using genetic engineering to make human insulin, it was harvested from the pancreases of dogs and pigs. With the birth of Genentech, we’re now brewing insulin in the same way we ferment beer or wine: we let biology do it.
Let biology do it
This is Geltor’s big idea — to apply the same kind of thinking to beauty and personal goods. From its offices just outside Silicon Valley, it’s applying the modern tools of biology and technology to ferment traditionally animal-derived products. Not only is it faster, purer, cheaper, and more humane than making it from animals, but Geltor can biodesign the fermentation process to make proteins that we can’t get from nature.
Take their flagship product, HumaColl21.
Most collagen for consumer products is made by chemically separating the ingredient from cowhide, bone, pigskin, or fish, without consideration for biocompatibility with human skin. This typically yields the type of collagen found in mature tissues. Geltor looks to Type 21 collagen, which it calls “the molecular root of youthful, resilient skin.” Type 21 has been shown to increase the production of other collagen types as compared to fish-derived collagen. By putting the biochemical pathway that produces Type 21 collagen into fermentation, Geltor can produce a better collagen without any of the animal requirements.
Geltor says it’s the world’s first-ever biodesigned vegan human collagen for skin care.
The birth of a great idea
Geltor’s CEO, Alex Lorestani, and its CTO, Nick Ouzounov, co-founded Geltor in 2015. The two met at Princeton as graduate students.
“Nick would always come up to me excited about new ideas that would make great companies,” Alex recalls.
Like many other entrepreneurs, Alex and Nick came to Silicon Valley to seek their fortune. They ended up at the doorstep of IndieBio, the biotech accelerator, and landed a spot in its second cohort with little more than a big idea on a piece of paper: enrich the fermentation broth for many products.
“They don’t take companies like us anymore,” Alex told me.
Importantly, Alex and Nick understood that any kind of protein you can find in nature can be made with biology in a process similar to brewing beer, in a fermentation plant. The first product that they decided to make with fermentation was gelatin.
In food, gelatin is used as a thickener for fruit gelatins and puddings like Jell-O, in candies, marshmallows, cakes, ice cream, and yogurt. It is a protein obtained by boiling the skin, tendons, ligaments, or bones of cows and pigs.
“I’m a vegetarian, and the amount of animal slaughter that happens to satisfy our food and beauty needs saddens me,” Alex told me.
“We quickly moved on from gelatin, a low-value product, into high-value products in personal care“, said Erin Kim, who leads communications at Geltor.
In addition to collagen for beauty products, Geltor announced a partnership with GELITA to commercialize the first ingestible animal-free collagen for dietary supplements. According to WebMD, a small but growing body of evidence suggests these supplements can improve skin, ease arthritis symptoms, promote wound healing, and fend off muscle wasting. In 2018, consumers spent nearly $ 100 million on collagen supplements in the U.S. alone, growing at 30% per year.
And just this week, Geltor announced a partnership with Connell, a leading marketer and distributor of specialty chemicals and ingredients in Asia-Pacific (APAC), to become the exclusive distributor for Geltor’s biodesigned health and beauty products, starting with collagen.
The global beauty and personal products market is about $ 400 billion, and expected to grow to over $ 700 billion by 2026. The Asia-Pacific market is the single biggest market by virtue of its population, estimated at $ 120 billion in 2018. Its growing consumer base has a regional preference for vegan and vegetarian products. Geltor’s biotechnology platform has been versatile enough to respond to this consumer demand in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Successful lines of product are frequently and quickly iterated upon and formulated specifically to meet the needs of users across categories including K-beauty, J-beauty, and Halal beauty,” Erin said. “Our dream has always been to serve the global market, and with their early adoption of our technology, Asia-Pacific has been a fabulous place to start.”
This is bigger than APAC
There is also a growing acceptance of veganism here in the U.S., with the number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan growing from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017, a 600% increase. With it, the demand for animal-free beauty products will also continue to grow.
Rapidly changing cosmetic trends are affecting the global marketplace, as most consumers find cruelty towards animals unethical and are spreading awareness against it. Moreover, embracing natural substitutes such as plant-based personal care products is working in favor of the market.
“Consumer packaged goods companies are always looking to drive a new product with innovative new ingredients,” Alex told me, and Geltor is working with a broad range of health and beauty companies to launch a range of new products.
The tectonic shift toward natural
Geltor hopes to meet producers’ and consumers’ demand for high-performance and innovative ingredients, made sustainably through biology, Erin told me. She’s referring to the biggest makers of beauty and personal care products — Loreal, Procter and Gamble, Beiersdorf, Avon, Unilever, Estee Lauder, to name a few — and the industrial tectonic shift toward natural ingredients in shampoos, moisturizers, oral care, cosmetics, fragrances, soaps and shower gels, sun care products… the list goes on and on.
For me, what Apple was to personal computers, Geltor is to beauty and personal products. Both companies make full use technology to design products that better serve our needs — with elegance and purpose.
I believe we are about to see a shift in the beauty and personal products market. As the idea of applying animal parts to our body in the form of moisturizers, cosmetics, and shampoos becomes less and less appealing, the natural products market will grow. And our idea of “beauty and personal products” will take on a more holistic meaning.
Acknowledgment: Thank you to Kevin Costa for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about — including Geltor — are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors).