The FAQ list below will help answer some of your more common questions.
Arcaea is a beauty company creating new ingredients and product experiences through technology focused on biology. Arcaea uses innovations like DNA sequencing, biological engineering, bioinformatics, fermentation coupled with skin biology, microbiology, and more to unlock the power of biology. This enables a new slate of tools for self-expression and shifts the supply chain away from depleting natural resources.
Expressive biology is the lens through which biology and technology can be used as a creative tool for self-expression. Stay tuned for what this means for the future of beauty.
Biology is capable of things chemistry alone cannot do. A greater understanding of biology can enable new possibilities for beauty, simply because biology focuses on the study of living organisms, the foundation of much of what we see around us. It can do things modern technologies cannot—such as self-replicate and self-repair. Because of these amazing qualities, we’ve seen many new technologies to understand and leverage biology in the last few decades.
Specific examples of technologies focused on biology include DNA sequencing (to understand the human genome and the microbiome), bioinformatics (to understand massive amounts of biological data at scale), and biological engineering (to create life-saving drugs like insulin). All of these are driven by the need for novel solutions to the challenges we collectively face.
In recent years, these technologies have scaled to be more accessible to markets beyond pharma and academic research. Applying these advanced technologies to beauty will enable entirely new possibilities while also reducing our reliance on unsustainable sourcing practices.
The foundational practice of today’s beauty industry is chemistry, which is the study of matter and reactions between substances—it’s not biology.
The tools to understand biology initially did not exist, and so the industry evolved without it. As far back as the time of Cleopatra, before we even understood the biology of the skin and hair, we were already tinkering with oils and simple chemistry to make formulas. This is why you typically hear about “cosmetic chemists” and “formulation chemists” (rather than “cosmetic biologists” or even “skin biologists”) in relation to the expertise in beauty.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, when we first learned about DNA, that this would begin to change. While we could literally start to read the language of biology, it would be many decades later before we could use that knowledge to improve and impact human life significantly. By the time this happened, the supply chain, infrastructure, and foundation of the beauty industry had already been built and deeply entrenched in industrial chemistry.
That is not to say that chemistry is bad, or lacking, or doesn’t have great functionality, or that the beauty industry hasn’t integrated some of these advancements as they have emerged. But the burden of legacy creates a strong pull for traditional approaches—retrofitting a tool like biology into the existing methods and ways of thinking is hard and expensive. We believe thinking purely from the perspective of chemistry will limit biology’s potential. This is why Arcaea is building around biology.
We are not the first beauty company to use biology based tools like biotechnology and fermentation, and we don’t intend to replace chemistry entirely. That said, we will be the first company in beauty to use biology as a creative tool, and to build as “biology-first” from the ground up, by aggregating all its tools. We are going beyond swaps: We are not focused on growing biological replacements for the ingredients and materials we already use. Instead, we are using nature’s technology and design as inspiration for new ingredients and novel functionality to address unsolved problems. We believe we can give brands and consumers an entirely new palette with which to express themselves—one that extends well beyond the limitations of the tools we have today.
First, there is a very real physical limitation to how we make ingredients now. Since the 1900s, as we became more sophisticated and the industry began to grow, we developed industrial chemistry—basically chemistry at scale. This requires significant extraction from the environment for raw materials to convert into ingredients.
Today the beauty industry relies on over 16,000 ingredients, which are predominantly sourced from petrochemicals (we must reduce our reliance on these for the sake of environmental and human health), animals (an ethical quagmire), and plants (we do not have the natural resources to grow enough to support the entire industry).
Second, by limiting ourselves to what we can physically squeeze out of other things, we miss many molecules in nature. The tree of life is vast, yet the beauty industry has been able to work with only a tiny part of it so far. Through advancements in technology, we can radically expand what’s possible: We can learn about previously inaccessible molecules, and determine ways to grow these sustainably and ethically.
The short answer: Biotechnology uses microorganisms, i.e. fungi, bacteria, and even mammalian cells as factories for producing compounds that are needed, or helpful, within the creation of products across many industries. Biotech can use this process to replace existing compounds that have a significant environmental footprint with a more sustainable alternative. It can also harness microorganisms in new and interesting ways to unlock potential for far more effective solutions.
The beauty industry is not a stranger to biotech. For example, in the 1980s the beauty industry began to make hyaluronic acid using biotechnology and fermentation (rather than sourcing from roosters). The transition to biotech presented a way to design hyaluronic acid in ways that just sourcing from animals did not, while also improving the safety of the ingredient. Hyaluronic acid now comes in many forms that present different performance characteristics. Its safety, versatility, and performance make hyaluronic acid a foundational ingredient in dermatology and skincare.
Biotech has not been used widely in beauty because the high cost of biological engineering has historically limited its use to industries like pharma (insulin, which originally came from pigs). But, over the last 15 years, this technology is becoming more accessible and versatile. This presents opportunities to use it in new ways in new markets. We believe it can be used as a design tool to create entirely new ingredients and functionality to drive the future of ingredient and formula innovation.
Harvesting from petrochemicals, plants, and animals requires manifold resources, primarily land and water. When we extract from the planet, we generate an environmental debt that’s accruing interest we might not be able to pay off in our lifetimes—and there are often human and animal rights concerns. We see this with specialty ingredients like Rose (where increases in consumer demand are creating supply issues) and with commodity ingredients like palm (where rainforests are stripped).
By leveraging biology, we no longer need to harvest intensively to make ingredients. Instead, we can look to nature, read its code (DNA), and then grow ingredients ourselves using tiny factories (microbes) instead of large chemical plants.
For example, instead of harvesting an entire field of roses to squeeze for fragrance, we can instead read the DNA code of those roses and search for where it encodes scent molecules. Then, we take that DNA code and put it into a yeast; we then brew it like beer in a fermentation tank. (This sounds easier than it actually is!) This process is called biotechnology. The process has many benefits: It takes significantly less land and water and it’s consistent and reliable (a sad truth about plant-based sourcing today is that it’s often not reliable due to changes in the climate). The ability to produce compounds with a fraction of the footprint is an exciting possibility with biotech-based ingredients.
Fundamentally, biotechnology involves growing ingredients and materials, rather than extracting them from nature, which is significantly better for the planet. Within the lab, biotech methods are typically more sustainable than chemical methods, but as always, it’s important to understand the nuance. For one, microbes need to eat, too (their feedstock is typically glucose from sugar or molasses). While the footprint is significantly smaller than industrial chemistry, we do bake sustainability into our design process to determine how we can make it even smaller. Across the biotech industry, there is a lot of research underway to advance the sustainability profile even more. For example, some microbes eat carbon dioxide! The hope is that the technology will evolve to the point where we can run hyper-efficient fermentations using sunlight, air, CO2 or waste biomass.
Beyond feedstock, the process must be assessed further to determine its sustainability by performing what environmental engineers call a lifecycle analysis. This requires analyzing all the component parts required to create an ingredient, and it can be wrong on both biological and chemical process. If it's using a chemical method, that list would include all the chemicals needed. If it's a biotech process, it's typically glucose and other nutrients that your microorganism will need as fuel. If ingredients need to be imported, that will impact the overall sustainability of the product production. Here’s an example of a lifecycle analysis performed on fermented butylene glycol by the company Genomatica.
Overall, with biotech processes, you get away with using few to zero harsh chemicals, so it's typically much safer. Most often it's also less energy intensive: For many chemical processes, you need extreme pressure or extreme temperatures to force the reaction to occur, and typically this is not one-and-done, so you are repeating this process many times to get the purity or consistency needed for an ingredient. This is usually very energy intensive. This type of energy output is not required for most biotech ingredients.
In some ways, we’ve been using biotech processes for thousands of years. Wine or bread can be considered biotech products.
Today, we have a better understanding of microorganisms, their potential, and how to modify them. To be able to precisely engineer a microorganism, you need to know its full DNA sequence. Advances in sequencing have changed the game. Now, we can very quickly and very cheaply sequence the full genome of the microorganism and then print DNA to introduce them to the microorganism. People across many industries have helped develop new technologies—from analytics to software—that allow us to then engineer them in mindful and conscientious ways.
Much of biotechnology requires some genetic modification (GM) to make the ingredients, though the ingredient itself wouldn’t qualify as a GMO. We believe it’s important to be transparent to the public about what GMO means in this context— we also believe and support regulation for the industry at large.
GM technology is incredibly important. It enables life-saving drugs and is being used to solve some of the biggest problems facing humans right now. There are also some examples of ingredients in the beauty industry that employ GMOs in the process of making them, such as hyaluronic acid, some peptides, and lactic acid. These are ingredients that are both safe, and also common, due to their high performance.
Like most things, GMOs are not singularly good or bad. A lack of transparency and some bad actors have created a negative view. We are not here to change anyone's mind, but we are committed to full transparence so that you have the information you need to make up your own. To start, here are some of our favorite articles on the subject.
NYTimes: Learning to Love GMOs
NYTimes: I Run a G.M.O. Company — and I Support G.M.O. Labeling
The Economist: The engineering of living organisms could soon start changing everything
Grow: The Nature of Nature
Harvard Press: Will GMOs Hurt My Body? The Public’s Concerns and How Scientists Have Addressed Them
Ginkgo Bioworks is a company that has a biotechnology platform to do “biology at scale.” They operate a series of automated labs to perform high volume cell engineering. You can read more about Ginkgo here.
Arcaea is partnering with Gingko on some of our biotechnology work. When we identify potential ingredients to target, Ginkgo engineers cells to make those ingredients. We then evaluate and characterize the molecules or compounds for performance, assess them for safety, and develop methods to put them in formulas that bring out the experience we are aiming for.
This enables us to stay focused on the beauty industry and what it takes to bring biology first ingredients to life in products. A partner like Ginkgo helps us do cell engineering faster.
Biotech is incredibly promising, both in terms of its potential for more sustainable options along with new efficacy it could unlock.
There are scientists focused on application of proteins for food nutrition, who are trying to figure out how to make the animal proteins that give dairy its special properties. (You can imagine what that could mean for the future of say, vegan ice cream.) Examples of companies working with biotechnology in some fashion are Impossible Foods and Motif Foodworks.
At a company called Synlogic, researchers are developing what they call "living medicines"—they take bacteria that normally live in the gut, and then engineer them to execute functions that can treat diseases. Allonia, is working on waste remediation: Essentially, they are engineering bacteria that can eat PFOAs, i.e. forever chemicals, that plague our natural environment.
We're looking at keratin proteins in hair care. Right now, what you see in the beauty industry is keratin that’s extracted from sheep’s wool. And what’s in there is a grab-bag of protein from the wool—it’s not highly specific and as a result has limited performance. However, with biotech, we can go in and can design a specific keratin that might have a very targeted performance attribute within the hair (whether repair, shine, or shape). When we identify those, we can produce an entire range of keratins that are not only sustainable, but deliver performance benefits that go beyond what is possible today.
Stay tuned. You’ll begin seeing our work in the market as early as 2023.
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