Cancer drug researchers typically don’t spend much time thinking about antiwrinkle creams. Kleanthis Xanthopoulos, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology, does. A few years ago the chief executive officer of Regulus Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company developing cancer and atherosclerosis drugs, created a separate company of his own, Senté, to launch a line of skin-care products under that brand name. “I was thinking, ‘How can we take the rigor of high-end science and apply that not to drugs, but what we call life-enhancing consumer products that aren’t regulated by the FDA?’ ” says Xanthopoulos.
The scientist sees a big market catering to middle-aged women (and, increasingly, men) who would like to push back against sagging facial skin and dark undereye circles. Cosmetics companies have long ruled this domain. Now veterans of pharmaceutical firms are using their knowledge to grab a piece of the $1.2 billion U.S. luxury skin-care business, which has grown about 20 percent in each of the last two years, according to market researcher NPD Group.
“It seems like there’s a never-ending appetite for beauty products,” says Les Funtleyder, research director at private equity firm Poliwogg. “For drug development, it’s 7 to 10 years from clinic to market—and a lot of money, up to $1 billion. In beauty products, there’s less regulatory risk, no clinical-development risk, and a very much shorter time to market.”
To create Senté, Xanthopoulos and co-founder Marios Fotiadis licensed a compound called heparan sulfate from an Italian company that had been selling it in a higher concentration for wound and burn care. After testing almost a dozen formulations, Senté executives settled on a variant it began selling this year at $75 for 15 milliliters, or $165 for 50ml. The cream, which Senté says can penetrate three layers of skin, contains glycoproteins that “stimulate collagen fiber production and provide long-lasting benefits by addressing age-related loss of skin elasticity and tone,” according to the company’s website. Senté says its marketing language was cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Beauty companies have found themselves in hot water this year over product claims. L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics maker, received an FDA warning letter in September over language promising that its Génifique line “boosts the activity of genes and stimulates the production of youth proteins” and that its Absolue products “stimulate cell regeneration.” The FDA said L’Oréal’s claims were promoting its creams as drugs, violating federal regulations. A L’Oréal spokeswoman says the company disagrees with the FDA’s characterization and believes its products meet the regulator’s definition of “cosmetic.” L’Oreal says it has taken steps to resolve the matter.
Senté isn’t the only beauty brand with a pharmaceutical pedigree. Living Proof, a line of hair products, was founded by Polaris Venture Partners, the venture capital firm behind generic drugmaker and Ironwood Pharmaceuticals, which makes a recently approved drug for irritable bowel syndrome. Polaris co-founder Jon Flint says he compared ingredients in hair products and realized “they’re basically identical.” He called Robert Langer, a chemical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who holds about 800 patents and has helped Polaris found companies working on therapies for heart disease, respiratory infections, and cancer.
Langer found the main ingredient in most anti-frizz products is silicone. He says he designed a new lighter, more water-resistant polymer. To help hair appear thicker, Langer delved into a library of polymers his lab had already developed. Polaris then hired five scientists experienced in biotech and cancer research to formulate the actual products. “I don’t necessarily think of it just as beauty. You’re helping with hair care and skin care,” Langer says. “Really, we’re using science for something that can make people happier.”