Science in the Service of Skin Care with Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D. (+ Special Offer for Listeners)

This week’s episode features Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D., Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of ONE SKIN, an innovative skincare company that addresses skin health at the molecular level, targeting the root causes of aging so skin functions, feels, and looks younger. 

Listeners get a special offer when they go to 

Enter SCIENCE15 to get a 15% discount on your ONE SKIN purchase.

On this week’s show, we discuss a range of issues related to entrepreneurship and the science of skin care, including:

What initially sparked Alessandra’s interest in science: 

03:19 Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D.: On all the news, when I was seeing the news, they were cloning Dolly, the sheep. They were cloning the first mammal, animal. And that I thought to myself, Oh my God, maybe I can one day clone my family and they will always be around. I will not be, I don’t need to be afraid of losing one day my dad. I can bring back my grandfather. And that sparked me the idea of going into science and this whole knowledge of not liking to see losing others for diseases was what started bringing me. Maybe one day I can find the cure of a disease. Maybe one day I can work with something that will help me not lose my family. That was the first when I was still very young that we were made me science and as I was studying all my biology teachers, I was always very interested in cell biology. And that’s why I decided in college to continue researching and studying biology.

Alessandra’s career journey, including when she decided she wanted to be an entrepreneur: 

06:08 Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D.: When I went to college, I had this notion that I wanted to do science, but it was still very obscure how I will get there, if I would really be able to bring something into reality and get some of the science. In college, I was already focused on research that was translational. When I started college, I was already completely passionate about the idea of working with stem cells and the potential of stem cells to differentiate into any cell type of your body and be able to regenerate different tissues. So when I was in college, I looked for an internship in a lab that was researching stem cells. I knew that I wanted to translate. I didn’t know how would be the path that one day I would start the company, that was not clear. I knew that I needed to learn how to do science, so I would need to do a master and a PhD.

Even when I finished my PhD, I had not a clear idea. I still went for a postdoc in Portugal where I continue learning and learning different biomaterials to use different ways of associating with stem cells to promote wound healing. And at that point, when I was already in my postdoc that I was doing research for ready eight years in total, if I count when I started my internship, my master, my PhD, I started to get a little bit frustrated. I was doing a lot of good research. I was learning a lot and I was being involved in different projects that was all very challenging, was teaching me a lot, but I was not seeing the next phase. What I would do next, how I will fulfill that desire of seeing science being translated. So still in Portugal, I tried to start a startup there that was using stem cells, but cell therapy, it’s very regulated. It’s hard to go to humans.

So I have some, had some colleagues that were veterinarians. So together we start the company that would provide stem cell treatment for dogs, cat and horses. But we didn’t know what we were doing. And at the beginning was everything super hard to get to the path of what was a startup and how you get funds and how you create this product. So basically we started the idea, but that never went very far, but I was already okay, I want to translate.

And then eventually my friends from Brazil that also did PhD in the same lab that me, Carolina had just moved to San Francisco to join an accelerator program where they were also wanting to translate some of the research into a product or into a company. And it was interesting because then she was starting this year, I was starting that company in Portugal, getting a little bit frustrated. And then after the program, they decided they would be focusing this new company on skin research.

And then eventually she called me and she said to me, Alessandra, I’m here in San Francisco. I have some ideas on understanding skin aging and validating efficacy of product. And I cannot think of anyone better than you to come to join this project. We had no guarantee of what we were doing or where we would go, but there was a new opportunity there for me. And I just said, okay, I’m packing, I’m moving to the US. Let’s start this company. Let’s see where we can go.

Alessandra’s research and ONE SKIN’s scientific advancements in skin care:

13:41 Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D.: I can even make the connection of my PhD and the company, how we started. And it’s interesting because when you start a company, you need to be open-minded. Things change. I was doing this research on skin regeneration, building 3D skin models. And the goal really was to promote a better wound healing. But in that process, I learned how to culture skin cells. I learned how to build 3D skin models. When I was on my postdoc also, I was helping on another project that was doing high throughput screening of micro RNAs. So I started learning high throughput screening as well. And when I was learning all those skills, I had no idea that eventually I would use those skills in my own startup. But what I always tell myself and I tell others is it doesn’t matter, even if you are like completely happy or unhappy with what you’re doing at the moment, if you are lost a little bit of what path you would take, show up every day and try your best and learn what you have to learn because eventually what you learn, you can use later on.

So when I was there in Portugal, a little bit frustrated, still doing research and not seeing how I would translate that to research, I was still showing up at the lab and learning things, new things. And those skills that I was learning there, eventually they were the ones they needed to one skin.

When I came to One Skin, the first idea when Carolina called me was let’s build 3D skin models to understand the aging process and validate products that are on the market. So we had already the knowledge of building 3D models, but sometimes we use very young skins because it’s easier to build 3D models of skin using young cells. So the goal now was, okay, let’s understand the aging process because the products that are aimed to promote rejuvenation, they will be applied on a more mature skin. So we need to see the effect on this skin and what’s the difference.

So we started building this platform. One Skin then, just to go back a little bit, One Skin has always has the mission of target root causes of aging to promote skin health. So we are really looking to ways that we can connect the health of your skin with your overall health, promote a younger state of your skin, and that will result in a better appearance as well as you bring a product that’s cosmetic, but with the goal that will also help your whole body to be aging better. So we started with this platform.

Alessandra’s approach to science communication as a bilingual scientist:

21:13 Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D.: I would say that’s still a challenge. It is super hard because especially when you’re passionate as I am about the science, I always tend to go into too many details and then when we start to having to communicate this to others, at the beginning I was going very deep on the details and then I was seeing on people’s face that they were not understanding what I was saying.

So the first thing I feel to start developing that skill is just talk to people that have no science background. That they understand what you’re saying. If they’re not understanding, you need to clarify your message. And then it was hard for me because when I simplified the message and I don’t give all the details, it feels that I’m not giving all the science that is there. I always had that challenge with me because I wanted to explain more, but at the end, we need first to educate and have the interest of people.

 So we need to get simple, even though I don’t say all the science, I need to be able to show the difference. For instance, we have developed an algorithm that in the beginning, I would say that measures epigenetic changes inside the cell through methylation profile, and it’s able to determine and correlate with the chronological age of the skin, and I say that no one understands. But if I just tell you that we have an algorithm that’s able to measure the real biological age of your DNA, and then I can tell you by measuring the biological age of a product that’s really rejuvenating, reducing the biological age of the skin. Now people can understand and get interested about it.

And a lot of that comes from speaking and talking with non-scientists. We have several documents where we write what is the science and now let’s cut all this “epigenetic methylation” and let’s simplify the message. And we focus a lot on educational content on our Instagram and all on our website. There is a blog section where we talk a lot about science and I started and I still struggle a little bit with that. I’m still in the learning process, but we are always trying the best.

23:38 Mark Bayer: Right. And it is difficult. It’s really hard to do. There’s so much information and it is an iterative process. So the more you’re doing this, the better you’re getting at it. And then of course you’re seeing the reaction of people. They actually do get what you’re talking about rather than when you’re talking, using these scientific terms and they’re just bewildered because it’s the first time they’re hearing that. 25:13Mark Bayer: really interesting and so true. Let me ask you, many listeners are interested in entrepreneurship, but they don’t really have an idea of what it’s all about, whether it’s to start a company or work for a startup and understanding that there is no typical day in your work experience, I’m wondering if you could share some of the mainstays of your work schedule, things that you often see on your calendar as things that you need to do just to give listeners a sense about what it is to work for a startup or a startup company.

An insider’s description of life as an enterpreneur at a start-up 

25:43 Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D.: For both sides, if you’re working for a startup or if you’re starting your company, you need to know that you will be wearing several hats. But to be very honest, in the very beginning, a lot of the daily basic tasks will be very similar to what you were doing in the academia. You will still be working in a lab doing the research. So the part of research, it’s very similar to the academia. What it adds, it adds other layers.

So the research usually in the startup environment is more focused. So you have very clear objectives that you need to respond. You’re doing experiments, looking to proof of concept and looking more objectively while when you’re in academia, if you do one experiment and something show up, you just start digging and you just go to a completely different project and that’s not a problem because you’re just reaching and learning. So this is a big difference. But on the beginning, the daily base inside the research lab, it’s very similar.

What it changed then, like when you’re starting a company, is that you have other tasks as well. Pitching your company all the time to investors. You’re also hiring new employees. In the beginning, for the first three years, ONE SKIN was only scientists. We were seven scientists doing research with this platform. When we start moving to create the product and create the brand, then now other pieces start to show up. I needed to start thinking about the communication, the content that we are creating to blogs or even Instagram, talking more to investors. And then eventually when you go to having a product in the market, you have operational sales and marketing and all different things.

Today, as a chief scientific officer at ONE SKIN, I still lead the science that we are researching, the new research, the development of new products that we are doing at the company. I also do a lot of collaboration with the universities that are researching some of our active peptides that we have to other applications beyond the skin. I do a lot of work reviewing documents that share the data that we get in the lab to the marketing side, so it’s accurate and being sure that anything that’s going out there is very accurate on the science side. I lead with hiring process and also other fun things as well, because we have products, we are deciding which packaging will be for the new products. So we have meetings with the designers.

And for instance, today, some of the things that I will be doing, I’m recording this podcast now. Then I need to analyze some data of a clinical study that we are running. I need to oversee the experiments that was run this week and check some that we’ll do next week, need to go over some documents of scientific communication and also using one of the packages and some things that are going for our next product, so it goes a little bit around several things you need just when you’re in a startup, multitasking, it will be also very important to be able to wear different hats and being creative because not always you have funds to do everything on the perfect way. So we need to be very creative on how we can be different, how we can even do our research with the resource that we have available.

A special disount offer for listeners of When Science Speaks

30:35 Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D.: We are very excited to launch it. So it’s a product that has as an active ingredient the peptide that we discovered and developed here in the lab. And it was specifically designed for the skin of your eye region. So we received skin samples from the eyelid, leftover of plastic surgery. So we were using very specific eyelid skin to be testing and validating this formula to promote a better appearance, a more firm skin for a specific for this eye area. And we’re very excited. We optimized the formula using our platform as well. We use our platform to test all the active ingredients that goes together with our peptide and in the final formula to ensure that there is no toxicity. There’s no side effects that can be used in sensitive skin. And then we were able to do this specifically using skin from the eye area, which is something very new and unique. And this product is coming up at the end of this month. So we are very excited about it.

31:40 Mark Bayer: All right. So cool. Yeah. Listeners look out for that and also the promotional code that you’ll have as well.

Alessandra’s advice for listeners thinking about getting involved in startups 

32:26 Alessandra Zonari, Ph.D.: Yeah, sure. To make the jump going out of academia and jumping to start a company, you have two options. You can either join an early stage startup, or if you have an idea, or if you have already research coming from your PhD, you can start your own company. What I would say it’s what we did a little bit was for starting to find accelerator programs that can help you on the start point. So we joined IndieBio – it’s an accelerator program specifically for biotech companies, specific for scientists that want to become entrepreneurs. So this is very helpful because there are mentorships. You meet different founders that are on the same stage as you and you start creating this network. And a lot of times you learn with other founders how to do things, how to get off the ground.

My advice would be to try to find an accelerator program. Try to find people that complement your skills, that are also passionate about what you’re looking or trying to solve. And there will be ups and downs. Don’t give up on the first down and always remember that you never fail because you’re always learning something and what you learn, no one will take from you. So you will use this next. So just do the best and good luck in any journey that anyone decides.