An algae-derived wax from a commonly grown marine microalga could be the next big thing in cosmetics and personal care products, thanks to a recent license agreement among the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Western Washington University (WWU) — which jointly own the patents — and Upwell Cosmetics, a start-up materials company founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
This natural wax, a family of widely-studied compounds known as alkenones, harvested from the microalga Isochrysis, has the potential to replace petroleum ingredients as the waxy base in many cosmetics and personal care products, such as lipstick, sunscreen, and deodorants.
Isochrysis microalgae have been grown for years by companies around the world as a primary component of shellfish feed. While new to cosmetics and personal care products, the alkenones, produced by only a few algae in the ocean, have been studied for decades to decipher historical changes in ocean temperature.
While a cosmetics product might seem unusual for an oceanographic institution to be involved with, this license agreement allows practical research to reach the market for broad benefit to society. The patented product intends to disrupt the beauty industry.
“We believe this groundbreaking, microalgal wax has great potential to replace petroleum and animal-based wax in personal care products,” says Daniella Zakon, Co-Founder of Upwell Cosmetics. “The commercialization opportunity is overwhelming as brands race to reformulate using sustainable ingredients to meet consumer demand. Upwell Cosmetics is creating new possibilities for brands to eliminate concerning ingredients.”
For Chris Reddy, a senior scientist in WHOI’s Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department, who has researched these naturally produced compounds for over 20 years, this wax product highlights the vast resources of the ocean. “The product also shows that basic science also has great value, particularly when paired with the necessary determination to go from the laboratory to the market,” he said.
In 2005, Dr. Reddy and Scott Lindell, a research specialist in WHOI’s Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department, began to study alkenones to see if biofuel could be derived from the algae. Dr. Reddy and Greg O’Neil, professor of organic chemistry at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., collaborated to look for other potential practical uses for alkenones. After some of those uses — biodiesel and jet fuel in particular – didn’t pan out because they were uneconomical. They focused on some other possible uses and together came up with the idea of cosmetics.
Because neither are cosmetic scientists, they approached Gabriella Baki, director of the BSPS Cosmetic Science and Formulation Design Program and associate professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Toledo, Ohio. Dr. Baki made some lipsticks and other products using the alkenone waxes that students in Dr. O’Neil’s lab have been involved with extracting, isolating, and characterizing. Ms. Baki, Drs Reddy and O’Neil, and others subsequently co-authored a 2019 article in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science that favorably evaluated alkenones as a structuring agent for lipsticks.
That’s when Daniella Zakon serendipitously came into the picture. One morning in 2019, she was in a coffee shop in Woods Hole frequented by WHOI scientists and engineers. Ms. Zakon, who had recently moved back to Woods Hole from overseas, where she had been involved in start-ups, was chatting with a friend about the possibility of commercializing some of the great science coming out of WHOI. Somebody overheard the conversation and told her to get in touch with Dr. Reddy, who had been involved with making lipstick with algae wax.
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