MEETING WITH ELSA JUNGMAN, FOUNDER & CEO OF Dr ELSA JUNGMAN, A SKIN MICROBIOME & SKINCARE START-UP
by French Tech SF
Dr Elsa Jungman is a skincare line with few ingredients and an innovative focus: the preservation of the skin's microbiome. Just a few weeks ago she launched a Skin Microbiome test to analyze at home our own skin microbiome.
After suffering from a toxic shock syndrome at 18, her skin was left very sensitive. She has dedicated her career studying skin science between Paris and San Francisco to finding and understanding the missing link - the microbiome.
With her company, she is aiming to advance skin health innovation through the skin microbiome. Elsa has a Ph.D. in Skin Pharmacology and began her career working in R&D for L’Oréal in Paris. In 2015, she moved to San Francisco where she learned about the skin microbiome and its importance for skin health. She made it her mission to be an advocate and resource for promoting a healthy skin ecosystem.
She was the first woman awarded the French American Entrepreneurship Awards in New York in 2019.
"I am proud that I never gave up. Even at the most intense times in my life. I could have taken the easy way out, but we managed to innovate and make a major turnaround."
French Tech SF: From dermatology researcher to startup founder, how did your entrepreneurial journey begin, and why did you decide to create your cosmetic brand and launch it directly on the American market?
Elsa Jungman: I arrived in San Francisco in 2015, after working in R&D at L’Oreal in Paris, where I started working with several beauty and biotech startups such as AOBiome and Aquis Hair. My experience with the skin microbiome shifted my vision of beauty and skincare. I swiftly realized the negative impact products can have on the skin as a whole, and from there I decided to create my company to bring more science and simplicity to our beauty routine. I wanted to work in the industry because I love customers and products.
I raised my first million dollars from Sekhmet Ventures, Founders Future, Rocher Participations, The Refiners, and private investors to conduct research and build its customized platform.
Our mission is to transform solutions for skin health by developing a model to better understand sensitive skin and improve solutions for skin health through the skin microbiome.
In the beginning, I started with a range of skincare products respectful of the skin microbiome. We were the first brand to have this certification in the United States of "microbiome friendly".
Our line is very premium for women who are going through major hormonal changes. I believe the key to healthy skin is simplicity and awareness. By listening and working with our own microbiome, we can achieve better, healthier skin for life.
I started with a line of 2 steps to clean and moisturize. I'm a big believer in minimalism for the skin. From a scientific point of view, it makes a lot of sense and no brand was offering products that were fragrance-free without essential oils which are very clean ingredients that the American consumer would not be suspicious of. We launched 12 months ago, And we collected more than 10,000 data on a study. We realized that the main cause of skin problems was stress and hormonal changes.
Recently, we decided to go beyond making skincare by launching a skin microbiome test, like a 23&me for your skin.
FTSF: You are not in the classic “tech founder” stereotype. In your opinion, is it more complicated, and what does it mean to be a female founder to you?
EJ: In 2019, when I had to raise money, it was pretty tough. No one wanted to invest in a company run by a female scientist. Yes, It is more complicated for women. During Covid, Men got extensions and funding for women founders dropped. Just after having my baby in February 2021, I only took three weeks of maternity leave as I had to work to save my business. There were only two of us at the time, in the middle of the covid, working from home.
I hired a coach, Barbara Meyer. She has been helping me deal with the pressure since the beginning of the pandemic. It's a breath of fresh air, and tools to tackle obstacles and challenges. I highly recommend doing this.
FTSF: How does a young startup manage to emerge on the American market with big competing cosmetic brands?
EJ: We target a niche of customers with a specific issue. For us, it is women with sensitive skin and we focused on understanding the shift of their skin microbiome. This data from our community is offering a unique expertise.
Today our competitors are mostly the other indie beauty clean brands in fact because with the microbiome we are still very niche. There are not many brands in microbiome but I don't think we are big enough to compete between each other. The market is saturated in cosmetics, there are new launches all the time and it's very hard as a consumer to make a difference with all these new products. That is why focusing on science and data is key.
The challenge is the educational side, we are in a new market: test + product, so we will see how it will evolve.
How to make people want to do the test? Communication is very important. We worked with a PR agency, Micro-influencers, Instagram, and blog posts. We also launched our test in retail by partnering with Credo Beauty exclusively.
Beauty salons, beauticians, facialists are our next target.
FTSF: Why did you create the Science of Beauty collective? Can you tell us about it?
EJ: I made it my mission to be an advocate and resource for promoting a healthy skin ecosystem. I worked towards that vision by becoming a mentor for biotech startups and STEM students as well as an expert for the Clean Beauty Council at Credo Beauty.
The Science of Beauty Collective was created 6 months ago. It's a support network of founder women who are interested in science. We are going to create office hours of support. We will also create more content to support the founders and consumers. We'll be looking for a community manager to work on content. It's a great network when you launch your brand. Other founders can now join our slack channel by signing up on scienceofbeauty.org
FTSF: What is the biggest challenge you've faced?
EJ: With our capital, I opened a lab, hired a team, I needed to attract talents and it was very hard to recruit, and Covid came along...
Our market is very competitive and 2020 was a difficult year.
I wanted to keep the capital to survive through Covid. We delayed the launch because of supply chain problems. Then I was pregnant with a small team and I had to find innovative solutions to get the traction we needed without spending much. I contacted people who believed in us. I partnered with our microbiome research lab, which was extraordinary and generous. That is when I decided to launch our skin microbiome test as a commercial product. I dared to make the pivot that I didn't think I could do before. The launch of this pilot was a real change. We had 90% of new investors that brought funds to the company just before the summer.
FTSF: Looking back, what advice would you give yourself, and what pitfall should you avoid if you were to do it again today?
EJ: The most important thing is to take care of your mental health. During my pregnancy, I had a lot of stress with work, which had a big impact on me. You have to be able to organize yourself better and manage your personal and professional life balance.
When you're an expatriate abroad, you don't always have a family to help you, so when you're a working couple, with a baby on top of it, it's not easy. With a start-up, there is always work. It's a cycle that never stops.
I should have recruited more people at the beginning to help me. But it's not always obvious without a concrete vision to recruit, but that slowed us down, with hindsight.
Being an entrepreneur is not an easy life. It's very fulfilling but it's constant anxiety and pressure. You are never on vacation. I could not take more than 3 weeks of maternity leave so you need a very supportive partner.
FTSF: I understand you have made certain pivots in your journey. Can you share about those pivoting and the reason behind them?
EJ: I remember very well a sentence from my time at the refiners: “The mistake is to keep putting money into something that doesn't work”. I knew we had all the ingredients to make it work.
Last May, I launched a campaign offering a limited number of people to analyze their microbiome for $50 before and after testing our products. It was a success, people were willing to pay. So we decided to raise money and launch our microbiome kit this fall for a fee because we saw that there was a demand and that the market was ripe for it.
We are focusing on skin problems and also studying other factors, such as stress or hormonal changes. The objective is to discover everything about your microbiome and to have recommendations concerning your skin profile. Also nutritional coaching and mindfulness.
We have set up a partnership with Credo. Our products are sold on our website and in all Credo stores in the US, with a tailored customer experience with the test kit. Depending on the feedback from the test, customers will be able to make their purchases with adapted products.
By analyzing all the data from the pilot program and then the data from our paid kit. We're already seeing some very interesting and glaring things. This could give us intellectual property and additional knowledge to innovate.
So it's educational. Recommendations according to the skin to the client. People need simple and easy-to-follow advice.
FTSF: How do you envisage your business growing?
EJ: We are continuing to diversify our acquisition channel for our skincare and test kit.
We raised funds this summer to launch the kit, we brought in new investors who are in Asia. We may also develop in this region.
We are preparing to raise funds at the end of the year and beginning of 2022 to grow our revenue and develop our tech/data platform.
FTSF: As an entrepreneur, what do you expect from a movement like French Tech?
EJ: I would like to find a supportive ecosystem with other mentors, entrepreneurs around events. We all need to start networking again. I miss it a lot today.
The Refiners were the first to support me, take the risk, and put money in. And when we were in trouble, it was again a French start-up called Obviously who helped us and lent us their warehouse to be able to make the packages. We didn't have our premises anymore. They were very generous. We still work with them today. The French community is precious and useful.
FTSF: What are you the most proud of professionally?
EJ: I am proud that I never gave up. Even at the most intense times in my life. I could have taken the easy way out, but we managed to innovate and make a major turnaround. I'm proud of that, I stayed focused despite the jealousies and attacks.
A startup is a team effort.
We just launched in retail, built our tech platform in only 4 months, we created that and recruited a team. Today, we are 4 full time people: a VP operation strategy, a person in content marketing, our CMO and some part-times scientific experts, and a PR consultant.
We just organized a Press dinner in LA with Ladurée USA to present our products and our new microbiome test kit to the press and influencers. It was a great success.
We do a lot of education since the beginning of the company, it has always been our main engine and we do it for free. We just finished the “Beauty Beyond the Bottle”series with nutritional, mindfulness, editors and microbiome experts. We do classes, interactive classes where we explain how the skin works, what happens to the skin, and how to be careful.
Website : https://dr-ej.com
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