By Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared on beauty independent on Oct. 21, 2019.
People with highly sensitive skin often avoid beauty products out of fear the products will inflame their faces. ELSI Beauty is working to calm their fear by designing technology and skincare to ensure they don’t receive formulas causing irritation.
“We want to build a Stitch Fix for beauty,” says ELSI Beauty founder and skin pharmacologist Elsa Jungman. “Today, it’s really hard for the customer suffering from sensitive skin to find what’s right for them. We are building a personalized platform that connects data on your skin profile, hormonal changes and the environment together with our research on the microbiome to create a subscription box of products people use most like moisturizers and cleansers that we will iterate on based on their feedback.”
ELSI Beauty has raised $1 million from clean beauty and wellness venture capital firm Sekhmet Ventures, French investment firm Founders Future and seed fund program The Refiners as well as undisclosed backers to conduct research and erect its personalized platform. The brand debuted in soft launch mode in May with its first product, Let’s Start Over Super Moisturizing Serum, a blend of squalene, plukenetia volubilis seed oil and tocopherol priced at $48 for a 1-oz. full-sized bottle and $9 for a .1-oz. sample.
“With this moisturizer that has three ingredients, people that tend to have sensitive skin can decrease their exposure to ingredients that they’re exposed to with a cream that has 20 or more ingredients,” says Jungman. “Already, half the people who’ve used it say they’ve stopped using their regular moisturizer. We see a lot of people going through hormonal changes enjoying the product, especially those who’ve recently had a baby or are going through menopause. Making gentle products is actually really difficult, but a product like this can bring a lot of comfort.”
Jungman understands the population ELSI Beauty, which is named for her and her 92-year-old grandmother Simone, serves. At 18, she was stricken with toxic shock syndrome and the treatment she was given for it left her skin easily aggravated. When she moved to the Bay Area from Paris four years ago, she encountered a skincare market lacking products tailored to sensitive skin that are common in her native France. The dearth surprised her because some 50% of consumers identify as having sensitive skin.
Jungman’s personal experience and professional background are distinctly suited to lead a company centered on sensitive skin offerings. She received a doctorate from University of Paris-Sud, where she studied skin absorption, and researched skin aggressors with pioneering dermatologist Howard Maibach at University of California, San Francisco. After her schooling, she joined L’Oréal and analyzed skincare ingredient penetration before heading the startup route with stints at AOBiome and Aquis. She’s also been a skin research authority on Credo’s clean beauty council. In June, Jungman was feted with the French American Entrepreneurship Award by Club600.
Barbara Paldus, managing partner of Sekhmet Ventures, strives to invest in science-driven beauty and wellness brands, and is impressed by Jungman’s extensive expertise. She says, “Elsa did many years of research on the skin microbiome and has a very interesting concept both from the perspective of production formulation and, eventually, diagnostics for creating a unique product line for those with sensitive skin.”
In 2018, Jungman committed $10,000 of her own money to begin developing ELSI Beauty, but she knew it would need a larger amount to realize her aspirations for it. She immediately hit the fundraising circuit. It wasn’t a fun exercise for her. Over and over again, investors dismissed ELSI Beauty. Jungman says, “People were always questioning my reason for being, and it was painful.”
To woo investors, Jungman leaned into her substantive resume. She could hire marketing professionals, but it’s rare for founders to come to the table with her rigorous skincare training. On a superficial level, she altered the way she looked to fit the part of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. While Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, has been discredited as a fraud, she was able to amass $400 million-plus for her sham. Told that she presented as too feminine during pitches, Jungman decided to dress similar to Holmes, and wore black turtlenecks and pulled her hair back. Jungman believes the masculine style was effective.
Now that ELSI Beauty has secured capital, Jungman is letting her hair down and reintroducing color to her wardrobe. She’s putting the funding toward paying herself (she’d stopped paying herself early last year), hiring people (she’s on the hunt for marketing and branding whizzes), and research. The research will be on how ELSI Beauty’s formulations, and transitions in people’s lives such as menopause and the birth of a child affect the microbiome.
At the outset, ELSI Beauty will concentrate on direct-to-consumer distribution in the United States. Asia and Europe are possibilities for future expansion. To lift brand awareness, Jungman is a big fan of events. With yoga teacher Karin Karlsson, she’s devised a facial yoga technique dubbed ELSI Method incorporating ELSI Beauty’s formulations. The Method is the catalyst for events that Jungman argues are essential to engage people with its merchandise. She says, “It’s very important today to not only focus on an online strategy as a direct-to-consumer brand, but to focus offline and build your community.”
Jungman anticipates adding a cleanser to ELSI Beauty’s assortment soon, a product people with sensitive skin are particularly scared to pick up because cleansing can instigate pain. All the brand’s products will contain 10 or fewer ingredients, and steer clear of essential oils and fragrances that tend to heighten skin sensitivity. Jungman expects ELSI Beauty’s personalization platform to premiere next year. She says, “The personalization model will continue to be smarter and smarter over time. We really want to co-create with our community.”