Skincare is a vital part of many of our lives, with the global cosmetic market set to be worth $429.8 billion by 2022, thanks to millennials. What makes the growth of the cosmetic market even more fascinating are the indie beauty brands run by millennial women that are making their mark. One of those innovative entrepreneurs is Dr. Shuting Hu of Acaderma, a skincare line that combines “academia and dermatology.”
Dr. Hu is one of the youngest cosmetic scientists to receive an award from the International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists, according to Forbes. Not to mention in 2018, she was one of 13 women accepted into Sephora’s Accelerate Program, a six-month program that helps female founders gain the know-how to create successful beauty businesses through mentorship.
We chatted with Dr. Hu about what it was like to apply her academic roots to create a beauty brand from scratch, her love of photography, and how she faces new challenges as both an entrepreneur and scientist.
Name: Shuting Hu, Founder of Acaderma
Current Location: San Francisco
Education: B.S. in biological science from Shanghai Ocean University; Ph.D. in biological science from the University of Hong Kong, main research area on skin biology and health benefits of natural ingredients.
What was your first job, and how did you land it?
My first job was as a postdoctoral researcher, which I achieved by continuing my Ph.D. research.
How did you find your way into the indie beauty industry? Did you always know that you wanted to leave your mark on the beauty world?
I studied skin biology and the health benefits of natural ingredients during my Ph.D. and postdoctoral research. Our research team discovered a series of amazing active ingredients that are novel and unlike many others, such as vitamin C. My vision was to translate these amazing discoveries from academia to the market, not leaving them buried in a digital archive of scientific papers. So, instead of accepting a faculty position at the university, I decided to become an entrepreneur instead.
How did you come up with a name for your company, and what do you think sets your products apart?
The name combines ‘academia’ and ‘dermatology,’ which means we use technology discovered from academia to solve skin problems. What separates us from any other skincare brand on the market today are our pioneering technology and exclusive, high-quality ingredients that are rigorously tested and backed by independent clinical trials. Every formulation is clean and 9-free, meaning that all of our formulas are devoid of SLS/SLES, parabens, mineral oil, propylene glycol, synthetic dyes, hydroquinone, phthalates, fragrances, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.
What separates us from any other skincare brand on the market today are our pioneering technology and exclusive, high-quality ingredients that are rigorously tested and backed by independent clinical trials.
What was it like being apart of the Sephora Accelerate program?
During my time in Sephora’s Accelerate program, I learned how to create my brand’s identity, as well as understand the importance of package design, digital marketing, leadership skills, and how to conduct consumer surveys and further enhance my communication skills. Before I started Acaderma, I spent six years doing extensive research and development on natural ingredients and skin biology. I was dedicated to my craft, which limited my ability to explore the marketing, branding, and sales side of the business. When I was selected for an interview with Sephora, I did a presentation about my research data and the prototypes made in the lab and I witnessed firsthand the confusion from all the panel members. This is when the light bulb went off and I realized that my biggest challenge was to translate complex scientific data into concise information that is easily understood, and to build a brand that also delivers scientific integrity.
Before I started Acaderma, I spent six years doing extensive research and development on natural ingredients and skin biology.
What advice do you have for young women with aspirations similar to yours?
If it’s advice to young women entrepreneurs, I would say building your own business means you have to learn almost every aspect and face each challenge by yourself — the process is very tough. That said, it’s important to enjoy this learning process. No one learns everything at once; it’s a gradual development and we all learn from one project to another. It will be a unique experience that benefits your entire life.
I love beauty, and to be honest, I rarely think about how products get from a lab to my beauty cabinet. How long did it take you to develop the five products that are a part of your line?
It took me nine years (including six years of research in university), plus another 10 years of my professor’s previous research in Africa.
We started from scientific research: screening, purifying, and identifying more than 1,000 compounds, studying their action mechanisms, and conducting clinical trials to find the best ingredients. Then came formulation design: a delivery system that made sure our active ingredients can penetrate your skin to the basal layer of the epidermis. Another challenge came from lab to production: our exclusive ingredients’ extraction and purification technology take another one year (from 1g per week to 10kg per day). On the other end, there’s brand and packaging design, marketing, building our own website, and selling direct-to-consumer that we had to execute. We participated in every step of the supply chain to make sure our scientific integrity is delivered to the final product in your beauty cabinet.
Building your own business means you have to learn almost every aspect and face each challenge by yourself — the process is very tough.
There is one product in your line that stuck out to me because a key ingredient that you source for the product gives back to a community in Africa (the Oasis Barrier Booster). Tell us more about your experience working within that community.
Kinkeliba is a plant that grows in the sub-Saharan region of West Africa and is able to survive in the harsh, arid climate of the desert. 10 years ago, our CTO Professor James Simon discovered this amazing plant and validated its incredible health benefits. We have a very long collaboration with African local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to conduct research on the development of indigenous plants.
We work directly with NGOs to help organize the harvesting of Kinkeliba, which helps educate women with valuable farming and agricultural skills. Along with providing a stable income for these women, the NGOs use a portion of the profits to organize more activities for the local community.
While you are a scientist, so much of your work with building Acaderma is linked to entrepreneurship. Has it been challenging to wear both titles of scientist and entrepreneur?
I would say entrepreneurship has different challenges than being a scientist. Conducting research focuses on a small area to see if we could find some breakthrough. But as an entrepreneur, I have to deal with everything, including reading legal documents where I know every word but don’t understand the whole sentence. That said, my previous research experience helps a lot since I’ve had to learn fast from the ground up and find out the best solution. The skills are similar, just in a different field.
You showed me some of your stunning photography. Is photography one of your hobbies?
Photography is one of my hobbies. Photography became my passion after I was inspired by a quote from Stephen Hawking, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.” I love to capture mostly nature photography and astrophotography.
As an entrepreneur, how important do you think it is to find things to do in life you enjoy beyond your work?
Working is just a part of my life, and I need something that brings more inspiration. More importantly, working is stressful, but your hobbies help you disconnect from work and manage your emotions. Sometimes your hobby also helps your work. For example, I’m the person in charge of visual creative works in Acaderma.
What about your work gets you excited?
It’s not just work for me — Acaderma is my baby. I feel excited whenever I talk about it and I’m always passionate when I do anything that relates to Acaderma.
What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?
I started my Ph.D. study at 22. I would say enjoy your time as a student! That’s the happiest time in your life.
Dr. Shuting Hu is The Everygirl…
Your must-have beauty product? Sunscreen! Prevention is always better than treatment.
Last book you read? The Lean Startup, a gift from Sephora’s former CEO, Mr. Calvin McDonald.
A song you can’t stop listening to? “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman.
Favorite place to have a meal? It’s always at home (which is far away from me). My mom makes my favorite meal.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
If it was any woman in time, I would love to have lunch with Marie Curie — when I visited her enshrinement in the Panthéon I left her flowers. She changed our entire lives due to her great contribution to science. I will always look up to her great achievements and want to inspire and deliver more scientific integrity to young women who are keen to make a better world.