Woods Hole, Mass. April 6, 2023 — A wax that is derived from a commonly grown marine microalga could be the next big thing in cosmetics and personal care products, thanks to a recent license agreement between the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Western Washington University (WWU)—which jointly own the patents—and Upwell Cosmetics, a start-up materials company founded in Woods Hole, Mass.
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.
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 and to the licensing institutions.
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 which, if managed properly, can benefit humanity. He said 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.
Daniella Zakon, founder and CEO of Upwell Cosmetics, said the product shows “great potential to replace petroleum and animal-based wax in personal care products.” Zakon, an entrepreneur who has degrees in marine biology, environmental science, and business, said she also “is passionate about bridging the gap between science and business” and hopes this license agreement opens up the door for other innovative agreements. Zakon was joined by Alexandra Dowling Lari in 2019 as a co-founder. Dowling Lari’s career spans the luxury beauty sector, with a pivot to sustainability in recent years, including roles at LVMH, Moda Operandi, and most recently Captain Blankenship.
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 the ocean temperature.
In 2005, 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. 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 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. Baki made some lipsticks and other products, using the alkenone waxes that students in O’Neil’s lab have been involved with extracting, isolating, and characterizing. Baki, Reddy, 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 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. Zakon, who had recently moved back to Woods Hole from overseas, where she had been involved in some 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 Zakon to get in touch with Reddy, who had been involved with making lipstick with algae wax.
After several years of discussion and building a business plan and team, a license agreement was reached. Now, Upwell, which is a materials and ingredients company, is working with manufacturers to make the wax and is contacting cosmetics and personal care companies to convince them to use the wax in their own products. “I don’t think there’s a single brand we’ve spoken with who has not been interested in the wax,” Dowling Lari said, adding that the first product launch by a company could be as soon as this summer.
The big picture about alkenone research is two-fold, said O’Neil. “There is obviously a big push, and big incentives, across many industries to replace petroleum products with alternatives from renewable sources, whether we’re talking about fuel or cosmetics. There is a mandate at many companies, not just cosmetic companies, to move away from using petroleum products.” He noted it’s also important not to forget that these alkenones are just one of perhaps a number of products, such as biodiesel, that can be isolated from the algae.
From the beginning, Reddy was aware of the sustainability aspects of the algae, but it was not the force driving his research. “It wasn’t like I was waking up in the morning thinking I can save the world,” said Reddy “The soup du jour in the late 2000s and early 2010s was making biofuels. We were trying, but we failed,” “Then, we just pivoted and got lucky with the cosmetics idea.”
The license agreement is a big deal at WWU, said O’Neil. “I’m hoping this is a catalyst to start seeing more of this happening, because it’s good for the university’s visibility and for the surrounding community,” he noted.
Allison Markova, WHOI’s director of technology transfer, said the agreement is a big deal for WHOI, too. She is excited about the Upwell agreement because of the potential market opportunity and impact potential for the product. Also, she said this is a different kind of license agreement for WHOI, which, traditionally, is more accustomed to technology transfer involving oceanographic research tools, sensors, or vehicle technology.
“This is a great example of WHOI’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship, and it’s also a great example of the breadth of innovation coming out of the institution’s work in the ocean,” said Markova. “The more we can move technologies and innovations that were developed as part of the work at WHOI out into the marketplace—especially for applications that we may not traditionally think about for WHOI technology—the more we are going to broaden the impact of the institution and the impact of our research. This is really important for advancing the mission of the institution.”
Markova said finding a pathway for this new technology to reach the market, given WHOI’s unique environment, in this case, required finding an outside team that was enthusiastic about commercializing the product and working collaboratively with the inventors. “Licensing is not just protecting the intellectual property, finding a partner, and signing an agreement. It’s also building a relationship over time where both the institution and the inventors feel confident in the company’s ability to commercialize and the company feels confident in the value of the technology,” she said.
Zakon, with her marine biology background, said she finds working on this product personally exciting because she used to work on coral reef conservation. “Now I’m getting to help these massive cosmetics and personal care brands make reef-safe sunscreen, among other products,” she said. “My biggest goal is that 10 years from now everyone will know what this wax is and that petroleum wax won’t be used anymore for personal care products.”
About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu
About Upwell Cosmetics
Upwell Cosmetics is an ingredients and materials company, supplying the world’s first algae-derived wax to the cosmetics and personal care industry. The algae wax is a sustainable structural alternative for cosmetics such as lipstick, sunscreen and deodorant. Upwell Cosmetics was founded in 2019 by Daniella Zakon and Alexandra Dowling Lari.