Tucked away in a corner of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University is a laboratory no bigger than 60 square meters. The space that houses DeNova Sciences may look small, but it packs a big dream: to eliminate animal testing in the cosmetics industry.
So how does this David plan to take down such a Goliath? By creating in-vitro human skin, or artificial human skin suitable for rigorous clinical testing.
According to the Singapore startup, the largest market for its product is the cosmetics and personal care industry. DeNova’s primary clients now include international multinational corporations, research institutes, academia, industrial companies that require testing on their skin-related products, as well as local and foreign government institutes.
At present, over 100 cosmetic companies still test their products on animals, according to a non-exhaustive list by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Though some companies have a “no animal testing” policy, it is a regulatory requirement in certain countries like China, a fact that has not escaped DeNova’s notice.
DeNova co-founder Daniel Tan explained in an interview it was noted that animal tests are plagued by inaccuracy, high cost, and ethical concerns. “The use of in-vitro human skin has become a major advancement in the cosmetic industry to reconcile those issues,” he says.
Skin in the game
Set up in 2012, the company began by funding itself with about US$190,000 pooled together with its founders – Daniel Tan, Kelvin Chong, and Tan Ming Jie. However, Chong indicated in his Linkedin account that he left the company in August 2017.
In-vitro human skin is made of human keratinocytes or cells that produce keratin, a key component of hair, nail, and skin. The artificial skin is grown on scaffoldings made from connective tissue and collagen.
The first skin types the trio created were the “normal” and “dry” skin, which were then used to test moisturizing products. “They looked cool, with the stratified epidermis resembling blistered skin that peels off. It was amazing to see cells forming into sheets of tissue,” shares Tan Ming Jie.
He adds, “The hard part about growing the in-vitro skin model is creating an environment to mimic the exact skin culture. And the toughest model to create is skin that has immune responses.”
To date, DeNova has successfully developed five skin models: pigmented skin, dry skin, normal skin, cancerous skin, and fatty skin.
Deep tech needs deep wallets
Deep-technology companies are founded on a scientific discovery or meaningful engineering innovation. They are often built on tangible innovations that solve big issues that affect the world around them, according to Swati Chaturvedi, founder, and CEO at Propel(x), an investment company in San Francisco.
DeNova’s proprietary platform technology for creating artificial skins is deep tech because its core intellectual property is not easily replicable.
But startups in deep tech might mean founders need deep wallets. In a Linkedin post, Chaturvedi wrote, “What we’ve come to realize is the fields in deep tech often struggle to find initial fundings because of their complex nature.”
DeNova’s founders started out by bootstrapping, and the young startup broke even after its first full year of operation in 2014. However, it still needed more help, which came in the form of various loans and grants from investors and the Singapore government. This support allowed DeNova not only to rent lab space but also to acquire resources to sustain ongoing projects.
In 2015, DeNova participated in the Tech Planter Demo Day, a contest organized by Leave a Nest. Leave a Nest is a science venture company that supports fledgling tech startups by connecting them with potential investors in their corporate network. DeNova placed third out of nine final contestants, and the win opened doors for the startup. In particular, it gained access to investors who provided funding for more equipment.
“The most difficult part was obtaining all the equipment to start an operational laboratory. Bio-science equipment doesn’t come cheap,” shares Tan Ming Jie, pointing to their lab-grade microscope. “This cost hundreds of thousands of dollars!”
Powered by ethics
In a 2015 interview with the Straits Times, Chong said he was familiar with performing animal tests, and said he sees DeNova as a form of “redemption.”
Chong isn’t alone in having such sentiments. Concerns against animal testing are gaining global traction and this is reflected in various policy efforts. The European Union, Israel, Norway, and India have all banned the procedure for cosmetics. Even China, where animal testing is a legal requirment, is taking steps to move away from the practice.
In the private sector, a UK-based lab is working on using scaffolds of human skin cells donated by plastic surgery to avoid involving animals in tests. Even major cosmetic companies like L’Oréal are growing human skin in petri dishesfor cruelty-free testing. It counts China as among its markets, and the Paris-headquartered brand has been “working alongside the Chinese authorities for more than 10 years to have alternative testing methods recognized,” said a L’Oreal spokesperson in an email reply to Tech in Asia.
The road ahead
DeNova plans to extend its business scientifically and geographically. Plans to expand into Europe, China, and Indonesia are underway. The five-year-old startup is working on developing models for other types of skin, such as wrinkled, hairy, and immunogenic skin.
As Tan Ming Jie points out, “The DeNova technology is proprietary to us. We are able to adjust this platform and create further models to target food nutrition or even eye models.”
This kind of technology can reduce suffering and save both animal and human lives. As such, DeNova sees itself as more than just a skin-related services company. Instead, it treats itself “as a human organoid service company where we could potentially research and develop other organ types,” he concludes.