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What Went Wrong at Amyris?

The manufacturer-turned-incubator has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and put its consumer businesses, including lines from Jonathan Van Ness and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, up for sale.
Amyris files for bankruptcy.
Manufacturer-turned-incubator Amyris files for bankruptcy. (Getty Images)

Amyris is exiting the celebrity beauty business.

Just days after shutting down three of its labels, including Brazilian skin, hair and fragrance line Costa Brazil and clean beauty retailer Onda Beauty, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and said it would sell off its remaining brands.

According to a Delaware bankruptcy court filing, the company listed estimated assets in the range of $500 million to $1 billion and liabilities in the range of $1 to $10 billion. Amyris said it had secured a $190 million financing commitment from Foris Ventures to support continued day-to-day operations.

The bankruptcy filing caps off a tumultuous year for Amyris. In February, it sold its proprietary sugarcane-derived squalane ingredient to Givaudan for $200 million cash and $150 million in performance-based earnouts, a deal it previously expected to yield $350 million cash. Amyris had captured over 50 percent of the global market for squalane, a cosmetics derivative of squalene, which is naturally found in the livers of deep-sea sharks. In June, longtime chief executive John Melo exited the company and Amyris said it would look for ways to streamline its portfolio to save $250 million. 260 employees were let go this week, following the departure of 148 employees in June for a combined 30 percent reduction in talent.

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The announcement that Amyris would officially offload the rest of its brands is an about-face for the company, which recently engaged in a series of publicised brand incubations and acquisitions, including Rose Inc., model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s colour cosmetics line and JVN, “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness’ hair care brand, which both debuted in 2021. Melo specifically had aspirations of building beauty’s first clean and sustainable beauty conglomerate.

The company, which found early success developing new, bio-based materials for other beauty companies before building out its own brand portfolio, plans to return to those roots after exiting bankruptcy proceedings.

“We believe the step forward our company has taken today puts us on the best path to address our financial challenges and achieve a comprehensive solution — rooted in Amyris’ ground-breaking science, formulation capabilities and technology,” said Han Kieftenbeld, interim CEO and CFO of Amyris in a statement.

Biotechnology Beginnings to All-in on Celebrities

Founded in 2003 with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Amyris got its start as an anti-malaria drug maker. It soon became known for its sustainable biotech ingredient technology, with squalane its biggest success.

In 2016, Amyris debuted its first consumer beauty brand, skin care line Biossance, the crown jewel of the portfolio that became a case study for the firm’s other ventures.

On the heels of Biossance’s success, the business doubled down on a lineup of celebrity-backed brands experiments. The hope was that Amyris could use its cultural capital to highlight the clean and sustainable sourcing methods employed by Rose Inc. and JVN, as well as its other labels, including Stripes, the menopausal beauty brand fronted by Naomi Watts (Watts was also the co-founder of Onda Beauty, which Amryis acquired in April 2022) and 4U by Tia, Tia Mowry’s textured hair line. Biossance even tapped Reese Witherspoon for a five-year global ambassador deal in 2021. A line with David Beckham was said to be in development, with products debuting later this year.

Amyris did not provide further detail on its sale process, but a spokesperson for Francisco Costa’s Costa Brazil said the brand is set to reorganise. Amryis acquired Costa Brazil in 2021.

Launching a brand with a celebrity attached became the de facto play for incubators and entertainment agencies looking for dollar signs, but Amryis’ bet on celebrity was a risky move for a science-first, tech company. Its reliance on celebrity also came at a time when consumer fatigue for the category reached an all-time high. One source familiar with Amyris’ brand operations said, “They sold people on a vision of sustainable business practices, but went on a spending spree acquiring brands and realised they couldn’t actually operate any of them.”

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Brand margins are certainly higher than those of ingredients, but a pivot to consumer brands caused Amryis to lose sight of its greatest strength: biotech manufacturing.

“Biossance was the brand that leveraged the IP story the best — for the others, it wasn’t as critical,” said Rich Gersten, founder of private equity firm True Beauty Capital. He noted that the company may have spent too much on launching new brands — instead of focusing on more established parts of the business.

Oleg Isakov, principal at global strategy and management consulting firm Kearney, added that even as it launched new brands, Amyris did not simultaneously build out its organisational and leadership structure to scale these emerging lines — brands that ultimately were quite different from one another. While Biossance was sold at Sephora and leaned into clean beauty, Pipette was a personal care line for babies and children. Biossance, too, was under pressure; in first-quarter earnings reported in May, Amyris’ consumer revenue declined due to lower brand revenue.

Rather than using its greatest strength to its advantage — which may have proved less lucrative in the short term — Amyris thought attaching a famous face to a line of hair care, skin care or makeup would yield an instant hit. Besides Fenty Beauty or Rare Beauty, few celebrity or influencer lines have been able to capture consumers’ attention or wallets long-term.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, 80 percent of Amyris’ business was supplying ingredients to other companies, with just 20 percent coming from consumer brands. Kieftenbeld is intent on right-sizing the business, but the abrupt spin-off of its consumer arm may not bode well.

“Amyris had a vision of being a clean beauty brand conglomerate, but the public markets did not know how to value [its] mix of businesses,” said Gersten. “Biotech companies are valued differently than beauty brands, and Amyris was in the process of trying to pivot from one to the other — or be relevant as both, which is no easy task.”



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