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BOSTON, United States — Dr Rebecca Lacouture met her business partner Dr Gregory Altman at Tufts University, where Lacouture earned a PhD in Biomedical Engineering and BS in Mechanical Engineering. Together, the pair launched Serica Technologies, an implantable medical device company, in 1998, which was later acquired by Allergan Plc.
While in her 20s, Lacouture was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which propelled the pair to leverage the properties of natural chemicals — like silk — to replace harmful ingredients in skincare products and create a product that could have biocompatible benefits across industries. In 2013, Lacouture and Altman co-founded green chemistry company Silk Inc., which was renamed Evolved By Nature last year, to harness the sustainable possibilities of liquid silk.
To date, Evolved By Nature has raised $51 million in funding and was put on the fashion map through gaining investment from Chanel. The company holds 75 patents for an array of silk molecular configurations, with Lacouture serving as president and chief operating officer, leading development, engineering and operations. Activated Silk itself is an ingredient of two skincare brands, Silk Therapeutics and LabGrab, and in June 2019, Evolved By Nature partnered with London’s Harrods Pharmacy, making its debut with an exclusive collection.
The company continues to develop and commercialise new applications for natural silk, which is biocompatible, biodegradable and sustainable, and useable in clothes, bed linens, furniture upholstery, personal care products and skincare. BoF sits down with the company’s president and chief operating officer to hear about her career and advice.
How did your work in sustainable product development begin?
I met my current business partner [Dr. Gregory Altman] at Tufts University — he was a graduate student and I was an incoming freshman interested in studying engineering on my path to what I thought would be medical school.
I took an introductory biotechnology engineering class thinking that would be a great step towards med school. I worked in the lab there and fell in love with research, data and the ability to solve problems and have an impact on health from a totally different perspective. So instead of going to med school, I stayed on and went to graduate school.
I had a unique opportunity to work in implantable medical devices — and to understand the impact that I could have on health from the perspective of a female scientist. It is encouraging to see how many women are moving into the space today.
Where did the idea for Evolved By Nature come from?
Evolved By Nature started as an effort to see how we can have a broader impact on health, not only helping people after they've already had some sort of a health issue, as [Dr Altman and I] were doing in our last venture together [at Serica Technologies].
We knew silk can do incredible things, so we thought, how can we leverage it to have an impact on something such as skincare, where we know it has a tremendous impact not only on your own personal health, but also on environmental health?
It's surprising to walk into a textile mill and see people in full protective equipment, knowing that the chemistry they're handling in a concentrated state requires protective gear. You're putting these materials on your skin, getting in the shower and washing them down the drain into the water stream. So, we’re trying to think about health in the global sense of the word — about the end user, the water supply, the environment, as well as the people who are doing the manufacturing.
What role did you play in the beginning for Evolved By Nature?
As the engineer, I spent the first year with the team building the process equipment to find out if we could actually manufacture it reproducibly, cost effectively and then get the performance that we need to allow the chemistry team to explore what the material actually did.
It's surprising to walk into a textile mill and see people in full protective equipment.
We learned that if we were able to properly control our manufacturing process, we weren't just getting one molecule — we got 75 different molecules that we've patented. The chemistry team looked at those and asked, what can we do with all these different molecules in skincare and stabilise other active ingredients?
How did you leverage sustainable product development within the fashion and beauty industries?
Knowing the potential of silk to work inside the body, it seemed like a logical choice to evaluate silk for outside the surface of the skin as well. We also knew if we wanted to be able to use it as a coating on textiles or as an ingredient in skincare, we needed to get it into a liquid state.
The silk can bind itself to the surface of skin and provide its own active benefits, like firming and tightening the skin. We got feedback from the market and thought, if we're looking at skincare, what about the textiles that you're wearing? If you think about your yoga pants, for example, the sweat on the surface of your skin is going to pull three to five chemicals on your yoga pants into your skin. So that was where we took the step into sustainable fashion and sustainable apparel.
Thankfully, there's a significant push towards sustainability across multiple industries and the interest comes from consumers. They're influencing businesses, which need to make a change toward sustainability and health. We're able to provide data and scientific evidence that shows what we're doing in sustainability through lifecycle analysis. It's not just assumptions and conjecture — it's having the credibility to say, here's how it's designed and how it stacks up in terms of sustainability.
What career opportunities are there for fashion and beauty professionals interested in sustainable product development?
We have a 70-person team here made up of incredible talent from all different backgrounds — we have folks from the textile industry, the medical industry, the skincare and cosmetics industry, pharmaceuticals — it brings completely different perspectives and solutions to the table.
Having an understanding of the environmental impact can come in various forms: it could be from the scientific understanding of the design process or the impact at different stages of the lifecycle of a product; it could also come from the marketing side and thinking about messaging and how you do that. There is a need for sustainability in almost every position out there.
This isn't about me personally advancing my career, this is actually about solving a problem.
There needs to be an appreciation for what the consumer needs actually are. Pulling people in from different areas like textiles, for instance, helps us take the handoff of the chemistry from the team and figure out real-world application, which is just as critical as having the science right. The folks on the marketing and creative side have the perspective of what a consumer expects to see in a hang tag and how we properly communicate over social channels what the product is, at a level that is relatable, to increase sustainability in these different industries.
What is important for job seekers to consider during this time in lockdown?
There is huge value in building and maintaining a strong professional and personal network, no matter what industry you work in – especially during challenging times such as these. You're then able to reach out and bring different people together to solve tough problems. For example, we're currently working with a local distillery to make and donate hand sanitizer to those in the healthcare and hospitality industries. Building a diverse network with multiple points of view can result in creative solutions to issues involving health and sustainability.
While in lockdown, you can also leverage your time to stay current on the latest advancements in your field and hone your ability to assess the information critically — is what's being presented grounded in reality or might it be green-washing? This will allow you to learn from what worked and what didn't, giving you ideas and strategies to implement when you are able to get back in a lab.
What advice would you give to those looking to enter the sustainability space today?
I think starting to ask questions and understanding what chemistries are being used will help. I think there's a push out there from both the chemistry side from companies such as ours, but also from the textile industry, so there are a number of brands now that have made different pledges to sustainability into reducing waste.
You need to be truly passionate about what [you're] doing — it needs to be something that you love working on for you to truly give it your all and for you to be invested in it to drive it to success. Everyone's going to bring a different experience set to the table and if we can figure out how to capitalise on that, we should be able to solve problems faster and better.
I think keeping an open mind and looking at all of those different opportunities as ways to get into the field, and ways to leverage the skills that you've come out of school with, is really the best way to get a foot in the door. A willingness to learn from everyone else in your organisation is critical and that passion to be able to all say, "Hey, this isn't about me personally advancing my career, this is actually about solving a problem that we owe to the consumer," allows everyone to advance their careers.