David Zhang graduated with a MASc from the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in 2016. Inspired by utilizing biomaterials to regenerate and recover healthy cell functions for his MASc project in Dr. Michael Sefton’s lab, David continued his journey as a PhD student at Harvard University working with Dr. David Mooney on next generation cancer therapeutics. In 2021, David and his colleagues founded Revela, a startup company that aims to use the latest advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and biotechnology to create better consumer products. Based near Boston, his company recently received $6.5 million seed funding from various top venture capital firms. As Chief Scientific Officer, David aims to challenge the beauty and wellness industry by uncovering new ingredients through rigorous scientific innovation.
What does your company Revela specialize in?
For years now, most products have been made using extremely old stuff. Just old ingredients remixed and remarketed in the most creative and innovative ways to sell to consumers. But when you take that all away, what truly determines any product’s effectiveness are its ingredients. So shouldn’t true innovation focus on finding better ingredients instead of the aesthetic of the exterior packaging? We founded Revela to do exactly that – to discovery the best ingredients to make more effective products. Intentional solutions for everyday problems.
Recently, we developed a hair revival serum that features a new ingredient we call ProCelinyl. Our serum targets your hair follicles on the scalp and tells them it’s time to wake up. With healthier follicles, our users are seeing longer and thicker hair.
What do you mean by “waking up the follicles”? What is it really doing to your scalp?
By “waking up the follicles” what ProCelinyl does is push the hair follicle towards a healthier state. We’ve seen that in vitro and in ex vivo models, and the clinical evidence suggests that’s what’s happening in vivo as well. ProCelinyl is able to potently, and selectively promote the proliferation of follicle dermal papilla cells, which are the key cells involved in hair cycling. We are currently doing a bunch of follow up studies on this, such as next-generation sequencing to really tease out the deeper level pathways that are being engaged.
Why is the science important? And why is that a big part of your selling point?
Science is important because at its core, it’s what determines if an ingredient will work or not. In the field of beauty, wellness, and cosmetics, science especially research and development, is often put on the backburner. I’ve heard some people say, that “beauty is where science goes to die”.
That’s incredibly unfortunate, and wrong. The reality is that the dominant companies in this space know that scientific innovation doesn’t matter when it comes to sales. They know that they can probably invest the same amount money in marketing and get the same, probably better returns, rather than investing in what we, at Revela, believe is the most important thing – the science.
What does the molecule discovery process like?
For hair, we’re focused on the follicle papilla cells at the base of the hair follicle. Decades of research have shown that these cells are like the “roots” of your hair. When they’re healthy, it directly impacts your hair shaft – making your hair healthier, thicker, and fuller.
We take no assumptions in our discovery approach. We like functional responses – like follicle papilla cell proliferation. Our goal is to find compounds that can improve their proliferation. We start by curating a small-molecule library of ~10,000 compounds from existing chemical databases. These compounds are selected to have the desired properties for something that can be used topically (aka directly on the skin).
Using these compounds, we perform a small-molecule chemical screen. The result is a rich dataset that describes follicle papilla cell proliferation as an output to a specific compound structure. We next plug in that dataset into our ensemble of machine learning models and train the models to learn the relationship between a specific compound’s structure and follicle papilla cell proliferation activity.
What this does is allow our models to search through much, much bigger chemical spaces and find the most potent compounds that have the desired activity we want. In this way, we can virtually screen millions of compounds rather than manually screening them ourselves in well plates to find the best possible compounds for really any given condition.
What is your testing process like?
Our bar for science is higher than most beauty and wellness brands. Our ingredients are rigorously tested, in the lab, then in the clinic, to make sure they are both safe and effective.
Once we have the top AI-predicted compounds, we re-test them, over and over. Then, we take the best of the best and test them on other cells on the scalp, like fibroblasts, muscle cells, endothelial cells, fat cells, keratinocytes, etc. The reason we do that is to make sure that the compounds are specific for the follicle papilla cells. We also do an extensive series of in vitro assays looking at cellular toxicity, immunogenicity, and skin sensitization to ensure that the compounds are safe to use.
Once we’ve gone through this validation process, we’re left with just a handful of compounds that are both highly effective and highly safe. This is when we test them on ex vivo skin models, which are biopsy punches from leftover tissue from people who have received cosmetic surgery, further validating the compounds’ safety.
From there we’ll move onto clinical testing – we’ll first do a repeat insult patch test which looks at irritation over a period of time, to see if there’s any contact dermatitis, or allergic reactions, etc. Once that’s good, we start more extensive clinical testing. At this point, the compound would be formulated into a product that people can use every day. The clinical tests evaluate the real safety and efficacy of our ingredients and products.
How are your products perceived by early testers?
We always say: “the results speak for themselves”. That’s the way it should be. Based on the thousands of people who have used our hair revival serum, the feedback has been very positive, and users were able to see amazing hair recovery results, much faster. It’s makes me excited when I hear that our product exceeded a customer’s expectations or that it worked when nothing else did. It’s the reason we’re here in the first place – good people deserve the best, and everyone should have higher expectations for the products they use every day.
Revela had recently secured $6.5million in series a seed fund, can you explain what that process has been like?
The seed round is generally the first large funding round in the lifetime of a company. It’s a lot different now than it used to be like even five years ago. There used to be much fewer funding mechanisms, fewer venture capital firms. Now it’s all changed, there’s a ton of micro funds that will give cheque sizes of like $50,000 to like $100,000. The seed round is often broken up into several smaller rounds. While the early-startup funding environment remains favourable, what investors are looking for are constantly changing. It’s important to always keep a pulse on current market conditions and modify your fundraising strategy as needed.
What made Revela stand out to the investors?
One thing that makes us unique, is that we are one of the first and only consumer companies that focuses on science like a biotech company would. We’re also selling to consumers and there aren’t really a lot of companies that navigate that space.
In our very first set of conversations, potential investors were confused. They couldn’t quite figure out if we were a biotech company or a consumer goods company. But we’re a combination of both. We take biotech approaches to make better things in consumer goods. Our earliest investors were a very selective, small set of people that truly understood our vision and why we’re taking the longer, arguably tougher road.
Timing is everything. COVID changed a lot of things. People are questioning fluffy products and are starting to demand more. That’s where we fit in. We strongly believe that if we want to build a successful biotechnology company that provides amazing products to people, we first need to build a brand that people can trust. I think that’s a fundamental thing that a lot of biotech folks don’t fully appreciate because they don’t care as much about the end user. It’s something that consumer funds understand because that’s what they’re extremely good at (marketing), but the science for them is still something more of a hypothesis. This is, of course, all changing fast.
What is the next step for your company?
During the COVID pandemic, my mom was introducing me to a bunch of supplements that claimed to fight COVID (this was way before vaccines). When I looked at the active ingredients in those supplements, I was like: ‘Mom, this is literally just vitamin C, there’s nothing else in here that is going to help. The fact that my mom was able to be convinced by the false promises of these products got me thinking what a strange world that we live in. Why is there so much stuff out there that don’t work? It’s wrong.
Revela was built on stories like this. Our vision is for a world where folks don’t settle for less, where expectations for consumer products are extremely high, and where customers demand more from brands. And we plan to get there by delivering solutions. More importantly, I’m hoping the impact we can make will let someone like my mom to be able to pick up one of our products, look at the label, and immediately understand exactly what the active ingredients can do.
A key challenge for us is really bridging science and the consumer. Surrounding that, an important piece of the puzzle is setting up the right company values, because at the end of the day, it starts with us. It’s so tied into success. We’ve actively taken steps towards this: every scientist we hire does customer service for a month. Every marketer we hire does “journal clubs”. It’s really from these cross-disciplinary environments where the best ideas are born.
Revela is hiring! We’re looking for talented individuals to join a small, but growing team. If you enjoy working in a fast-paced research environment while taking on larger responsibilities – this is the growth opportunity you’ve been looking for. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.