Apothecary - Christine Hong
5 min read

Apothecary - Christine Hong

Interview with Christine Hong of Apothecary
Apothecary - Christine Hong

Today we have Christine Hong, founder of Apothecary, for an interview. Apothecary is a discovery platform that employs data-driven tools, such as image analysis, to recommend skincare products that work for an individual’s skin.

Brian Wei: Tell me about yourself and how you got into the tech ecosystem.

I actually got into tech being a complete outsider of tech. I came in freshman year thinking I was going to be a doctor like the rest of my family. In my mind, that's all there was. Then, people around me were starting their own companies. I came from a small private school in Boston and computer science is not a traditional subject, like history or mathematics. There was one “computer science” class and we were programming Karel the Dog. Exactly what you would expect from an East Coast prep school. That’s what I thought coding was, telling Karel the Dog to go in a circle, make a right turn, and take a nap.

I was a CS major for too long when I finally decided this is my chance to study a topic I'm fascinated by. That’s when I made the switch over to Neurobiology. So, I came full-circle back to tech, not from tech, but from experiencing a personal pain point where the most compelling solution is enabled by tech.

What inspired you to work on personalized skincare? Can you walk me through how Apothecary works?

Entering your teenage years is tough. Some time along the way, you sprout your first pimple. Then there are two, three and nine and then before I knew it, it was all over my face. I really struggled with it. My mom's an amazing dermatologist and she helped me out with Retin-A and Accutane. While it was effective, the side effects were too harsh for my dry and sensitive skin. I ultimately had to find another solution.

I went to aestheticians and scoured the internet. Man, I was desperate. No one was able to give me scientifically-backed, data-driven product recommendations. I spent countless hours and tons of money trying one award-winning product to another. It was super frustrating.

This continued into college. Then I was introduced to Facebook groups and a skincare subreddit, SkincareAddiction. They’re online communities where people share their personal experiences with skincare products, ask for routine advice, share what’s worked and hasn’t, and get recommendations. It still took a ton of time to learn and research, and way too much money to try products, but it was different from the Allure articles I was reading. They weren’t sponsored posts -- these were real people, with real skin problems, engaging in some real talk.

That’s when I had the lightbulb moment. The best way to solve this problem would be to combine all of this experiential data and distill them into personalized, actionable recommendations. To help optimize on the cost side, instead of paying $70 upfront for a full size product where you don’t even know if it works for you or not, we send you a deluxe sample of a product you want to try so you can have a month-long trial for a fraction of the price tag.

Effectively, what we're building is a personalized skincare shopping experience. It is a platform technology. Most people with fungal acne don't know that they have fungal acne. 81% of people don't know their skin type. So, we intake selfies and leverage image analysis and survey data to match people with similar skin conditions and goals. We have information about what’s worked and what hasn’t and use all of this data to improve product recommendations.

How can skincare be improved through AI or a data-driven approach?

Quite a few companies are trying to create custom products, like Curology. It's done wonders for some people, which is awesome. But we also believe that there are already tens of thousands of products out there. It's not that there isn't a product out there that works for you, it is the process of finding it that is incredibly time-consuming and capital intensive. It’s like dating, right? It is a process to finding a match for you. It’d be crazy to think, “I haven’t found my ideal partner yet, so let’s 3D print one.”

What trends do you see in the realm of beauty tech? What do you think are driving these changes?

The push for transparency is growing. It's always been so difficult to know what you’re actually getting in the bottle. Companies aren’t required to always tell you the percentage of active ingredients. For example, with retinol products, it’s basically useless unless it’s in the right derivative form in a high enough percentage to complete its mechanism of action in the skin without being overly irritating. Yet a product that barely contains any retinol can say the same thing on the bottle as another product with the right percentage. Marketing is a pain to cut through. On the regulatory level, the FDA doesn’t require companies to back up any of their claims, so long as they don’t claim to cure a disease. Even if there are ingredients on a consumer’s blackout list, you can still include it in the product without labeling it. It’s a mess!

One may even say suspicious.

An interesting movement has been the rise of green beauty, clean beauty, organic beauty, gluten-free beauty, what have you. It’s amazing, there's everything you can think of. The whole belief behind green beauty craze is that if it wasn't naturally derived from the earth, then it doesn't belong on or in my body. You have to remember that acids also come from the Earth, and that chemical exfoliants in moderation are great for your skin while some natural clay masks may clog your pores! When talking about “toxicity”, remember that even natural ingredients can be toxic!

The education front is also something we're trying to tackle, even at the most basic level. After you diagnose someone's skin, they don't know what active ingredients are going to best benefit them right? If you have oily skin you can use like salicylic acid, for example. On the fundamental education level that is something we are trying to communicate through our marketing channels, such as Instagram.

What are the challenges to running an early stage startup?

Ruthless prioritization. You are so short on people. Right now we're just three people. There are all these opportunities coming at you from various directions, for example separate customer segments demanding different features. How you prioritize and stay true to your mission in the very beginning, while also opening yourself to feedback and understanding what the market wants, is a fine line to walk.

What are the best parts to running an early stage startup?

There are two sides to every coin -- while the lack of structure can be chaotic, it can also give you room to be creative in your solution. As someone who didn’t necessarily come from the tech world, or the dermatology world, but as someone who just had this problem, like so many other people, I feel like it gives me that freedom and space to explore a solution that hasn't been implemented before by people who come from these industries and have their preconceived notions about how things operate.

What are your favorite products to use?

I have really extremely dry skin (eczema runs in my family) so, I really have to focus on the humectants and emollients like hyaluronic acid and squalane oil. The CosRx one is my holy grail. Humectants basically draw water into your skin. HA is famous for holding 1000 times its weight in water. But it can’t hold moisture for an extended period of time so you have to seal it in and fortify the natural skin barrier with an emollient or occlusive. My emollient of choice is squalane oil. I love the one from Biossance. You can get another version that’s the same thing from Amazon for about five bucks. That’ll be $10 for your consultation.

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