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Bad Baby Butt Creams Made This Mom Take on the Beauty Industry
Barbara Paldus, a VC and PHd with 35 patents, Is Innovating Skin Care After Not Finding Safe Products for Her Son
“My mom wasn’t a ‘Tiger Mom,’ she was a ‘Dragon Mom,’” says scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur Barbara Paldus, founder of Codex Beauty, referring to a joke she shares with her Chinese friends. “A Tiger Mom makes you practice piano until you get it right; a Dragon Mom makes you practice until your tendons swell. With a Dragon Mom, if you’re not number one, you’re a failure.”
Paldus, who launched organic, clean skin care brand Codex Beauty last year after spending her entire career in engineering and biotechnology, grew up in a hyper-strict and exacting household. Her mother was a doctor and had Paldus in her 30s, an age considered old to have children at the time. Paldus’ father is an emeritus mathematics and chemistry professor at University of Waterloo. She admits it’s taken “years of therapy” to make peace with her upbringing, but she credits her parents, who had hoped she’d become a concert pianist, for instilling a drive for perfection. Armed with a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University and with a double major in mathematics and electrical engineering from University of Waterloo in Canada, Paldus is now a disrupter in the beauty biz.
Reading the Landscape
“Codex Beauty is pharma-based beauty. In contrast, Drunk Elephant is more activist, while L’Oréal is all about growth and profits. We have not put profit first and we have a completely different approach to skin care,” says Paldus, who is the C.E.O. of Codex Beauty. She doesn’t understand how big beauty brands seem unwilling to give up “30 cents on a $70 product” to make it healthier for the user and better for the environment. Codex Beauty is named after the first bound book, which became the medium for sharing human knowledge for 2,000 years. It comes from Latin, literally meaning “block of wood,” later denoting a block split into leaves or tablets for writing on. Today, the Codex Alimentarius is an international organization (UN and WHO) that establishes international food, safety, and sustainability guidelines and practices.
Codex Beauty is a skin care company under the umbrella of Sekhmet Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in science-based beauty and wellness enterprises. Paldus and her husband founded Sekhmet after the 2017 sale of Finesse Solutions, a biotech firm that Paldus founded and ran, which specialized in bioprocess management technology, to Thermo Fisher Scientific. With Codex Beauty, Paldus is creating a group of skin care collections based on cosmetic chemistry driven by ethnobotany — using the same effective plants and their active ingredients that have been used in traditional herbal medicine by peoples and indigenous tribes around the world for centuries. Paldus also wants her skin care brands to be widely appealing, thus they are organic, vegan, cruelty-free, and comply with kosher and halal practices.
Furthermore, Codex Beauty follows both FDA and stricter European regulations on ingredient safety and good manufacturing practices for skin care. Wanting to go that extra mile, Codex Beauty performs clinical trials for every product and only claims product performance that is supported by that data. Paldus’ pet peeve with the cosmetics industry are unsupported claims. Paldus is a stickler for truth about ingredients and ingredient safety. She was recently named to the board of directors of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that aims to educate the public about the safety of ingredients and protect people’s health and the environment.
Preparing for Launch
Codex Beauty launched formally when Paldus acquired the independent Bia Beauty brand from Ireland that was created by plant scientist Tracy Ryan. “Bia is focused on hydration, protecting [the skin’s] water barrier and minimizing transdermal water loss,” explains Paldus. Bia’s 12 products include moisturizers, washes, exfoliants, and soaps. Prices range from $18 for a bar of soap to $90 for 30 ML of facial oil. Many of the ingredients are wild-harvested, including a particular bog myrtle that is unique to Ireland’s topography. This plant’s essential oil has shown to be effective in wound healing or fighting acne, based on clinical trials that are now possible thanks to the financial might from Paldus’ acquisition and her biotech background. The investment will also allow Bia, previously a local Irish beauty company, to become an international beauty range. Ryan remains the master formulator of Bia and is the managing director of Codex Beauty Europe.
Of course, scaling up a niche business while maintaining its original integrity can be tricky. Ryan, who works with the Irish government on organic sourcing and wild-harvesting, knows that over-gathering natural ingredients can lead to depletion. Biotechnology, Paldus notes, can replicate the cells of those same ingredients with scarcely any environmental impact, and is a future direction for the cosmetics industry. Other aspects of Codex Beauty’s sustainability include sugarcane ethanol-based plastic for the cosmetic tubes, which will be part of a customer recycling program later this year. As Codex Beauty describes on its website, the production of these tubes actually helps to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions…Every time we create a tube we help the earth. The reduction in carbon footprint ranges from about 50% to 80% depending on the size of the tube.”
Paldus’ team has also developed a patent-pending natural plant-based preservative to replace chemical preservatives such as phenoxyethanol. Once patented, Paldus plans to license the formula of this natural preservative to other players in the cosmetics field. Phenoxyethanol is one of the main reasons Paldus got into skin care in the first place. Her son, now 11, was severely allergic as a baby to this ingredient, which is found in scores of skin care products, including those for infants and children. At Finesse, Paldus travelled extensively as the company’s CEO to see clients. In every city, she would go to a local pharmacy and buy skin care products to bring home to see if they would work on her son’s sensitive skin. They generally did not. She frequently went to Ireland, which is where she picked up Bia in a small shop in Cork. To her delight, “the baby butt cream worked really well.”
When Finesse was sold, Paldus was obliged to respect a five-year non-compete clause for working in biotechnology. Interestingly, the rest of the Finesse board and executive team was only given a two-year non-compete obligation. At first, she stayed on at Thermo Fisher after the transaction but realized this post would be short-lived.
“I’m not a big company kind of person with all the politics. I started thinking about what else I could do,” Paldus explains. “Biotech was out. [Scientific] equipment — I had done it twice and was tired of it. I decided I wanted to do something in the consumer space. I started Sekhmet [to] find consumer-oriented companies that had real science.”
The Bia line will be joined later this year by two other skin care ranges. Antü, named for the sun god in the mythology of the Mapuche people of Chile, has been developed to reduce oxidative stress on the skin due to light or pollutants. The “hero” ingredients are those used by the Mapuche in Patagonia. The third collection, Saga (named for the Norse goddess of poetry, history, writing, and knowledge) will use extracts notably from plants and algae from above the Arctic circle. Paldus cannot disclose the composition of either skin care range since they are still in development and awaiting patents.
The Origin Story
Paldus is nothing if not curious, creative, and determined. She has 35 patents to her name, par for the course based on how she was raised. While her parents were pushing Paldus toward a career in music, she was worried about how much money she could make in the arts.
Paldus’ family took several sabbatical years abroad, experiences that she still savors today. Upon her family’s return from a year in Berlin, where high school was more advanced than it was in Canada, Paldus skipped two grades in high school and went to enroll at the University of Waterloo at age 16. Paldus went to the wrong department, and landed at the admissions office for electrical engineering, where she was accepted thanks to her average grade of 98 (out of 100). After her second year in engineering, Paldus was craving more math. The head of the engineering department didn’t believe she could take on the extra work while the head of the math department, a woman, felt she could. The professors bet a month’s salary on Paldus, and in the end, the head of the engineering department lost. Paldus’ parents expected her to pursue a PhD from a school like M.I.T. and become a professor. Paldus, however, headed far away to Stanford to study and be surrounded by Silicon Valley’s technology, innovation, and start-ups.
“I wanted to be an entrepreneur and use technology, NOT to be an academic but to change the world,” Paldus explains.
Paldus ultimately did change the world when Finesse was able to provide equipment “three months early to a small company making clinical trial material for a muscular dystrophy biotech drug. By cutting the delivery time to half of the industry standard, we were able to help provide a treatment to children who were rapidly degenerating and desperately needed a therapy.”
“My parents were about achievement, perfection, being the top student. Basically, I had that expectation on me through graduate school. Every time I cracked a ceiling, it was like: ‘Of course you did,’” Paldus recalls. “Then, then I took it further than they imagined. I started working 110-hour weeks. With my start-ups — most people would be happy if they had just one — I was going to succeed no matter what. And I had to sell my last start-up for a quarter of a million dollars.”
Against the Odds
Paldus is a graceful woman with a contagious amount of enthusiasm and a winning smile, yet her ambition reminds one of the Wolves of Wall Street — minus the evil. She’s poetic, an aficionado of mythology since her childhood, which is why she’s named many of her initiatives after gods. She knows and has been told from beauty insiders that she’s an outsider in the industry, a field which comes with a lot of faux glam, fancy suits, and French, and she couldn’t care less — even if she is fluent in French…
“I ignore it. They are the pretty preppy kids from high school. They laughed at a biotech-science approach and say that people don’t care about data because it is boring,” Paldus says. She notes a similar thing happened when she founded Finesse, and the bigger biotech equipment companies predicted her company’s demise…until Finesse set the pace for the industry. “At some point, the chic emperor has no clothes, it’s all about the data.”
Paldus warns that a career move involving changing sectors, however, is not for the meek.
“You have to believe in what you are doing 100,000%,” Paldus says. “If you don’t, don’t change sectors. It’s hard, you start at the bottom again, you have to learn really fast, you will make some horrible mistakes, and you have to be patient and take the abuse from naysayers. But — if you persevere and believe in yourself — there is nothing more rewarding than looking back at the chasm you just crossed and saying ‘I did this.’”
Paldus admits she misses biotech, the kinds of in-depth technical discussions she had with her team of engineers or technical sales force.
“In biotech, you had a constant feedback loop that you are helping people and saving lives,” she explains, adding that her former colleagues must wonder what planet she’s on. She feels, however, that the field has become a bit “vapid.”
“But,” Paldus concludes, “the current environment, where we are helping medical practitioners not get cracked hands, makes me feel much more useful.”