Special Edition: Active skin care - protection and healing in a post-COVID world

‘Waterfall moment’ in cell culture tech: Asia startup launches fish cell-based multifunctional protein for active beauty

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Avant's multifunctional protein - sourced from cultivated fish cells - can be used in topical skin care, beauty supplements and functional drinks for anti-ageing and protective properties (Image: Avant)
Avant's multifunctional protein - sourced from cultivated fish cells - can be used in topical skin care, beauty supplements and functional drinks for anti-ageing and protective properties (Image: Avant)

Related tags active beauty Cell culture fish cell technology Protein anti-ageing protective beauty Skin care Active ingredients biotech

Cell culture biotech startup Avant has launched a multifunctional protein for the active beauty market made from cultivated fish cells – an ingredient it says will carve out an entirely new segment in anti-ageing and protective skin care.

Hong Kong-based Avant’s Zellulin ingredient was primed for a wide-scale commercial launch early next year,​ with samples now available for testing in beauty manufacturing and R&D labs. The multifunctional protein, made from cultivated fish cells using a patent-pending proprietary biotech platform, could be used in freeze-dried powder or liquid form at various doses in topical skin care formulations, beauty supplements and functional drinks.

Carrie Chan, co-founder and CEO of Avant, said internal in vitro​ trials and human skin model testing had demonstrated Zellulin’s ability as a signalling protein to trigger some gene expression in skin cells – generating or excreting macromolecules in the extracellular matrix, like collagen and elastin. Testing had also demonstrated the ingredient’s ability to protect skin cells from oxidisation.

“Because it’s not a monocomponent that is very defined, it does come with multiple effects that we have tried to quantify. We have that internally-generated data,”​ Chan told CosmeticsDesign-Europe.

She said Zellulin, unlike other active beauty ingredients, “checked quite a lot of boxes” ​considering current consumer trends, including being sustainable, clean label, traceable, backed by data and sourced from nature. 

“We’re answering a lot of the quests people are looking for in next-generation products.”

The ‘waterfall’ moment of cell-based ingredients for mass beauty

The multifunctional bioactive protein was also “fully predictable”​ because it had been produced in a controlled environment, versus produced via traditional industrial animal husbandry which could “be tricky”,​ said Allan Leung, CFO at Avant.

“We are now at the pivot point where the cell culture technologies have finally achieved enough for mass skin care. These proteins have been around for ages, but the cost was not something even premium skin care could consider – that’s why it was just used in a lab (…) Now, we’re getting to that waterfall moment where it’s now here,”​ Leung said.

Incorporating Zellulin into mass skin care products, he said, would create a “completely new category” ​of active beauty items that were “highly disruptive” ​with “fundamentally changed”​ functionality.

Asked if being made from animal cells might be a hurdle in achieving mass beauty status in a market increasingly focused on vegan and non-animal derived ingredients, he said that would depend on the brand and consumer. In terms of functionality, he said using animal cell-based proteins was highly efficient when you wanted to influence cellular activity in human skin cells.

Chan agreed acceptance would depend on markets – “this can swing either way for us in the EU”, ​for example.

Carrie Chan, co-founder and CEO of Avant
Carrie Chan, co-founder and CEO of Avant

Upscale and commercialisation –‘we need to borrow some of the attention from collagen’

As Avant worked to upscale commercial production of its fish cell-based protein and rollout samples, it was now focused on securing partnerships and contracts with ingredient or chemical distributors, beauty brands and even private label manufacturers. And Chan said the company was open to offering exclusive distribution or usage rights to the ingredient.

Asia Pacific would be a key target market for Zellulin, she said, as would the Middle East because industry and consumers spent a lot of money on skin care here, wanting to develop and consume “innovative and exciting”​ new products.

North America would also be an important market for Avant with this multifunctional protein, Chan said, given how engaged and familiar the beauty market there was with collagen.

“The US is definitely very open to it – they’ve been consuming tonnes of collagen, so that’s easily quite an accessible market (…) People are quite crazy about collagen there – you have collagen coffee, snack bars and everything,”​ she said. And whilst Zellulin was very different from collagen – in its functions as well as how it was produced – she said the appetite for collagen beauty products should help boost engagement and interest.

“We need to borrow some of the attention from collagen and attract the people who are actually looking at collagen. We are actually more like EGF [epidermal growth factor]; not exactly growth factor but signalling proteins – that group of elements,”​ Chan said.

Leung said that ultimately collagen and Zellulin could be used together in a complimentary way, for improved function.

“We don’t have to hinder one another as a direct competitor,” ​he said. “…Collagen molecules are the building blocks of skin – it’s like the bricks of a house – but you always need to hire someone to build the house. So, you always need these signalling proteins, but the signalling proteins, for many years, were too expensive to obtain externally or ​ex vivo. So, we’ve always relied on our internal body to generate these signalling proteins, but now we’re getting some external help from Zellulin (…) That’s where we are now – I believe collagen and Zellulin and other functional proteins can and will co-exist and potentially become complimentary in the long-term.”

Active beauty future? We want to be the Gore-Tex of the beauty world

Ultimately, Chan said the goal was for Zellulin to be a well-known brand in its own right, within the active beauty market and animal protein space, recognised for its functions.

“Zellulin is the very first brand and we want it to look a bit like Gore-Tex in the world of weatherproof jackets; people know about the function of it. Gore-Tex don’t produce the actual jacket; they work with companies like North Face but when people look at the tag and see it’s made with Gore-Tex they know it’s breathable and waterproof. So, the function is important. We would like to have that kind of image or that brand in the functional animal protein space where we operate,”​ she said.

Avant was currently working with an EU-based consultant and small group of third-party laboratories to conduct safety tests and measure aspects like eye irritation. It would also complete a series of user panel tests in the coming months and look more closely at the type of certifications the ingredient could obtain, including the possibility of being certified halal.

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