Sunscreen for your scalp? U of T startup offers powdered protection for the top of your head

Working with the ICUBE accelerator at U of T Mississauga, Kristina Knox and Stephanie Tien launched a sustainable skin care brand called Arbre that makes a scalp-specific sunscreen (photo courtesy of Arbre)

A weekend trip to Wasaga Beach – and a terrible sunburn that followed – inspired an innovative business idea for Stephanie Tien and Kristina Knox.

“I got a really bad sunburn on my scalp, where my part is,” explains Tien, who received her undergraduate degree from U of T in pharmacology and human biology in 2018 and master’s degree in pharmacology in 2020.

That prompted Tien and Knox to talk about the need for better sun protection for that area of the body.

The duo, who have been friends since they were undergraduate students, joined forces and created Arbre – a sustainable skin care brand that offers customers a SPF formula made specifically for the scalp.

“It’s a powder, like a dry shampoo, that’s formulated specifically for your scalp and won’t make your hair look greasy,” says Knox, who received her undergraduate degree from U of T in cognitive science and neuroscience in 2018 and is currently a PhD student in cognitive psychology.

“The sunscreen industry hasn’t had a lot of innovation in forever, and all the products look and feel the same. We wanted to bring new and innovative solutions to people to help them protect their skin.”

Knox adds that providing sun safety education to the public is also a major part of their brand, and they try to feature scientific information about the importance of sun care on their Instagram and blogs.

“We’re really trying to bring the two together by creating a solution for people to be able to use sunscreen regularly, and also provide them with the education so they know why they should wear sunscreen,” Knox says.

When the business partners were ready to start their company, they turned to UTM’s ICUBE incubator for guidance. The incubator is the home of social entrepreneurship and early-stage start-ups at U of T Mississauga, offering resources, programs, workshops and mentorship for those starting their own businesses.

“It was really foundational for the inception of our company because Stephanie and I don’t have business backgrounds,” says Knox. “We’ve never started a business before, and we're both very science-focused. ICUBE really provided that foundational knowledge that we needed, and took us sort of step by step.”

Tien adds that ICUBE also allowed them to connect with other entrepreneurs who were trying to start businesses during a global pandemic – and helped guide them through a challenging and unprecedented time.

She says that ICUBE was quick to move its services online, creating a space for entrepreneurs to continue to grow their businesses throughout the pandemic.

“Geography wasn't really a barrier anymore,” she says. “That really opened up a lot of doors to us – and people were so willing to connect and join communities because we were all stuck at home. I think that, in some ways, it was hard during a pandemic, but it was easier in other ways as well.”

At present, Tien and Knox’s sunscreen is undergoing lab and clinical testing that is expected to wrap up at the end of this month. They plan to submit an application to Health Canada and hope to get approval by the end of May. Next, they plan to start manufacturing their product, with a pre-order campaign set to launch this summer.

Excited about the journey ahead, Tien and Knox have advice for other young female entrepreneurs who want to achieve success.

“Just get started and find a community to support you. You can’t be expected to know everything about entrepreneurship, so join an incubator like ICUBE,” says Tien.

Knox adds that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to starting a business, and recommends entrepreneurs do what works best for them.

“Everybody’s journey is different,” she says. “You can go as fast as you want or as slow as you want. But it’s important to just start.”


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