Ellis Day

How Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS resident Ellis Day Skin Science is Poised to Make a Big Impact in Beauty

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At Johnson & Johnson Innovation, we are committed to helping healthcare entrepreneurs create transformational solutions that improve peoples’ lives. As part of our goal to inspire innovation, we are periodically highlighting innovators and entrepreneurs from our global network of incubators—from San Francisco to Shanghai.

The skincare market is estimated to reach $189.3 billion in 2025 and is defined by a wide range of competitors.[1] Entering this challenging market in 2020—a year like none other—meant extra care, creativity, and diligence for the team at Ellis Day Skin Science.

One reason for the market’s size is that products are rarely as effective as people hope. Consumers—particularly those with blemishes or acne—can go through routine after routine with unsatisfying results. By harnessing the power of bacteriophage, an often-over-looked mechanism that naturally regulates the bacteria of our skin, Ellis Day believes it can bring consumers a broad solution to many of their skin health problems. To learn more about how Ellis Day is innovating in the space, we connected with CEO Carol Christopher.

jeff-calcagno

Jeff Calcagno

Head of JLABS San Francisco Bay Area

Carol Christopher

Carol Christopher

CEO of Ellis Day Skin Science

 

JEFF CALCAGNO

I am Jeff Calcagno. I am the head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation—JLABS in the Bay area. And for those of you who don't know JLABS, it's a life sciences incubator which stretches across the globe with a portfolio of over 600 companies.  

I am here to speak with Carol Christopher, the CEO of Ellis Day Skin Science. And I'm really excited to be speaking with Carol, she's a very seasoned and successful entrepreneur. And so, we'd like to talk about a few different topics.  

I—by way of background—am a physician and also a former entrepreneur and venture investor. And we'll be curious to hear not only about—Carol—you and your company and its innovations, but also a little bit about your journey—how you got to the place that you are in your career and your company. And I’d like to explore a little bit too about your mindset—how you have led the company through the inevitable ups and downs that startups face. 

So, why don't we start by talking about Ellis Day Skin Science and about the market? Your company is entering an enormous market—probably not the most innovative place. And so, first question I have for you is how did you decide to go after this market? Did you see something that was missing? What attracted you to this market, specifically?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well certainly our core technology, which is bacteriophages. And broadly speaking, they are antibacterials. So three years ago, we went through a very intensive effort because there were a host of opportunities. Not only in skincare but also in agriculture, water treatment—I mean across many, many industries.

So our intensive effort, which we did primarily through the NSF I-Corps program, really helped us do a deep dive into looking at different customer segments across all these industries,  testing some value propositions, looking at the markets, the market dynamics, and where was there really a need for something new which we could address.

And from all of that, we felt like skincare was an area where there was truly a need, which was surprising to me because there certainly are a plethora of products. And most people feel that many of those needs are already addressed. But what we discovered was—through clinical studies and data that we have—that what our product is able to do is really foundational to a whole host of skincare problems.

And we also discovered—by looking at the market—that these skincare problems that most people experience are really increasing, particularly among adults. And so that's where we discovered there really is a need [and that] need is not just for formulating ingredients in a new way—existing ingredients because as you say there hasn't been a lot of innovation in the last couple of decades—we’re not coming up with another pretty bottle but instead saying [that] with our new technology, [we can] really bring something new to the market that addresses these problems that are actually increasing.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah. And also actually—I think it's a little counterintuitive, but part of the reason the market is so big is because a lot of things don't work that well, right? So you have people—particularly people with blemishes or acne—who go through product after product after product. All of which kind of work but kind of don't work or kind of work but are not well tolerated.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Right.

JEFF CALCAGNO

And so it creates the big market because nothing works that well… until Ellis Day Skin Science! I mean, you are taking a very orthogonal approach to this. And I was reading a little bit about bacteriophage and they're fascinating in and of themselves. I read that they were the most plentiful organism on Earth.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

On Earth. Yes, you're right.

JEFF CALCAGNO

And that there are 1031 phage. I mean, that's amazing. And maybe just explain to folks what phage are. They sound kind of mysterious but...

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well you know if phages weren't around, we would all be eaten alive—so to speak—by all the bacteria. And I think consumers are beginning to understand that bacteria and a lot of other living things that we can't see with the naked eye are really rampant in our world.

They're on our skin, they're in our gut, they're all over our body. They exist in the dirt, in the water, in the clouds, in the rain. You know, they're everywhere. And so what phages do— their role is to eradicate specific kinds of bacteria. So, what's really unique about them as an antibacterial is that they're very targeted. So unlike things like Clorox bleach, which is broadly used as a disinfectant because it kills everything.

JEFF CALCAGNO

And you worked with Clorox so you should know!

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

That's right. I worked at Clorox!

So unlike that or say a topical antibiotic, or even a systemic antibiotic that you would take as an oral pill—[those] really kill a lot of things [while] phages are very targeted. The key is you find the bacteria that you want to eradicate and then you find the phage that are really targeted to kill just that bacteria and they don't harm anything else. So that's kind of [the] ideal antibiotic or antibacterial, [where] you’re not going to disturb other things. And that's really been the problem with antibiotics and other antibacterials.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah. And even speaking of bleach, benzoyl peroxide is kind of like bleach. I mean it just kills everything, which I guess is better than killing nothing, but it's got its own issues, right? So then that leads to the question that there's some P. acnes bacteria which are considered fine and others which are considered troublemakers. So how did you find the phage that would just target a particular—is it a particular subset of P. acnes? I mean, how does that work and how did you figure it out?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well as you just said, it's a very complex problem. It's never as easy as we think it's going to be because among the cutibacterium acnes bacteria—which is one of the three most common kinds of bacteria found on our skin[1]—there are good strains that we all need on our skin [and] there are what are called neutral strains, which you will find on people with healthy skin and on people with very severe acne. And we really don't understand yet why those neutral strands need to exist. And then there are bad strains that you find only on people with acne or inflamed skin or other problems.

And so, what we had to do is find lots and lots of cutibacterium acnes phages and then figure out which ones attack just the bad strains of C. acnes. So we used a lot of automated technology—plate reading—to put the phages on the bacterial strain to figure out which phage kills which strain.

And then we do what's called a host range characterization, where we put lots of strains of bacteria on  the phages that we have chosen and make sure that our phages kill only the bad strains. And that's really important to us because we don't want to disrupt the healthy part of your skin microbiome.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah. Actually, that leads to another question I have. The problem with antibiotics—well not the problem but one of the problems, or perhaps the biggest problem—is that they wipe everything out and over time, it selects for resistant bacteria.

The bacteria—they just divide quickly, and they can mutate quickly. And so over time you get treatment resistance, which is certainly a problem when it comes to MRSA-type staph aureus or pneumonia, et cetera.[2] So, do you think that there's a risk here of resistance developing? Or is that less of a risk than it would be with an antibiotic?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

It is less of a risk but yes, it's a risk. And so you mentioned something else that we really have to factor in when we're looking to find the perfect phage for our consumer applications. One thing is we know that if you use more than one phage, it's better than using a single phage because they can defend against bacteria mutating and becoming resistant.

So, what we did was when we found phages that are effective against the bad strains of cutibacterium acnes, we then started looking at every permutation of combinations—combinations of two and three of these phages. And then what we did was put them on this bacteria and see if any of the bacteria starts to regrow after the phages have killed them. And that's an indication of resistance. So, we worked hard. We did all that testing to make sure that we chose a combination of phages that provide complete protection against resistance.

JEFF CALCAGNO

I guess what you're finding more and more as you do research into the microbiome is that it's not about one bacteria or another bacteria, or even one virus or another—it's sort of the community itself.

And then another question about the product. So then, how does it manifest itself in the skin? What are you hearing from customers—beta customers or whomever? What's the net result of all this? I know that you did some studies of it. You did not take it to get FDA approved, but you did do some rigorous studies. What did you find?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

We did a study with a leading dermatologist. And [in] our study the entry criteria were people with inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne. So we initially were looking at the specific disease because we knew that's where phages—cutibacterium acnes phages—would work… [in] the bacteria that are associated with that disease.

And what we found over just a standard 12-week period—which is what's typically used in a clinical study for acne—we found that both inflammatory and non-inflammatory lesions were reduced significantly. We didn't do a comparative study but were able to find similar study designs for other products like Proactiv in the literature. And we found that we got better results than that just in comparing two studies.

But what was really exciting and intriguing was when we had the clinical study participants give us feedback. They said [that] almost overnight [their] skin felt better. It was smoother, there was less redness, less—they called it—bumpiness, which is really inflammation. And so we really began tracking that.

[And] also in our beta test users—people who were using the product outside of the clinical study—we found the same thing. That yes, we were getting a significant improvement in acne [and] people were really excited about this idea of just overall skin health improvements. And that's where we had DNA sequencing data to support the idea that we were eliminating the bad bacteria associated with those problems, and also [enabling] the good bacteria to flourish.

So over a period of two or three weeks, what people were seeing is that their skin microbiome was rebalancing. As the bad stuff was going away, the good stuff was increasing. And that's why they were seeing these overall improvements in skin tone, texture, smoothness, less discoloration, less redness—those kinds of things.

JEFF CALCAGNO

And when you're marketing your product versus Proactiv or whatever, what do you think of as the key selling point for your products?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Our key selling point is we address a variety of skin problems by balancing your skin microbiome, and that gives you healthier skin overall. So the marketing challenge is really, can we take people from a problem/solution approach—for example, I’m looking for something for a blemish or my skin is really red, inflamed, and sensitive—can we take them from that to “Okay, I've gotten my problem solved.” Now this works really well the first couple of weeks, but we want them to keep using it to help them maintain healthy skin because what they have shown by having the skin problem, they have a predisposition to having this bad kind of bacteria on their skin. But if they'll keep using our product every day, once a day—that will help them maintain a healthy skin microbiome.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah, it's something that we think about at Johnson & Johnson. The concept of—we have a pharmaceutical group, a device group, and a consumer health group but we think a lot about that concept of intervening early in disease and also sort of not having it be a disease focus but more you promote health and thereby you limit the disease. So that's interesting to think of it as kind of a health-promoting approach.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

The number of people—women and men—who self-identify as having sensitive skin is like 70% now.[3] And so when you peel back the layers on that, what they are seeing as sensitive skin is “oh, my skin gets red, it gets irritated, [and] occasionally has blemishes.”

And that can be due to external things like pollution or even skin care products that they've been using. It can be due to stress, diet, hormones—all of those things. But people now have very high standards for what they want their skin to look like.

And so a lot more people are saying, “I have skin problems.” And so we say we can address the skin problem acutely, but more importantly we want you to have healthy skin, long-term.

JEFF CALCAGNO

And is there a way to measure that in the sense of—count the blemishes, right? That's pretty straightforward [but] are there other measures of general skin health? Can you measure glow? I don't know—[is it] a lack of irritation? I'm just wondering if you have a way to quantify that or if it's more of a gestalt.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well certainly we would love to do more clinical data. So, there are things like transepidermal water loss. And that's a measure of how well your skin stays hydrated. And we think that's important. There's colorimetry you [can] do to measure redness on the skin. And that's really an indication of inflammation or irritation. So, there are a lot of things that we could quantify which would give good support for what we're doing to keep your skin healthy. We certainly have a lot of anecdotal data from 18 months of beta testing before we ever launched.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah, the water loss [is] an interesting thing because I assumed if your skin is losing water, then it sort of starts desquamating and goes downhill from there. So that's interesting that you have that measure.

I wanted to turn a little bit to the entrepreneur's journey. And I think we can segue to that by talking about a topic that you're raising with what you said about clinical studies.

So, companies that are in the skin space—whether it's ostensibly going after treating acne or kind of promoting skin health more generally. At some point you come to a crossroads and you say, are we going to try to do these clinical studies and get FDA approval and then it'll be prescribed by a physician [for] a higher price point, potentially?

Or do we say listen, why don't we not do that and go direct to consumer, which has other challenges? So, when did you come to that crossroads and how did you think about it? Or did you already know from the outset, hey, this is what we're going to do? How did you navigate that part of the journey?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well, that big regulatory question was our very first big strategic issue to address, even before we had our seed round of financing. So, we talked to people both on the regulatory side, the pharma side, and also on the consumer skin care side. You know, the nuts [and] bolts of it is that phages are not approved as a drug now—a topical drug now. They're not on an OTC monograph for any kind of skin disease.

And so, you're talking about is it safe to just use as a cosmetic, which is the least regulated category? And we spent a lot of time thinking it would be optimal to go out as an OTC drug because then we would have the freedom to talk about acne, eczema, rosacea—any skin condition that had a bacterial component we could talk about. But based on our conversations with the FDA as well as people working on other kinds of microbial skin care products like probiotics, we realized the FDA still had a lot of catching up to do to issue guidelines about how to develop new products with these. And we felt like that was going to be a really long and arduous journey with them.

And so, we felt the safest thing to do was to go out as a cosmetic product and talk about general skin health and the specific claims that we can support with clinical data, and not talk about treating skin diseases. And what's interesting is as we've talked to consumers, we realized very few consumers really self-identify as having the disease of acne. They'll say, “I get blemishes once a month” or “I get breakouts when I haven't eaten right,” or that kind of thing.

And so that hasn't been a real deterrent—meaning, our inability to talk about treating skin diseases. So that's why we chose the regulatory path of a cosmetic versus an OTC monograph, which would be developing a new drug.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah, it's very difficult when the FDA is in the process of developing something. I worked at a company that was developing something for irritable bowel syndrome and it was right when the FDA was trying to figure out how to define the endpoints for that. And it ended up being very challenging because you're in the middle of a study and then the FDA comes out with a different guidance. And then those aren't the endpoints anymore. So, it's an interesting decision. You mentioned your seed round and that leads me to think about another thing that entrepreneurs spend a lot of time thinking about, and that is funding. And so you know, consumer health funding has increased but not like pharma.

Pharma's really taken off and [has been a] very robust funding environment. And so, it's not easy to raise money for consumer health companies. And then it's always not in the best interest of the founders to raise a lot of money either. So for entrepreneurs that are looking at questions of how much do you raise, when [do you raise it], and who do you go to? I know it's a big topic, but  maybe if you address any of those—how did you think about funding and how to navigate that?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well, I've been doing venture capital-backed companies since the mid-'90s. But most of those were in the pharmaceutical or biotech space. And as you know, the amounts that you can raise are much more substantial [and] the amounts you need to raise are much more substantial. So, this was different in that as a consumer product, we thought we can raise a lot less to get to market. But it also meant we had the challenge of if you're going to consumer products or consumer company investors, they don't have the mindset of valuing a technology.

And we got an early seed round of funding from an institutional investor that kind of put us on the institutional fundraising track. And we used that money largely to develop our phage technology. That is, how do we identify phage? How do we choose phage to make sure it protects against resistance? How do we formulate it so it's shelf-stable at room temperature? All those kinds of things which we had to figure out. How do we get a cost of goods that makes it a viable consumer product?

And so, spending that first million dollars on that I think was a great investment because we've really opened the consumer market to phage. But we learned consumer investors really wouldn't value that for us. They said, “hey, you have $1 million. Why aren't you on the market already? Why can't you just call up a formulator and call up a bunch of raw material suppliers and formulate this stuff in your kitchen and then get it out there?”

JEFF CALCAGNO

A very different mindset, isn't it?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Yeah, absolutely. I realized in hindsight I've done quite a few of those hybrids where you don't fit well into specific boxes that investors are used to looking at. And so that's been a particular challenge in fundraising for us.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah. As a psychiatrist, one thing that I have observed is people tend to do what they're used to doing. I mean, humans are creatures of habit. And so, if you have a pharma investor that is not used to looking at hybrids...

And you know, Johnson and Johnson is very well positioned to do hybrid products because we have the different divisions. But I think it's a stretch for most typical venture investors. So then, what did you do? Did you run out of money or did you almost run out of money? What did you do?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well, we've actually raised more in just small convertible notes over the last 18 months than we raised with our initial seed round. And really, once we started turning our attention to commercializing our first product, we realized that for most any investor the real gaining item [is] launching and having early market data. So people [can] say, “are you getting traction in the market, are consumers using it, are they repurchasing it?”

And so, we said we have to get to the point [of launch] and have at least a little data on that before any serious consumer investor would look at us. And that's what really drove us launching in May, in the middle of the pandemic. It's a DTC business just on our own website.

But thankfully, we now have five months of data. So, we are raising a priced round. And most of the people we're getting interest from are DTC consumer investors. We've finally gotten there but it was a really long road. And I think in hindsight, if someone had told me you're going to have to bridge this for 18 months from your initial institutional investment to what you're looking for now in an institutional investment, [I would think] that was a really long bridge.

JEFF CALCAGNO

That's a long bridge. And actually I can do my 15-second infomercial. At JLABS, we're going to have an event coming up with Silicon Valley Bank [on] debt versus equity.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

I signed up for that!

JEFF CALCAGNO

All right, good! That's good! You could probably teach it also. You know, those are tough decisions. And there are a lot of different factors that weigh into it.

So, that was challenging. If you had to pinpoint, what was your other biggest challenge so far?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

I think the people issue. Getting the right people in the right place at the right time is the biggest issue in a startup—certainly you know, in all the startups you’ve done. I think it was the biggest issue for Ellis Day because in the early days, our focus was on the science and the technology.

And then our focus became on launching a product and developing branding, a whole different kind of expertise and capability that we needed. So, the people that you need to focus on and spend your money on—it changes as you grow. And that's been—you know, how do you build a team and yet spend your money on different kinds of people as you move along?

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah. And with a company of few people, each person on a percentage basis has a lot more impact so you really don't have a lot of opportunity to get that wrong. Plus, you're in the Bay area in the middle of the biggest biotech/biopharma boom, ever. And so how do you attract and retain people in that kind of environment? Any wisdom for other people who are trying to do the same thing?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

That is the challenge because from a technical standpoint—for example, we needed people who knew how to do microbial fermentation. That's the basic process for how you produce phage. And we needed people who had done that on a scalable way.

But if you take people who've been in biotech—and there are a lotta people who are doing that in biotech—we couldn't offer the salaries or the stability that a going business in biotech could offer. And so that is a challenge. You have to find people with the mindset of I want to try something new. I want to roll up my sleeves and jump in. I realize this is going to be a 24/7 job for X amount of time, but it's worth it because I'm going to learn a lot [and] I'm going to participate in something that I think could be really big.

And as you know from being an entrepreneur, some people have that mindset and do really well. Other people just really can't handle the uncertainty, the changing priorities—all of those things that go along with an early-stage company.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah. And having incubated your company at JLABS in South San Francisco, I know your people so I know you've managed to hire great people. So, you must be very good at communicating that vision because you have been able to have some great people on your team. So that's helpful.

And I think one of the things that leads to—maybe looking a little bit at the innovator [and] the entrepreneur. Your background is extraordinary—not only for its success, but also you've done things in a nonlinear way. You started out with a chemistry degree, right? From Georgia Institute of Technology? And then some years later you have a Ph.D. in [what] is it, intercultural studies?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Anthropology.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah. And you've done a number of biotechs. Maybe take us through your chronology a little bit and maybe talk about how it ended up that way.

I mean [from] my experience, what people tend to do is they have their resume and it's a bunch of different points. And they try to draw a line through it as if it were linear, right? But it's usually not how [that] works. Usually how it works is you're transitioning and you have a certain opportunity set, and [then] you pick one of those, right? And so, it's almost like [how] evolution works. It's a bunch of hops, rather than linear steps. But anyways, tell me about how you developed and anything you learned from that path.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well definitely I think everyone needs to be open to—we’ll say—nonlinear opportunities because that's where I think you can get the most growth, where you can expand your network, and where you may figure out new places that are really exciting and that you can be passionate about—[places] that you might not have otherwise considered.

In all honesty when I majored in chemical engineering in college, it was an era when women majoring engineering could really write their ticket because there were so few of us and companies were beginning to realize that we could hire women. So, I majored in chemical engineering because I liked math and science, and I thought they were great job prospects. And I really hadn't thought about it beyond that.

And then I think the other key thing was I had really fabulous mentors along the way. People that not only would teach me in the current job I was in but that also introduced me to people that opened up new opportunities for me. For example, I was at ALZA corporation with Alex Zaffaroni who really started the whole drug delivery industry because ALZA had started transdermal patches and controlled-release drugs and that kind of thing.[4]

And you know, I got a lot of opportunities there as ALZA really changed and became a fully integrated pharmaceutical company. And then the CEO there said, “hey, I want to introduce you to this venture capitalist,” and that led to my next job. So you know for me—

JEFF CALCAGNO

Was that Alexa?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

That was Alexa, yeah. And then Alex Zaffaroni and I started Alexa with a couple of other people. So for me, it was just being open to every new opportunity even if it meant uncertainty and more hard work than I had in my last job. I was single for most of those years, so I didn't have a lot of competing priorities. And then I think being willing to jump from one industry to another and leverage skills from one job into a job in another industry was really important.

JEFF CALCAGNO

And then how did you get to the Ph.D.?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

That was after I had done two startups. Those companies had gone public and I said I needed a little break from Silicon Valley. But I wanted to do something with my brain [and] I wanted to stay in the entrepreneurial environment. So, my Ph.D. was on looking at Indian CEOs of venture capital-backed companies, and looking at them in India and also in the U.S.

So, I spent a lot of time with investors as well as CEOs in India and also in the U.S. It was interesting. It was a divergence from thinking like an engineer to thinking like a social scientist, which I think has helped me as well. So, then I came back to the Bay area and kind of got back into the biotech world and did a couple more startups before I came to Ellis Day.

JEFF CALCAGNO

I mean, it probably gave you insights into a lot of things that I'm sure you leverage in your current position. What motivated you to start Ellis Day Skin Science? I mean you could've done many things or probably could've not done much at all, depending on what you wanted to do. But what made you say you know what, I want to do another startup?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well, I had done a couple of startups after I finished my Ph.D. They were in the pharma/biotech world, which I was accustomed to and that's where my network was. And when the Ellis Day opportunity came along, I knew the seed investor. And that was really important to me as [it is] someone I [have] a lot of respect for. I felt like I could learn a lot from that network of investors that was putting the initial money into Ellis Day.

But I also felt like at this point in my career, it was this perfect combination of my consumer-packaged goods experience—those were my first jobs out of college—and then all my biotech experience which was usually addressing some technology challenge. And so it had that component to it as well.

So, it felt like a perfect combination. And then—in all honesty—it felt like oh, we can get to the market and realize some benefit of this product [to] realize the opportunity much faster than if I go do another biotech company where you might do a bunch of animal studies but then you never get past that point.

JEFF CALCAGNO

It's a long product development path, right? Discovery, development, et cetera.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Exactly.

JEFF CALCAGNO

So, it's interesting how you picked that. I mean, you've learned so much. And I know you do some mentoring too, right? Why do you do that and where do you do that?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well, I have done that at Santa Clara University. I've done that as part of the Stanford StartX Med community. And then, I actually do it with the University of Delhi in India.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Wow.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Virtually of course at this point.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

But again, I had really great mentors along the way—people that were really willing to give me constructive criticism, advice, new opportunities, introduce me to people. And so, I felt like I wouldn't be where I was if those people hadn't stepped up. And so I feel like that's really how I need to give back, is [to] be willing to take time to help other young entrepreneurs coming along.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Have people talked about a difference between mentorship and sponsorship? Do you think in those terms or not so much?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

You know, I will be honest. There are groups that say they want to mentor but what they really want is financial sponsorship. And so, I think you have to be clear, you know? Are you an angel investor or are you a mentor to entrepreneurs?

And in both cases, you can spend a lot of time with people, which is costly to you in some ways. Or you can just write a check. So, I think you have to be clear in your mind about what you are going to get the most satisfaction out of and how you think you can be most helpful to other people.

Because I wouldn't put money in something unless I felt like there was a strong team—these people know what they're doing, it's a reasonable market risk, et cetera. And so, I think if people are at the core, it's a good idea. [But if] people just need a little guidance, I would tend to want to get involved as a mentor.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Oh, I think it’s great that you do that. And I'm sure the people who benefit from it, benefit a lot with your experience-base and insight. I'm wondering about you know, it has been a winding career—a successful career but winding.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Winding, yes.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Winding, yes—over hill and dale. Any low points or high points that you'd want to touch upon and what you've learned from them?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Well, there's certainly—in all honesty—been points along the way that I always would say if I could do it all over again, I probably would've gotten an MBA. I think I've learned most of that in real life kind of on the job, but I think it does give you—particularly in Silicon Valley—I think it gives you some added credibility with investors as well as maybe potential hires. So, I think that's one thing that has consistently over the last 30 years been added value, if you can do that.

I would say early on, I was not very politically savvy. I was just put your head down and work hard and the rest will take care of itself. But I certainly learned that having a network [and] being there for other people as well as asking people to step up and do a favor for you, that that's an important way of how business works, particularly in the valley.

And as you are more mature in your career, you really call on those people. When you're fundraising, you call on people who you've known for 20 years. And so, it becomes more and more valuable as you build your network. You really do have to be savvy about going out to meetings and meeting people at conferences. And then not just collecting business cards but truly engaging with them and pursuing a business relationship with them.

JEFF CALCAGNO

I think that the network is one of the challenges of when you do different things. I think it gives you great perspectives, but one of the challenges is—well, for my career even something as simple as having been kind of an East Coast person and then transplanting to the West Coast.

You think, ah [it isn’t going to] make that much difference and it's a global world. But you know, it's different venture investors [and] it's a different network of entrepreneurs. So yeah, those shifts—it's subtle but it's important. A lot of it is about the network, right?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

I mean, I had spent several years working for Georgetown University. And several initiatives there were entrepreneurial initiatives with helping to get things started with some international groups and working with entrepreneurial groups within the medical school. And certainly, I learned that the academic entrepreneurial environment is very different than say, the Silicon Valley venture community. And I felt like I had very few contacts or very little network within the academic circle. So that was a good learning experience.

JEFF CALCAGNO

I guess to take a step from that, any parting thoughts? You've already given some tidbits about looking at—you know, maybe looking at an MBA at some point and some other things. Any other things that you would tell innovators or first-time CEOs?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

I think you should really kind of consider the cost when you're going to start something. Because particularly here in Silicon Valley you know, we hear the sexy success stories of people. And we see the 25 or 30-year olds who have "had an exit."

And so, the assumption gets to be that by the time you're our age that, oh, you've had multiple exits. And yet, if you look at the data of how few startups or venture capital-backed companies are successful and have a real successful exit, they're very few. And yet, I also understand that's the motivation, that's the vision that keeps a lot of us going is you know, the hope and the chance to do that ourselves.

And yet more times than not if you're going do it several times, you're going to have a lot of failures and maybe one, maybe two successes. And some of them may be very small successes. So you know, to be prepared that there are going to be so many things that happen that you haven't counted on. Great people that you've hired and think this is it and then they just come in one day and leave, your inability to raise money for months and months and months, and then what are you going to do?

Are you going to have to shut down? Are you just going to pull it out of your own pocket? Really do some soul-searching up front about are you ready for the kind of sacrifice and the kind of patience it's going to take if you really want to stick it out and make something come to fruition. Because it's not sexy to tell the stories of oh we ran out of money, I didn't take any pay for six months, we couldn't raise funding for X number of months...

All those things, those stories aren't discussed at conferences and meetings because they're not very exciting. And yet, that's what I would say the majority of entrepreneurs—particularly those who've done this multiple times—experience.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Yeah. I remember I had a company; we were doing a phase two trial on depression. And most depression trials don't work, even if the odds are even worse than most phase two trials because it's high placebo. I remember the investor; the trial was winding down.

And he said, “so what are the odds? Are you thinking, you know 80%? Where do you put it?” And I go, “oh no, they're not that high!” I said, “if you look at the Tufts data for most phase two trials, it's much lower than that!” I think I said, “I think we did the right trial design and everything.” But anyway, that wasn't the right answer.

But maybe one last question for you. There still are not that many women CEOs, or venture investors for that matter. I know you are and have been a role model for women. Anything different you would say for them in terms of approach or how to get over challenges?

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

You know, I guess I had an overly simplistic view of this gender and equality issue when I started in business in the early '80s because I—again—just thought you just put your head down and work hard and the rest will take care of itself. And I didn't like being called a woman engineer, I just wanted to be a good engineer.

But certainly, I have experienced a lot of the inequalities through the years. I do think being smart and working hard does make a difference. But I am just learning—I will say, in the last few years—of the value of camaraderie and networking with other women CEOs. And it's only been in the last few months that a few women CEOs in beauty—particularly those of us who have scientific backgrounds—are gathering together.

And we're putting together a group—kind of women of science for clean beauty. And that's going to be coming out in the coming months. We're writing a manifesto now, but we felt like we can make our voices heard if we are one consolidated voice instead of each of our individual companies trying to talk about it where then it might even sound competitive.

So that's one thing I think where women are—you know you have to recognize okay, we're still overall in the minority as far as women CEOs. And so, we have to view it differently in terms of what things can we do even with—what seem to be—our competitors that make our voice stronger and more impactful because we're doing it together instead of just individually. And I hadn't really thought that way before the last year.

JEFF CALCAGNO

I think that's a great point and a great idea. And it reminds me a little bit of people [who] ask me about Johnson & Johnson Innovation—JLABS—what value do we bring? And they say, is it the lab space, is it the office space, is it the programming? And at the end of the day, I think the thing that people talk about maybe the most is the camaraderie of having a bunch of other CEOs and scientists—

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Absolutely.

JEFF CALCAGNO

—and whomever there to answer questions or just to be there kind of for the ups and downs.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

It's a great experience to be around other people who you know are going through similar challenges and you can celebrate each other when you know someone gets funding or someone has an experiment go well. And it definitely makes the journey a lot easier. So, JLABS is a phenomenal experience.

JEFF CALCAGNO

Oh, thank you. You were an important part of the community and you still are. So with that, I will end. I just wanted to really thank you. It's great to get some time and to hear your thoughts on these different topics. And you know obviously, I really wish you and your company well. You've just gathered some marketing data and it's going to be some very exciting months ahead. So best of luck to you, thank you for taking time today.

CAROL CHRISTOPHER

Thank you, Jeff. It was a pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity.

 

Thank you for joining J&J Innovation here in South San Francisco. We hope hearing Carol Christopher share her entrepreneurial path empowers you to bring your own innovations to life.

If you are an entrepreneur looking for the type of mentorship and programming that was made available to Ellis Day Skin Science through Johnson & Johnson Innovation, please visit  JLABS Resident Application page to learn more.

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[1] Statista

[2] American Society for Microbiology

[3] Nature

[4] National Center for Biotechnology Information

[5] Invent.org