Dr. Robb Akridge is here to disrupt the status quo. The scientist behind category-defining innovations like the Sonicare and the Clarisonic is back with another never-before-seen first-to-market offering. Coined “the K-Cup of Skin Care” by NewBeauty Magazine, Opulus Beauty Labs lets users mix their own topicals through an activator that mashes and heats solid (and plastic-free) active-containing opoules. While the Clarisonic device was designed solely for skin cleansing, Akridge sees the Opulus activator as an appliance with a much greater range for possibility, both in the beauty space and beyond.
IBA caught up with Akridge to discuss how his quest to problem-solve drives his ambitions, his future aspirations for Opulus, and exit strategy possibilities.
What’s a little-known fact about you?
That I’m half Hispanic. I was raised in San Antonio, Texas, and before that we lived in North Carolina. My parents then divorced, and we went from the middle-class to poverty. My mother had no education. She worked in a department store, and we lived off $3,000 a year along with my grandmother. She always said to me, if you want to do ‘x’ or ‘x’ you have to go to college. It was like a mantra. I’m the second member of my family to graduate from high school, and the first one to ever go to college. I’m the only one who has a PhD or a master’s degree.
My family has a very blue-collar background – construction, steel, welders, that kind of thing. That’s the environment I came from, but I went off and did my own thing. I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau and swim with the dolphins and be a marine biologist.
Did you set out to work in the beauty industry or is it something you fell into?
I had been in medical research and went through all the different disciplines, including pediatric cardiology, neurobiology, and plant pathology, but I fell in love with immunology. I did a project on parasites and ended up working in a lab with the HIV1 virus for about 10 years. Then I went to this small company to work on a toothbrush called Sonicare, which completely blew up.
When we sold Sonicare to Phillips we thought, OK we’re going to set up a company, but we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do. We looked at kitchen appliances, even the shipping industry. But skincare was only going to continue to grow, so we thought, what’s one of the main problems we can solve in skincare? Well, it was acne, so we spoke with a dermatologist who said that it all started with a plugged pore. So, how we unplug a pore? Is there a way to flex the skin in such a way to unclog the pore? That was the line of thining that led to Clarisonic.
I’ve now been in beauty for 15+ years and as a scientist I see that it’s still so ripe for innovation. There are so many different problems out there that companies continue to give the same answer to time and again. So yes I fell into beauty, but now that I’m here I look around and think, wow there’s so many different things we could do that people aren’t doing because they’re used sticking formulas in bottles, tubes and jars.
Where does your early-mover, first-to-market spirit come from?
I think it comes down to me as a person, always problem-solving and wanting to have an answer to a question. That really drives me. My training has given me the skills and the tools to go out and find those answers. For me, it’s about being in the right place at the right time and saying wow, this is totally different. In the beauty industry people like to call things “innovative” whether it’s technology, ingredients, or actives. But they’re not. To be truly innovative you must do things that people haven’t done before and with that comes the burden of convincing people your idea or your technology is needed. You must pave the way with production and find manufacturers who will make something they’ve never made before. You must educate consumers on why they need a product that they’ve never seen before and show them how it works.
I went to so many different contract manufacturers for Opulus and said, this is what I want. They all said no. We make tubes and bottles; we fill them and put labels on them. No one seemed to care about the quality as much as we did, so we brought the manufacturing in-house. This is a luxury product that’s basically hand-crafted right now. We make them about 20 minutes away from my house with a little team, including some of my production and engineering colleagues from Clarisonic. We made all the Clarisonic brushes until L’Oreal bought us, so it’s a very similar experience.
Did Opulus spring from your imagination or was it based on market research?
The inspiration came to me when I was in a chocolate shop. I was looking at all the different sweets; they had different coatings and different fillings and each one felt like a different experience. I thought, this is what skincare needs to become. It should be fun and exciting. Right now, you’re locked into a three months’ supply, scooping creams and things out of a jar. We’re creating formulas now that haven’t been done before, encased in these solid opoules. With that comes several lines of inquiry. How can you create two phases – one that’s harder on the outside and softer on the inside? How do you blend it? What temperature do you blend it? What problem can we solve with this appliance?
We had to pick one active to start with so we went into retinol first because it’s the best ingredient out there for skin, but we will certainly expand. In the future you’ll be able to mix not just your skin treatments, but also your hair treatments, your BB creams, your bath and body treatments. There’s so much this technology could do in the beauty space.
What’s the feedback been like so far?
We’ve been on the market since the end of April. Because we were limited in the number of units we could produce because of supply chain issues, we couldn’t do a very big launch with lots of advertising. It’s been a gradual build. Dermatologists are starting to sell this for us around the country, and people are loving it so far. It’s got a 4.7 rating on our website, which is the only place you can get it right now.
Do you have aspirations for Opulus beyond the beauty space?
We do have aspirations to go into OTC treatments and creams for eczema, psoriasis and issues like that. Perhaps even prescription treatments depending on if we can get manufacturers to create prescription opoule. We’re going to come out with a sunscreen in the future, so we’ll have to go through the OTC monograph system to ensure that it’s produced up to FDA standards.
What is the biggest learning you’ve taken from Clarisonic to this new venture?
There are two parts to that. People kept telling me that I should create Opulus in a certain way. You should get contract manufacturers to build the appliance; you should only have online retailers, etc. My gut told me I should be building it myself. The Nordstorm’s and Neiman Marcus’s have always trusted you, get into their facilities; and guess what, that’s what we’re doing.
To answer your question more directly, I think what Clarisonic taught me was how to navigate a lot of the challenges that L’Oreal had with that device. There was no formula attached to the Clarisonic. You could use any cleanser, for example. With Opulus we’ve attached the formula because this activator can transform these little opoules into something truly unique. Before it was only about cleansing the skin and now that is no longer the case. We have a lot more opportunity here.
Do you want Opulus to stay independent or would you be open to acquisition?
We had this conversation during the early days of Clarisonic when it was a couple of founders. The CEO at the time asked us what we wanted to do with the company. Are we going to make it public? Are we going to keep it and pass it onto our kids? Are we going to do a VC flip? Or are we going to sell it to a big fish, like Sonicare sold to Phillips? We decided on the big fish scenario, so the next question was, how much do you want to sell it for? We picked this pie-in-the-sky amount with no rationale behind it. That determined our fate. No one argued about how we were going to exit the company; we were going to grow it to ‘x’ level and then we were going to sell it. Sure enough, as soon as retail sales met the multiples to get us that final amount, we put it up for sale.
This will also be an exit strategy where we’ll eventually sell to a larger company. We have more to offer this time around with Opulus, like our replenishment program. With the Clarisonic, you bought the device and then the brush heads. With Opulus we give you an assortment, and when that’s done you can go into replenishment; every month a new box of opoules is delivered to your house. Over 20% of the people who have bought this product have signed up for replenishment. That’s a business model that anyone would love to have.
What are your most important professional and personal accomplishments so far?
Professionally, I’m proud that we were able to create something and move an industry into a completely different direction. When we came around no one had heard of at-home devices being used for skincare. We broke that barrier and now there’s so many people playing in that space because customers are now more accustomed to using those devices.
Personally, we have 31 acres outside of Seattle, Washington. My partner and I created a tiny non-profit with the sale of Clarisonic and we donate money every year to conserve forests, build trails, as well as make donations to local food banks and shelters for battered women. We have a creek that runs through our forest and we’re undertaking a salmon stream restoration. We’ve become stewards of this little forest we have.
What is your advice to weary entrepreneurs who may be thinking of giving up?
Well, don’t give up! That’s the whole part of being an entrepreneur; things are always going to be bad and then they get better. They don’t become perfect so that’s just part of the job. You’re constantly having to push it forward. My other advice would be to evaluate your ideas very thoroughly and harshly. As soon as you put your product on the market 10,000 other people are going to evaluate it so make sure what you launch is bulletproof. The only way you can do that is to be your own worst critic.
Erica La Sala is a beauty writer and reporter who specializes in covering the business behind beauty. Her work has been featured in several digital publications and newsletters serving both the professional and consumer communities, including Beauty Independent, Glossy, CEW Beauty News, BeautyMatter, and Allure Magazine. She graduated from Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business with an MBA in Management Systems.