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Innovating clean beauty: Technoble's path to sustainable cosmetics

Interview - February 14, 2024

Embark on an insightful journey through Technoble Co., Ltd.'s evolution and commitment to sustainable cosmetics, as President Shigeru Sawaki unveils the company's pioneering strides in functional materials and Clean Beauty initiatives. From their origins in raw ingredient manufacturing for skincare to groundbreaking innovations like emelass derived from eelgrass, Sawaki delves into meticulous R&D practices, microbiology pursuits, and global expansion strategies, notably focusing on India. This interview encapsulates Technoble's dedication to tailored skincare solutions, ethical sourcing, and a visionary blend of industry revolution and support for the arts, heralding a new era in Clean Beauty and sustainable cosmetics.

SHIGERO SAWAKI, PRESIDENT OF TECHNOBLE CO., LTD.
SHIGERO SAWAKI | PRESIDENT OF TECHNOBLE CO., LTD.

Could you provide us with an overview of your company?

Established in 1961, our company specializes in the research and development of functional materials, cosmetics, and quasi-drugs. Possessing the essential manufacturing license, we are equipped to offer a diverse range of raw ingredients and engage in quasi-drug manufacturing.

Within the cosmetic industry, which encompasses various types like make-up and skincare, our primary focus is on the manufacturing of raw materials for skin care products. Dermatologists have shown interest in the application of our products, as we concentrate on providing raw materials that frequently serve as main components for their formulations.

Our founder played a major role in introducing Japan's raw material companies to the world. He majored in pharmaceuticals and used that training to start his company. He is also known for his expertise and technology in aesthetic beauty therapy. The first products he introduced were polysaccharides with high molecular weight, such as hyaluronic acid. The introduction of this product was the culmination of all his hard work. The founder patented this technology to incorporate the ingredients into a broad range of cosmetic products. Our company has moved away from supplying hyaluronic acid, which used to be derived from animals, and now our main business is to provide functional beauty ingredients derived from plants.

The company was originally named Kyoei Kagaku Shokai and underwent a name change to Technoble in 1992. The current building's location used to house a drug store operated by the founder and his family. This drugstore was later dismantled to make way for our new headquarters.

Currently, we have expanded to five locations. Approximately 10 minutes from here is the Life Science General Institute, serving as our R&D center since 2003. Since 1998, we have operated the Yamato Highland Nara Factory. In 2018, we constructed a new building Science Park Kyoto in Kyoto, which serves as a combined institute and manufacturing plant. Our current infrastructure comprises two factories, two R&D centers, and an office in Tokyo.

SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) were introduced around the same time as the onset of the pandemic. As awareness of the importance of addressing environmental issues and supporting SDGs grows, Technoble has begun focusing on Clean Beauty initiatives. Our unique ethical brands of functional ingredients, such as the i-Organic brand utilizes highly traceable organically cultivated raw materials, and the Re: Derma & Earth brand converting unused resources into functional ingredients, are in line with the principles of Clean Beauty.

We received the Gold Award in the environmental category of the 10th CITE JAPAN 2021 Awards. This recognition signifies not only the acknowledgment of dermatologists and scientists in our industry but also extends to the agricultural field, including farmers.

Our commitment to sustainability is reflected in our full cycle for raw materials, incorporating both upcycling and recycling. At our plants, residual byproducts after extraction are not wasted but are efficiently utilized. This approach ensures that all of our raw materials are put to use, aligning with our dedication to a sustainable supply chain.

In line with our pursuit of SDGs, we are actively working towards reducing CO2 emissions in our factory. We are proud to have achieved a significant milestone with a 25% reduction in CO2 in our plants, marking the highest reduction we have ever attained.

In addition, our new initiative for sustainability, Save the Precious Beauty™, is a project to revitalize the region and people and revitalize Japan. This project aims to not only efficiently utilize limited raw materials, but also increase resource engagement.  The more engagement there is with the local people, the more effective revitalization there will be in the region, along with generating more work opportunities for people. Local people will have jobs and manufacturing companies will also have their raw materials. 

This project is located in Yamagata prefecture, where the Himeyuri flower naturally grows and holds symbolic significance. Unfortunately, this flower is facing extinction. Currently, we are collaborating closely with high school students in Yamagata who are cultivating these flowers within their schools. The proper growth of the seeds in a conducive environment is crucial for ensuring a sufficient harvest for mass production. To achieve this, we seek the support of the community.

The students nurture the seeds until maturity, after which they are handed over to local farmers. These farmers then cultivate and bloom the flowers at specific times of the year. The entire process of raw material manufacturing becomes a community effort. We consider it a blessing to have the support of these individuals in realizing our goal. In return, we are committed to contributing to the region's revitalization by creating more work opportunities.

Various companies adopt different interpretations and approaches to SDGs. From a commercial perspective, pursuing SDGs may lead to profit losses. However, we are advocating for a holistic SDG approach that considers the well-being of all individuals involved. Japan is grappling with a population decline, which has particularly affected the agricultural sector, with fewer individuals willing to dedicate their lives to farming. Our goal is to safeguard both the people and the environment. In our SDG efforts, it is paramount for us to contribute meaningfully to society, recognizing that true sustainability goes beyond financial considerations.

 

What motivated you to develop emelass, a recent eco-friendly material derived from eelgrass? Being the first worldwide to create a cosmetic material from eelgrass, how does emelass leverage the skin's natural water-retaining ability to combat dullness and exhibit a sebum secretion suppression effect for treating oily skin and promoting hair growth? Additionally, could you outline some of the challenges you faced during its development?

Australia is home to the dugong, a marine creature that sustains itself by consuming seagrass. Some species of dugong can grow up to 100 kg solely by feeding on seagrass, and scientific studies confirm that seagrass provides sufficient nutrition for their full maturity. This nutritional richness led us to select seagrass as a raw material for our products.

As we commenced the extraction process for production, ensuring the material's handling involved stringent measures to prevent cross-contamination. Additionally, the development of our product adhered to accredited safety regulations. The success of our product development can be attributed to our commitment to high standards in manufacturing and production.

The choice of this material is driven by its nutritional properties and sustainability. What sets us apart from competitors is the effectiveness of our product. The development of emelass is a direct outcome of our commitment to finding solutions tailored to the needs of our customers.

Our strength is in skin and hair care. There are only a handful of cosmetic companies that identify all the different components in a product and determine its effects. Major cosmetic companies such as L'Oréal have a special R&D division responsible for studying ingredients for their products. It is quite rare to see this in OEM/ODM companies like ours. However, this is how we stand out because we analyze all possible effects of a component such as brightening, whitening, anti-inflammatory effect, moisturizing, and many others. Our next mission is “in vivo”, which is the actual efficacy when applied to the skin. It's not just based on paper or theory but based on actual tests conducted during research and development. We analyze the composition of a material and study its effects on skin and hair.

Throughout our testing, we identify areas for improvement, making this a crucial part of our process. We openly announce the raw materials we are working with together and publish our findings in specialized magazines such as Investigative Dermatology. We frequently publish our scientific works and deliver presentations at various conventions. Regular participation in cosmetic conventions is a key avenue for us, enabling us to announce the materials we are actively working on. The inclusive attendance of both SMEs and larger companies fosters a collaborative environment, contributing to mutual growth.

We actively engage in a special society,  the IFSCC (International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists), which takes place annually. The recent event was held in Barcelona, and in 2030, it is scheduled to be in Japan. I am honored to have been appointed as the chairman of the Society’s reparation committee.

A functional ingredient we found is LAFRIN-AM α-LP which received the Ingredient Award in Cosmetics 2017. It is a multifunctional lactic acid bacterium fermented rice that has both innovative natural emulsification ability and skin care effect.

Our Japanese lotus flower extract, called Nelura, was also awarded as the best anti-aging active ingredient in China, 2017. Our STEM CLOVER-Rf an innovative functional ingredient that improves skin thinning, won an ingredient award at the 6th China International Summit on Cosmetics Technology (InnoCosme2021). There are quite a handful of milestones in our 62-year history as a company.



Is there any technology or product area that you are currently working on that you would like to showcase to our international readers?

Currently, we are actively engaged in microbiology, as it provides a viable substitute for animal-derived ingredients. Ethical considerations in ingredient sourcing are becoming more prominent across various industries. Many companies are now prioritizing organic and fair trade options to support local communities while distancing themselves from animal-derived extracts and raw materials. The cosmetic industry still heavily relies on synthetic components, such as parabens and vitamins A and C. As a research & and development-driven company, we aim to contribute solutions to this ethical dilemma by shifting towards plant-derived products and leveraging microbiology, aligning with the growing demand for sustainable and ethical practices in ingredient manufacturing.

 

With microbiology gaining popularity in the pursuit of SDGs, we have observed in numerous interviews that companies are increasingly using partnerships to enhance their expertise in specific fields. This involves leveraging other companies' knowledge and expertise to create new products or improve existing ones, as well as to penetrate new markets. Could you elaborate on the role partnerships play in your business model? Additionally, are you currently exploring partnerships with overseas companies?

Our company has a longstanding tradition of collaborating with educational institutions in Japan, a key element for our sustainability as an R&D-based company. We actively engage in co-developing raw materials with these institutions. While we are open to partnerships, our focus is primarily on domestic collaborations, working closely with our clients to develop specific ingredients tailored to their needs.

Our mission is to discover raw materials for beauty suitable for people worldwide. We are dedicated to meticulously analyzing each ingredient, continuously studying and refining them to create raw materials that prioritize reliability and safety. Our goal is to deliver these high-quality beauty raw materials to the global market.

 

You currently have sales agents in China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Europe, and the US. Looking ahead, which countries or regions do you believe hold the most potential or are key to the growth of your firm? Furthermore, what strategies are you considering implementing to achieve this growth?

We are particularly interested in India. The country is well-known for its wide variety of local herbal medicine, featuring many naturally occurring plants that have not yet been fully studied and could serve as potential raw materials. Additionally, we share a certain affinity with India, as the country holds an awareness and respect for the sanctity of religion and the healing properties of natural herbs.

 

What strategies do you plan to implement for your expansion into the Indian market?

The key lies in finding local partners. Understanding the prevalent skin problems in India is crucial, considering the diverse groups of people in the region with varying skin types and issues. Notably, whitening products have captured the interest of many Indians for years. To address this demand, we aim to establish a distribution agreement with a local partner. This initial stage will pave the way for subsequent R&D efforts to determine how to achieve a proper whitening effect on Indian skin – a process in which our partner's insights will be invaluable.

Rather than immediately introducing whitening products to the market, as many companies entering India might do, we prefer a methodical approach. We want to comprehensively understand the market, conducting scientific research that aligns with local preferences and specific skincare needs. This involves identifying the demand and challenges through our partner, allowing us to develop tailored solutions for the market.

Critical to our research is understanding the effect of ingredients concerning the amount of melanin present in the skin of the local population. Cooperation with our local partners and clients is essential in this regard. By taking this diligent approach, we aim to offer products that not only meet market demands but also genuinely cater to the unique skincare requirements of the diverse Indian population.

 

As a global company with a unique ability to understand customer needs, how does your company manage to provide diverse products that are effective for various skin types?

We possess a database documenting our studies in skin biology and dermatology, alongside another database cataloging customer preferences and formulas designed for various skin types. Additionally, we can augment this information through collaboration with our local partners. The database derived from our research in France can also serve as a foundational reference for other European countries. Noteworthy entities like L'Oréal and Clarins, with substantial R&D departments, present an opportunity for cooperation in determining skin models within specific regions, enabling us to craft customized solutions for those skin types. This collaborative approach extends to the American market as well.

However, the Asian market would require a different approach due to the wide variety of skin types in the region. To effectively address this diversity, we have to understand local preferences and customer needs. Establishing partnerships can facilitate the exchange of databases, enabling us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the unique characteristics and requirements of the diverse Asian markets.

 

Your company is commemorating its 62nd anniversary this year. Looking ahead three years, if we were to interview you again, what goals and dreams for the company would you like to have accomplished by then?

To celebrate our company's 65th year, we're introducing a one-of-a-kind ingredient that's never been used before in the market, and it has the potential to revolutionize the industry. To mark this significant occasion, we're planning a Grand Opera concert.

Our founder has a deep appreciation for European opera culture, and in the spirit of this, Technoble proudly supports a local university dedicated to nurturing opera singers. We're excited to celebrate alongside the talented opera singers we've been supporting throughout the years. It's a unique blend of innovation in our industry and our commitment to the arts and local community.

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