A new era for skin science and cosmeceutical development using an ex vivo skin testing platform

Case study

Keratify: A new era for skin science and cosmeceutical development

A deep science start-up has developed a new method for culturing and accurately modelling human skin, which could revolutionise dermatology research and aid the development of innovative cosmeceutical products.

Keratify was founded in 2018 by Dr Rosalind Hannen, then a postdoctoral researcher at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), who took part in the first cohort of the MedTech SuperConnector (MTSC). In just 12-months she raised £700,000 from Innovate UK and private equity funding to kick-start Keratify.

The company has subsequently built a solid client base, winning research contracts with three major global companies. Meanwhile Ros, CEO of Keratify, is also now a lecturer at QMUL, leading three research projects.

Keratify’s ex vivo skin testing platform

Towards better skin models

During the course of her PhD in Dermatology and Endocrinology then subsequent postdoctoral work, Ros became aware of the inadequacies of existing human skin models. The main issue is that they do not properly preserve the skin’s incredible natural barrier function and are sometimes upto 50-fold more permeable than human skin. That has major implications for both drug efficacy and toxicology studies.

“You could have a candidate drug that appears to work really well, but it might never get through the barrier. What that means is, when we get to clinical studies there’s a really high rate of failure. So I started to create this device that reconsidered how we culture skin, so that it has the right physiological environment. And that transformed everything. Suddenly the skin barrier is maintained, the biology is good, and the testing is replicating human responses.

“But I really wanted other people to be able to use this technology, not just for my own lab, not just for me. I realized, what we were solving was a fundamental, global problem.”

Taking the next steps

Ros was coming towards the end of her postdoc research contract and almost on a whim, decided to apply to the MTSC, and was accepted. This allowed her to continue research at QMUL whilst at the same time developing her early ideas for high-fidelity skin testing technology.

She credits MTSC in particular for providing key business training, funds to patent the technology, and some ‘phenomenal connections’.

“Early on, you had to have a lot of imagination to see where this might be going! But I was just really determined with it and MTSC gave me the confidence to take things forward. Without the MTSC none of this would have happened and it was by far the best accelerator I’ve ever been on.”

Dr Ros Hannen presenting at the MTSC Cohort Two Showcase

Achieving sustainable growth

Keratify was incorporated in 2018, and since then the company’s strategic focus has been on building a base of clients in cosmetics and dermatology. Keratify carries out contract research for these clients, using its core, patented technology.

“We are really focusing on making sure we are fully sustainable, functional and actually generating revenue as a proper business, whose products and services people really want. The thing about funding is that it ends. So it’s about making sure you can fundraise when you’re in a position of strength.”

The company is also developing a user-friendly prototype with the ultimate aim of manufacturing and licensing a product that can be used by labs around the world. That could pave the way for a host of new emergent technologies in the field – for example drug delivery using ‘transdermal’ microneedle patches. Similar approaches have stalled in the past, partly due to the inadequacies of skin modelling that Keratify is addressing.

“It’s a really appealing prospect, because you could send out patches containing vaccines in the post and suddenly the whole nation could be vaccinated by the postman!”

Giving back

Another legacy that Ros hopes to leave is to encourage more entrepreneurial and business ambitions in the next generation of PhD students. Ros currently has 2 PhD students working on relevant dermatology projects as part of the government-funded I-CASE programme (Industrial Cooperative Awards in Science & Technology). There are also plans to support more PhD students through a similar scheme at QMUL.

The company is also building a network with world-leading academics in skin science, through collaborations with five global research institutes. Ros personally advocates a closer relationship between academia and start-ups, scale-ups and SMEs and calls for stronger mechanisms for more seamless knowledge transfer between them.

“I love academia and Keratify will continue to support academia in every way we can. Our view is that we want to continue to be innovative, thought leaders and ahead of the curve in our approach. That means that some of the really high-risk work will probably have to happen in academia first.”

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