LO­CAL HE­ROES Set­ting up in Schull proves nat­u­ral move for or­ganic skin­care firm

Duo hope to cre­ate a lo­cal in­dus­try in grow­ing the nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents it needs, writes John Crad­den

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

CHOOS­ING west Co Cork as the base for a startup which makes cos­met­ics en­tirely from nat­u­ral, or­ganic in­gre­di­ents looks like an in­spired de­ci­sion for its founders John Mur­ray and Si­mon Jack­son, as they hope to utilise the area’s nat­u­ral re­sources to cre­ate a lo­cal move­ment as well as con­tin­u­ing to build a highly sus­tain­able en­ter­prise. The cou­ple were pre­vi­ously based in Bris­tol and worked to­gether on Jack­son’s pre­vi­ous com­pany, Dr Jack­son’s Nat­u­ral Prod­ucts be­fore de­cid­ing to get mar­ried and move to the west Cork town of Schull, where they set up a new firm, Mod­ern Botany.

They’ve al­ready made a name for them­selves with Mod­ern Botany Oil, a ver­sa­tile and keenly priced oil that can be used as a mois­turiser for face, body hair and nails. Launched in 2016, it quickly be­came a word-of-mouth suc­cess story, and picked up sev­eral awards.

As sec­tors go, the global skin­care mar­ket, pro­jected to be worth some $135bn (€118bn) in North Amer­ica and Europe by 2021, looks like an un­fea­si­bly large nut to crack for a small start-up based in a small town in West Cork, but Jack­son and Mur­ray are very much re­spond­ing to a clear trend to­wards nat­u­ral prod­ucts.

“We would like to say the suc­cess is down to peo­ple ‘get­ting it’,” says Jack­son. “I think we have all lived through the chem­i­cal gen­er­a­tion, from the 1970s until now, and we are now mov­ing into a post-chem­i­cal gen­er­a­tion, where peo­ple are ques­tion­ing what they put on their skin, what they con­sume and what’s in their prod­ucts.”

The big firms are be­gin­ning to cot­ton on to this trend. “They’re see­ing all of these smaller com­pa­nies that are mak­ing prod­ucts and are see­ing that peo­ple are mov­ing away and their sales are drop­ping.”

How­ever, small firms can be a lot more ag­ile, he adds. “We can make prod­ucts and have a new prod­uct range out within one to two years. The big play­ers, they can’t move that quickly.”

Mod­ern Botany is well placed to take ad­van­tage of the re­turn of what Jack­son calls “the golden age of nat­u­ral prod­ucts”. For a start, Jack­son has a PHD in phar­ma­cog­nosy — the study of medic­i­nal drugs ob­tained from nat­u­ral sources such as plants — from King’s Col­lege in Lon­don, as well as a back­ground in the study of skin dis­ease. But he also has more than 20 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in cos­met­ics, in­clud­ing stints work­ing on African indige­nous in­gre­di­ents in Malawi, Zim­babwe, and South Africa, prompt­ing him to set up his first firm.

“I think it goes in cy­cles. If you look back in my field in phar­ma­cog­nosy, it was very pop­u­lar in the ’60s and ’70s and that’s be­cause a lot of peo­ple were look­ing at plants for can­cer treat­ments. But then in the ’80s ’90s it moved very much the other way and more to­wards syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy and molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy. But I think what’s hap­pen­ing again, and maybe its driven by mar­ket forces, peo­ple want to move to nat­u­ral prod­ucts and nat­u­ral medicine.”

Mur­ray, who hails from Donough­more in north Cork, had worked in var­i­ous fields be­fore join­ing Jack­son’s first firm in 2012 as busi­ness devel­op­ment man­ager, and for which he se­cured ma­jor distri­bu­tion and com­mer­cial con­tracts with such re­tail­ing stal­warts as Neta-porter, Har­vey Ni­chols and Le Bon Marche.

“That took the brand global, which is great, but we had al­ways wanted to do some­thing which was more for the masses, and that’s re­ally why Mod­ern Botany was born. We wanted to do some­thing that was a lot more in­clu­sive.”

Be­sides want­ing to be closer to John’s par­ents, the choice of west Cork was ideal for Jack­son in that the area is home to many other ex­pa­tri­ates. “It’s quite in­ter­na­tional in some ar­eas, so it’s eas­ier for me to kind of fit in.”

But when it came to set­ting up an Ir­ish nat­u­ral skin­care com­pany, Schull may not have been the ob­vi­ous choice from a lo­gis­ti­cal per­spec­tive, be­ing a two-hour drive from Cork city and five hours from Dublin, but thanks to a lo­cal sup­plier, Dig­i­tal Forge, they “have bet­ter broad­band than they did in the UK”, said Jack­son, which makes all the dif­fer­ence.

It runs all its distri­bu­tion in­ter­nally from its of­fices in Schull and its prod­ucts are now in more than 200 stores, phar­ma­cies and life­style shops at the mo­ment. The firm was al­ways committed to em­ploy­ing lo­cal peo­ple and to date their cur­rent team of seven, which they plan to ex­pand to 12 over the next year, are all from the area. “There’s a wealth of tal­ent in west Cork,” says Jack­son.

While it may be a small and ag­ile com­pany, the firm took its time in de­vel­op­ing its for­mu­la­tions, par­tic­u­larly be­cause they had sev­eral ex­port mar­kets in its crosshairs from the start, not least be­cause con­sumers in Ire­land and the UK are some­what be­hind the curve when it comes to nat­u­ral skin­care prod­ucts.

“I think the nat­u­ral prod­uct move­ment is grow­ing here in Ire­land, but Ger­many is where the big­gest con­sumers of nat­u­ral prod­ucts live, so we have al­ways kept this in mind. That meant spend­ing time on the for­mu­la­tions — it took us four ver­sions of the fin­ished prod­uct be­fore we were happy.”

It has also in­vested money and time in var­i­ous cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Cos­mos, a uni­fied, har­monised stan­dard for or­ganic and nat­u­ral cos­met­ics that was es­tab­lished in 2010.

As well as Ger­many, tar­get mar­kets in­clude main­land Europe, the USA. It is cur­rently em­bark­ing on a €1.5m fund­ing round through pri­vate eq­uity and match fund­ing, and is a par­tic­i­pant on the En­ter­prise Ire­land high po­ten­tial startup pro­gramme. “We also work closely with Cork­bic and have a men­tor who has been in­valu­able.”

While its prod­ucts use Ir­ish in­gre­di­ents where pos­si­ble, such as flax oil, Jack­son says it is dif­fi­cult to source any nat­u­ral prod­ucts or herbs in Ire­land. Us­ing their own two-acre farm as a test-bed, they have al­ready man­aged to grow camomile, marigold and flax — crops that thrive in west Cork’s tra­di­tion­ally rocky and mar­ginal soil — and, as part of a five-10 year plan, they want to en­cour­age lo­cal farm­ers to grow these crops for them.

“So I think slowly, slowly, we’re start­ing to get this move­ment hap­pen­ing in Ire­land which doesn’t re­ally ex­ist at the mo­ment. We’re talk­ing po­ten­tially about large-scale ex­trac­tion, hav­ing some kind of co-op­er­a­tive maybe or a cen­tre where peo­ple can drop off their crops and then we can ex­tract oil that we need the plants. So re­ally I think our big­gest chal­lenge — get­ting the in­gre­di­ents for our prod­ucts in Ire­land — it will hap­pen. It’s just go­ing to take a while for us to do that.

What Jack­son en­joys the most about his cur­rent role is in ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents. “For me that’s the ex­cit­ing thing, it’s not even about money and how much money can you make. It’s re­ally about how can you put some­thing back into a com­mu­nity, or how can you em­power peo­ple to do things or to learn about things.” mod­ern­b­otany.com

John Mur­ray and Si­mon Jack­son of Mod­ern Botany are cur­rently em­bark­ing on a €1.5m fund­ing round through pri­vate eq­uity and match fund­ing

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