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Amyris’ ‘Accidental’ Celebrity Play

The company has launched a number of celebrity brands, but its CEO believes his offerings stand out from the crowd.

“Somewhat accidental,” is how John Melo, chief executive officer of clean beauty and biotechnology company Amyris, described how he ended up with a number of celebrity brands in his hands.

As well as Naomi Watts’ about-to-be-launched Stripes, there’s also Rose Inc. with supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, JVN with “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness, Costa Brazil with former Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa, and its newest partnership with soccer legend David Beckham.

This marks somewhat of an evolution of the company, which began life in 2003 with a $42 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a molecule to treat malaria by engineering the genetics of yeast strains and fermenting them in sugarcane syrup, in order to convert basic plant sugars to hydrocarbon molecules.

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Since then, it has adapted this technology and in addition to developing clean ingredients for countless markets, it launched its first consumer beauty brand Biossance in 2016 and more recently followed with a number of sustainable, clean brands with celebrities, although Melo stressed that he’s not interested in celebrity brands per se.

“I always tell people it’s my nighttime job to curate these,” he told Beauty Inc. of his venture into the world of celebrity. “You have to actually spend time with a person, you have to really listen to them. You have to understand where they come from. And that’s what I mean by I don’t want celebrity brands.

“Most celebrity brands are a celebrity wanting to get rich with a new beauty brand,” he continued. “They approach a bunch of people and they figure out what the best deal is and they do a deal. We get folks coming to us all the time. It’s like, don’t come to me. I don’t want to spend any time with you if all you want to do is negotiate the next deal, I just don’t want that. So that’s really how I try to drive that distinction.”

His way requires a clear strategy, category, community, and then that aforementioned “somewhat accidental” discovery of somebody who has a really interesting insight or positioning around that intersection.

John Melo
John Melo, president and CEO of Amyris. Courtesy Image.

He crossed paths with Van Ness and Huntington-Whiteley due to some of Amyris’ other business arrangements and revealed that in getting to know them, the “insight popped.” “That’s why I say it was accidental. It wasn’t like we made a list of people.”

In the case of Huntington-Whiteley, it was over dinner that he came up with the idea for her makeup brand. “At the end of the dinner, I looked at her and said, “you know, Rosie, you’ve got this amazing connection, of aspiration or combination of aspiration and accessibility, that I think most people don’t realize. So if you want to create something with me, I want to bring that out.’”

And according to Melo, Rose Inc., a sustainably sourced and packaged color cosmetics brand, which this week celebrated its one-year anniversary and is available at Sephora, has performed well, enjoying solid, double-digit growth, although the company did not provide sales figures.

As for JVN, its net sales are projected to be north of $40 million in its first year, as well as turning a profit, according to Melo. Second-year net sales could be as high as $100 million.

Then there’s Costa’s Costa Brazil clean luxury beauty and wellness brand inspired by his home country, which Melo never set out to acquire.

“I met Francisco. He was in a place where he needed an investment and the more I got to know him, the more conviction I had for him and the brand,” explained Melo. “He’s a perfect example of when I did that deal, it was really because I wanted to be around Francisco.”

For now, the focus on Costa Brazil is the operating side. “The one downside of being super creative is you’ve got an idea a minute,” said Melo. “And for a brand to be successful you actually have to get a few ideas that really work. It’s a beautiful brand. It’s got beautiful products. It’s got a great ingredient story. It’s going to take time, but we’re the right partner to make that work.”

On the recommendation of her friend Costa, Watts, meanwhile, pitched Melo the idea for Stripes, a menopausal beauty brand, which also led him to acquire Onda, the clean beauty retailer she cofounded in 2014, for an undisclosed sum.

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“If the community is women in menopause, either actually pre- and menopause and just life in general, as you get more mature in life, then let’s actually do this in a big way,” he said of the project. “And let’s apply science, let’s actually create an institute, let’s make sure there’s a community to support these women, and let’s make sure the products really work.”

Next on the celebrity launch list after Watts’ Stripes will be its recent deal with Beckham. Not much is known about this yet, but Melo is hoping to “shift the game around men’s wellness” with the brand.

Away from celebrities, two other launches are on the horizon this year: EcoFabulous Cosmetics and For You, a brand that it’s collaborating with Walmart Inc. on.

After all, Amyris’ homegrown brands have to date been its biggest hits. “It’s not that I’m not happy with the brands we bought,” said Melo. “Costa Brazil is an example of a brand that’s up 300 percent this year in sales so the brands we bought have also done well. But the brands we’ve created, I think are magical. And I just wanted to see more of that.”

As for how all this plays out overall financially, on the revenue front, Amyris’ revenue came in at $65.2 million in its second quarter. This was below analysts’ estimates of around $80 million, but it was up 54 percent year over year, while consumer revenue increased 108 percent to $43 million compared to the same period a year earlier. It reported a net loss of $110 million, compared net income of $15.4 million a year earlier.

Over the next few quarters, analysts stressed that they need to see higher growth rates and more funding.