Business Irish

Sunday 15 September 2019

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

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

John Cradden

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 Net-a-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."

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