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Iceland: Star Treatment

A skin serum made from barley seeds sparks celebrity buzz

With celebrity endorsers like Martha Stewart and Cameron Diaz gushing over their facial serum, Iceland-based Sif Cosmetics is sitting pretty. Anointed by the European Biotechnology Congress in 2013 as “best biotech product,” BIOEFFECT is flying off the shelves of trendy spas and cosmetic counters in the EU. Its secret ingredient is epidermal growth factor (EGF), which activates renewal mechanisms that improve the appearance of aging skin. Produced in barley plants grown in greenhouses jutting out of Iceland’s stark glacial landscape, the company’s EGF-containing products have proven clinical efficacy that sets them apart from competitors.

“For all our products, we do double-blinded placebo-controlled studies,” says Björn Örvar, company cofounder and CEO. “We are new to this business, and we didn’t know anything about cosmetics in 2008, so we just decided to use the methodology that is within our own [medical] experience.”

Indeed, Örvar and company co-founders started ORF Genetics in Reykjavík in 2001 to produce recombinant proteins, such as growth factors and cytokines, using a unique plant-based gene expression system. They saw an unmet need within the burgeoning stem cell research industry for growth factors and cytokines grown free of possible cross contamination with bacterial toxins. With expertise in plant cell culture, they decided to invest in barley.

Back in 2001, deciding to try to coax barley plants to package human growth factors into their seeds was seen as a big risk. It’s a very difficult system from the standpoint of plant tissue culture and genetic engineering, Örvar says. “But barley has so many good qualities as a protein producer that we decided to take that chance. Icelanders are risk takers.”

The risk paid off in 2005, when company scientists purified the first growth factors free of bacterial toxins and animal byproducts from barley seeds. Today the company supplies more than 20 growth factors and cytokines to over 400 laboratories worldwide.

But in 2006, the research team had their eureka moment when they realized that some of the growth factors that they produce are highly sought after as anti-aging agents for use in cosmetics. After some market research, they decided to spin out a subsidiary to market a skincare product line, and BIOEFFECT was born. While better known in Europe and Scandinavia, BIOEFFECT has devotees around the world, and Örvar says the company is expanding to Hong Kong, China, Japan, Russia and the United States within the year. Now that they’ve crossed the crucial threshold to profitability, the company plans to roll out new skincare products containing other growth factors known to encourage healthy skin renewal. Given the worldwide demand for youthful skin, the prospects for these Icelandic risk-takers are looking good.

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