No one likes to be reminded that their largest organ is a veritable menagerie of microbes. But Parallel Health turns the skin microbiome from creepy fact to potentially transformative skin care by engineering a custom cocktail of phages and siccing them on the bacteria that cause acne and other conditions.
Parallel Health emerged from stealth today at TechCrunch Disrupt as part of the Startup Battlefield, revealing (beyond their existence) $2.3 million in pre-seed funding and a first product, a custom phage therapy skin serum.
The company got its start out of a project at a larger cosmetics company, where they were attempting to prove the efficacy of phage therapy to treat chronic skin conditions. The team found that some people benefited profoundly and others not at all, and concluded that what was needed was a serum with phages customized just for the user. This veered too deep into biotech for the parent company, so Natalise Kalea Robinson and Nathan Brown ended up founding Parallel to pursue the idea.
A word on phages. These things — they’re not alive, Brown made clear — are basically viruses that target bacteria and are perfectly safe and naturally occurring. In fact, they were a promising treatment method in the early 20th century before antibiotics were discovered; even after penicillin (far more effective at the time) was discovered, some places continued their research into what you might call bacteria’s nemesis.
But recently, as antibiotic-resistant strains of staphylococcus and tuberculosis gain ground and force ever more diverse treatment methods, that phage therapy has seen a resurgence of interest. And it was that which drove the experiment that led to Parallel Health’s founding, though a number of other factors influenced their approach.
For one thing, dermatology is an established science, but it’s one of many fields where cheap, fast genetic sequencing is set to make serious inroads. What lives on our skin? We have a general idea, for sure: a set of bacteria and other microbes in our pores, follicles, under our nails — it’s not pleasant to think about, but it’s the truth. We’re walking ecosystems, and we can fall out of equilibrium (though “natural balance” is an exaggeration) by something as simple as adopting a dog or moving in with a partner.