Camel's milk cosmetics company finds oasis in Columbia

Skinue sold at Elly's Couture

** CLARIFICATION: This story has been corrected to indicate that the Skinue products are sold online.

COLUMBIA — The skin cream looks ordinary — white and velvety.

Its packaging looks typical — small pastel-colored tubes.

But Elly Bethune, the owner of Elly's Couture on Broadway, doesn't stock ordinary cosmetics. In fact, she normally doesn't sell cosmetics at all. But there's an exotic ingredient in the Skinue products that caught her attention: whey from camel's milk.

She's been using it herself for about a month — a dab is enough to make her whole face feel "like a baby's butt," and it helps her clear up blemishes, she said.

If the products' potency and far-flung ingredients weren't enough to convince Bethune to stock them, there's also this: Columbia is the only place in the country where camel's milk cosmetics are for sale.

From Dubai to Missouri

It's a long journey from camel udders to the shelves of Elly's Couture.

It starts in a place called Camelicious, a camel farm in Dubai owned by the United Arab Emirates' royal family. The farm exports powdered camel's milk to a Jordanian pharmaceutical company called MONOJO Biotech. The company has one to two weeks to mix the powder with conventional cosmetic compounds, such as mineral oil and cetearyl alcohol, before it degrades.

Camel milk's nickname in the Middle East is "magic drink," MONOJO Biotech CEO Penelope Shihab said, because people in the Gulf States drink it daily. In Jordan it's a popular remedy for infections such as gastroenteritis and hepatitis. MONOJO's scientists have been working since 2005 to apply those therapeutic properties to skin care. In 2012, the formulas were ready.

Luay Abu-Qatouseh, the head of MONOJO's microbiology section, said camel's milk improves cosmetics in several ways:

  • Its proteins contain antibodies that remain stable under harsh conditions, like +including+ strong sunlight, heat and skin's natural acidity.AC
  • Camel's+ milk contains more vitamins and minerals than milk from other animals. Those +These+ vitamins promote soft skin.AC
  • Common allergy-causing bacteria do not grow in camel's+ milk.AC

Each Skinue product for acne contains 3 percent of camel whey, Abu-Qatouseh said. The whey supplements a general cosmetic formula.

Columbia as a launchpad

After eight years of research and development on the Skinue line, Shihab knew her company was sitting on some good products. But she wanted to launch her line outside the Middle East.

Jordan is a small market, she explained, and expanding to each country in the region would've been more complicated than staying within one large market, like the U.S.

Besides, she said, "Jordan customers love U.S. products."

She dreamed of launching her product in New York or Chicago, but she changed her mind when she met Samih Darwazah, a Jordanian graduate of St. Louis College of Pharmacy. He told her Missouri was the ideal place to understand the American market culture.

She considered St. Louis, but when she visited the MU Life Sciences Business Incubator, the incubator's CEO Jake Halliday convinced her Columbia was the place for a fledgling business to start.

She settled in at the business incubator in 2012, and things finally seemed to come together. She could talk to MU scientists about tweaking her product to fit U.S. regulations. She could consult entrepreneurs about expanding her line in an American marketplace. She had access to free legal consultation to set up her U.S. subsidiary company, Columbia Biotech. She could tap the incubator's contact network to find retailers to sell Skinue products.

She was also able to work with journalism students to develop a marketing and communication plan. With that team of students, Shihab decided her containers would showcase the camel's milk aspect of the product while maintaining a traditional, upmarket design.

A toehold

In March, MONOJO shipped thousands of Skinue products to Columbia. Camel's milk products can be found in World Harvest International and Gourmet Foods, Concannon Plastic Surgery and Elly's Couture, and they're for sale at 9thelm.com.

Shihab is already thinking of bigger markets and more countries. But for now, Columbia Biotech's brand manager Patti Butera said the company wants to strengthen its presence in Columbia. MONOJO's scientists are working to diversify their products, and they might expand into stomach medicines.

The company is looking to expand into New York soon, Butera said; it already sells Skinue products online. **

After that, Shihab said, the Middle East and Brazil should follow.

Supervising editor is Adam Aton.

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