Frustrated by his belief that the haircare industry had not seen true innovation for decades, Evan Zhao *19 wanted to fill the gap of functional hair care products. Meeting through a mutual friend from Princeton last year, Zhao and Avinash Boppana ’21 founded Revela, a startup using machine learning (ML) to make better hair care products. Over the pandemic, Zhao developed the idea to use drug discovery ML in a visible consumer health application like hair care. He needed a partner specializing in computational biology and chemistry, which is where Boppana came in.
The two brainstormed for four to five months over last summer and raised pre-seed funding by January 2021, when they incorporated Revela. In April, they raised a $6.5 million seed round led by Maki VC with participation by Montage Ventures, K5 Global, Good Friends VC, and Buckley Ventures. David Gilboa, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker and one of the managers of Good Friends, said, "Revela's discovery and technology-first approach is set to disrupt the consumer wellness space and bring in a new wave of better products."
Late last year, Revela launched their first product, the Hair Revival Serum, using a proprietary compound called ProCelinyl identified using their ML technology. Their long-term plans are to become a wellness company, expanding well beyond haircare. They are working on products meant for reducing skin wrinkles and the research team at Revela is also working on discovering new molecules for the treatment of liver cirrhosis and anti-hair graying. All of this is quite complicated though, said Boppana. “Every consumer health indication, every problem you want to tackle, has a different market. Different players in the game, different stakeholders.”
Zhao, a graduate alum from the Chemical and Biological Engineering department at Princeton, said that their approach of developing many different kinds of products at once, rather than laser-focusing on one, is a skill he learned at Princeton. “What we've seen, especially from our experiences there, is that, when you try to do many things at the same time, they actually all feed off each other.” Boppana elaborated, saying that it’s easy for them to take processes like data generation from one application, then apply it to another. Revela’s ML-based discovery algorithm is even more useful in these situations, as it works to help determine which ingredients might be the most promising. Zhao said that this model de-risks the company, making it more attractive for venture capitalists, as only a few need to be successful to reap great revenue.
Both Zhao and Boppana have been greatly impacted by their experiences at Princeton; Zhao fondly recalled his time in the Entrepreneurial Leadership course taught by Derek Lidow at the Keller Center. In the course, he said that he learned a great deal from Princeton undergraduates. Zhao also participated in the Keller Center’s Innovation Forum in 2018, a pitch competition open to Princeton faculty, research staff, postdocs, and graduate and undergraduate students.
As a startup creator, one must learn to wear many hats—such as distribution, formulation, patent work, and more—something that Princeton taught Boppana to do. He also received a great deal of interdisciplinary opportunities that strengthened his interests in biology, chemistry, and computer science. He recalled being a part of a graduate class seminar in his senior year, where he worked with Prof. Ben Raphael, who was also interested in computer science and computational biology. In the course, Boppana was able to learn about single-cell genomics, which was a formative experience for him in Prof. Olga Troyanskaya's lab.
Boppana was also a part of Alimtas, a student-led sub-team of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club specializing in translational life science research. There, he worked with professors and researchers in the translational research pipeline; it allowed him to analyze competitive advantages and competitive landscapes. The most important skill he said he learned was pitching in front of venture capitalists and others, which paid off with Revela’s pre-seed support and seed investment.
Already, Revela is starting to see the rewards of this unique approach: Zhao says that the company is making $100,000 in monthly revenue, remarkable given the company’s early stage. With the rate at which it is scaling, Princeton Entrepreneurship Council looks forward to watching Revela’s progress.