Meet the Device Doctor
Robb Akridge, PhD is co-founder and VP of Clinical Research at Pacific Bioscience Laboratories, makers of the Clarisonic Skin Care System (from the lead inventor of Sonicare®). Dr. Robb received his PhD in Immunology from Texas A&M University and has spent over 25 years in medical and global health research, including lead scientist and clinical trial management positions at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, ICOS Corporation, and Sonicare®. Robb is an Adjunct Research Member of the American Academy of Dermatology and was recently awarded a National Institutes of Health grant for diabetic wound research.
How did you make the connection between your training in immunology and founding Pacific Bioscience Laboratories (PBL)?
Immunology (the study of your defense system) is a broad reaching discipline. How your body monitors, seeks out, and destroys foreign invaders all starts with the skin. As you know, the skin is the body’s largest organ, and as taught in immunology, it is your first line of defense. We have learned skin is much more dynamic than was taught when I went to school; the skin is no longer considered just a physical barrier of protection. There is a keen balance between the skin and its external and internal environments. When PBL was started we knew that whatever we invented could not upset this natural balance. We knew that too many people were overdoing it when it came to cleansing; basically stripping the skin. So we needed to invent a technology that cleansed the skin better than anything out there, but in a gentle way, to enable the end user to reap the benefits every day.
Tell us about the evolution of the Clarisonic Skin Care System.
As with any product, it starts with a good team and a vision. I’ve learned that a team with a diverse academic and work related background allows for greater creativity. For example, we (the Clarisonic founders) initially heard a lecture on blackheads given by a local dermatologist, and one of the founders (Ken Pilcher, an electrical engineer) wondered if the physical properties of the plug were different from the surrounding skin. He thought if there was a physical difference then there might be a way to move the skin to help loosen the congested pore. This is something that most medical researchers would not think of, but it is logical for an engineer. This started us down the road of moving the skin by different means, in different ways and frequencies. The first Clarisonic prototype consisted of steel bars (no bristles) to move the skin. We quickly moved on to using bristles with a major lesson learned: steel bars pinch. By the way, I’m the company guinea pig. I test everything on myself before anyone else gets to try it. After about 10 different prototypes and multiple bristle materials, we came upon a specific motion (oscillatory) and a specific bristle diameter, length and material that gives you this incredible cleansing sensation. Each prototype was tested on small groups of consenting volunteers evaluating safety and efficacy. Once we found the prototype that felt great we fine-tuned it to make sure we could get optimal cleansing and that it was safe for daily use. What we discovered was that there is an optimal frequency range for cleansing the skin.
What are your personal predictions for the home device market in general?
The trend is pretty apparent. Medical procedures, which are performed in the skin care professional’s office, are now being reformatted and are being sold for at-home use. The obvious challenges are how do you make a medical procedure cosmetic so that it can be used by the average unskilled consumer, and at the same time still provide some cosmetic benefit?
You have a philanthropic bent as well — which charities and causes are closest to home?
Clarisonic is focused on women’s health issues, breast cancer in particular. In 2007 we started a pink Clarisonic campaign in which a portion of the sale of each pink Clarisonic goes to breast cancer research. Since 2007 we have raised over $750,000. Most people are probably thinking that it is because we produce the Clarisonic overseas that we are able to support charities. In fact, we assemble the Clarisonic here in the Seattle area, employ about 130 people, donate to breast cancer research, and are profitable. My hope is that more companies would realize how much they can give back to their communities.
The exhilarating feeling that happens when you stand before a group of cancer survivors and present a large check for a breast cancer foundation cannot be described with words. It creates an internal pride for you and your company.
What can consumers expect to see in the near future as a result of your clinical research?
You can expect PBL to take a tried-and-true beauty technique to a “sonic” level in the New Year.
I read that your mission is “to develop technologically advanced and clinically proven products that make a clear difference in skin care, health and beauty.” How does this translate for your work on a daily basis?
I think we are one of the most conservative skin care companies when it comes to marketing claims. Statements about any of our sonic products are not made unless we have research studies to back them up. I think the consumer has more confidence in Clarisonic because we over deliver on its performance and under deliver on the marketing jargon. They also appreciate when they ask a question and I say, “I don’t know.” Creating a product that truly delivers, knowing the limitations of the product, and speaking the truth results in an evangelical customer base that spreads the sonic skin care message unsolicited; what company would not want unsolicited marketing?