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Protection for People and Planet: Arbre Founders Kristina Knox and Stephanie Tien

In the depths of winter, it’s easy to see why many Canadians believe we are so far north that the sun’s UV rays do not affect us. . Unfortunately, there is no less risk of sun burn and skin cancer here than there is in any other part of the world. This is true for every one of us. Skin cancer actually has the highest incidence of all cancers in Canada. These are among the facts Kristina Knox and Stephanie Tien learned and are now sharing through Arbre, a company they founded to create universally functional and sustainable SPF products.

“My family is Jamaican and we moved here when I was little,” Kristina remembered. “Sunscreen was just not part of my life because, we thought, we don’t burn! But what Stephanie and I have learned is that, regardless of the tone of your skin, you are still prone to UV rays and skin cancer.”

Backed by degrees in science from the University of Toronto, Kristina and Stephanie started Arbre in 2019 after a road trip north that resulted in a mutual friend getting a terrible sunburn on her scalp.

“We realized that there is no product available specifically to protect your scalp, besides wearing a hat,” Kristina said. “We started testing things in our kitchen and, when we realized that this is something we could do, we started working on Arbre.”

What followed was a deep dive into the world of sun protection and what the products do to people and the environment.

“There is a misconception out there that people with darker skin are not susceptible to sunburn and not at risk for skin cancer,” said Stephanie. “The marketing isn’t really inclusive and there is so little information out there unless you go digging for it. From our science backgrounds, we’re both very passionate about disseminating scientific information about sunscreen and it’s important for our consumers to be educated about the products they are purchasing and what it does.”

In addition to revising traditional sunscreen marketing through the lens of their own experiences, the two wanted to look at ingredients in sunscreen.

“If you look at the ingredients list of most sunscreens, you’ll see octinoxate and oxybenzone,” Kristina said. “Those two chemicals alone are responsible for up to 10% of the damage to coral reefs just from sunscreen washing off our bodies as we swim. We were also shocked to learn that the problem is so severe that there have been countries coming out with bans. Hawaii has banned products because they contain these damaging chemicals.”

The solution? The friends have formulated their first mineral-based product

“Zinc oxide and titanium oxide are the basis for the sun protection in our first product,” Stephanie said. “We definitely have ideas for the creating a full range of products, but right now all of our energy is going into the clinical testing and approvals process to bring our sunscreen to market.”

Arbre and its founders were one of four companies to win the IDEA Mississauga Scale-Up Pitch Day hosted by the City of Mississauga’s Economic Development Office as part of its Scale-Up Program. The program, funded and delivered by the city, is a 4-month program to support innovative and inclusive companies to grow and overcome barriers. Participants like Kristina and Stephanie have the opportunity to attend workshops and seminars that address common challenges faced by scaling companies, connect with experienced mentors, speakers, and peers, and present to investors, funders, and industry partners to get started towards their next round of funding, sale, or partnership.

“When we started this company, we had no idea where to start because we had never taken a business course,” Kristina said. “Connecting with the Scale-Up Program, as well as other incubators and accelerators, has helped us connect with professionals in business, such as lawyers who specialize in IP, to help us through our learning.”

The program also helped the pair stay rooted in reality throughout the scale-up process.

“People can glamourize starting their own business and believe that, within a year, they’ll be making sales and become the next big start up to establish a brand name,” Stephanie said. “There is a lot of hard work, a lot of learning and so many regulatory hoops to jump through that a lot of people give up. We tapped into so many different incubators, accelerators and programs to discover that there are a lot of funding options. My advice to other entrepreneurs is to do your research, and get started, but stay grounded.”

“It’s important to find a community too,” Kristina said. “It’s also great to start a business with your best friend and to create something really special.”

The Mississauga Business Entrepreneur Centre (MBEC) is a business unit of the City of Mississauga’s Economic Development Office. MBEC is your central source for business information, resources and guidance. For information and guidance, please contact us by phone or email.