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Feature interview: Sola Idowu, founder of Hexis Labs

S O L A  P O W E R

Biotech company Hexis Lab has secured nearly £500,000 to “revolutionise” the cosmetic, personal care and pharmaceutical sectors’ green credentials across the globe. With the backing, from Innovate UK, the Newcastle Helix-based firm is developing and scaling manufacturing processes to replace traditional synthetic and animal-derived product ingredients with environmentally-friendlier alternatives. And with a number of exciting collaborations in advanced stages, including work alongside Teesside University and BiBerChem, Hexis Lab is ready to help meet ever-growing consumer demand in an international market expected to be worth more than $600 billion by 2025. As he gets ready to launch new products in India, founder Sola Idowu takes Colin Young on his own incredible journey from Lagos to the labs of the North East.

 

Sola Idowu walks into West Barn Co’s offices.

His beaming smile is rewarded with hugs, high-fives and handshakes.

He casually reaches into his rucksack, pulls out two small plastic containers, and places them on the table.

His actions receive a small round of applause and one little shriek of delight.

Layla & Kays is a new brand, and what is in the white and purple bottles is also very new, very fresh, innovative and game-changing.

It is shampoo and conditioner straight from Hexis Lab’s Newcastle headquarters that is heading to mass production in India.

After nearly a decade of research, experimentation and studying the data science, and thanks to nearly £500,000 from Innovate UK, Sola is ready to see what the influencers and celebrities make of the green cosmetic, personal care and hair products specifically catering for black, Indian and South East Asian women who, as he knows only too well, have been neglected for far too long.

“I wasn’t sure whether to bring them,” he tells me later.

Judging by the delight around the table, which quickly spreads around the building, Sola made the right decision.

He makes many of them. He’s a genius.

From their Durham base, Kim and Kirsty Cattin and the West Barn Co team have been sending their own ethical cosmetics and make-up across the globe for a good while.

Sola, just back from the UK Department of Business and Trade-led sales conference in Dubai, is happy to leave them to the social media world they inhabit.

“This is a very exciting time for me,” he admits.

“It will be so interesting to see where we can all go from here.”

Sola has studied in the universities of Lagos, Cambridge and Newcastle, is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and counts a fascinating stint working for NASA, in California, on his CV too.

He has always been most at home in the lab.

He came to Newcastle to study 26 years ago and, by his own admission, has only just reached the stage where he is ready to venture out of his comfort zone and into the commercial world.

“I came to Newcastle University and never really left,” he says.

After gaining a first-class mathematics degree in his home town of Lagos, in Nigeria, Sola was working in accounts for Shell when he met Stewart Brown, a Newcastle University graduate.

He says: “The only thing I knew about Newcastle as a child, was they had a football team,” says the man who is now friends with former Newcastle United striker Shola Ameobi and his family. (Their Christian Yoruba names are pronounced the same).

He adds: “In primary school, we had football betting newspapers, which were used to serve fried fish in, and one of the teams I remember was Newcastle United.

“After my degree, I started working for Shell during the Ogoni crisis; Stewart was the kindest boss ever and he talked a lot about Newcastle.

“I mean, a lot. It must have planted a seed.

“In those days, black people, local workers, were a minority at Shell Nigeria’s SNEPCo venture.

“It was full of ex-pats, and I was one of the few black people who could work with them; Stewart was just so different.

“He was interested in me, in my development and my career.

“He did not see the colour of my skin, or where I was from, and that was an unusual attitude, even in my own country.

“And it wasn’t just me, it was all the Nigerian workers.

“It made a real impression on me.

“There were big differences between pay for local staff and expatriate staff.

“I worked in cost accounting in deep sea exploration, and that was a major motivation to get out of the country and get the same degrees as the ex-pats.

“I could see no reason why I shouldn’t get the same opportunities and the same – or better – wages.”

After doing exceptionally well in his undergraduate degree, Sola undertook a scholarship at Cambridge, in the department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, headed by Professor Stephen Hawking.

He says: “I cannot describe it.

“It was a crazy time and pure hard work, but I got through it.

“One day, I was walking down the corridor and I saw an advertisement for a PhD in Newcastle in theoretical physics; it was very, very complex stuff, and right up my street.

“I came up for the interview, got the job and that was it.”

Sola had found his home – Newcastle and its labs.

He would also meet his future wife Elizabeth – the couple now have four teenage children – and, after a sojourn into space research in the States, he returned to the city to embark on a project which is set to revolutionise hair care for more than 70 per cent of the female population.

It is all a world away from his first few weeks in the North East.

He says: “It was so cold and dark. It was painful.

“I went to my GP and said, ‘is something wrong with me? I can’t wake up in the morning.’

“She was very kind, and said there was nothing wrong with me.

“But in Africa, you see the sun from six o’clock every morning until late, every day, up and down, and I was like, ’where is the sun?’

“I’m used to the cold. You know what to do – wear more clothes. But it was just so dark.

“My body was just not dealing with the lack of function. It took a while. I couldn’t do anything and that’s when I discovered coffee…” he laughs.

Sola adds: “Nigeria is not a coffee culture – we drink tea. It is too hot to drink coffee.

“Now, I never stop drinking it.”

Once the coffee and the routine kicked in, Sola got to work.

He says: “I finished my PhD three years on the dot. I enjoyed it too much. I had to stop myself. My final year was really amazing and I enjoyed every bit of it.

“The challenge, the exams; I like curiosity.

“I like finding new things, and this was all about discovery and coming up with new ideas, really complex stuff.”

“We had so much fun, and everybody did really well.”

He met Elizabeth, who was studying law at Northumbria University, when the pair both volunteered in a coffee bar for international students.

After they were married in Newcastle (by Shola Ameobi’s dad), Sola was one of 30 academics from across the world invited to apply for a scholarship at Stanford University in 2000.

But the experience was to be very different for Sola and Elizabeth, who is now a business lecturer at Teesside University.

While he thrived in world-leading research and was offered a role at NASA, where he studied “the behaviour of gas and dust in gaseous nebulas; how stars and planets are formed at the early stages of creation”, Elizabeth was not allowed to work under the visa rules, and could not wait to return to the UK.

He says: “It was a great opportunity to stretch the mind and meet and work with some of the gods in the field.

“I was working with some of the brightest people I’ve ever met in my life; some phenomenal geniuses.

“I enjoyed it, but Elizabeth struggled and it was very difficult for her.

“There was a lot going on, but coming back wasn’t a disappointment because we could get a mortgage, live a normal life and plan for a family.

“It made a lot of sense to come back to reality.

“When we came back, we didn’t have jobs.

“We chose Newcastle simply because we knew the city and had friends here.

“I got a job in computer science at Newcastle University and Elizabeth returned to the charity she had left, working at Aquila Way.

“That was when the genome was sequenced, so there was a lot of data.

“Suddenly, biology had a data science problem.”

In 2005, Sola was appointed head of the discovery team when the university spin-out e-therapeutics was formed.

He says: “It was just playing around with data.

“Making hypothesis, making predictions; we got lucky so many times.

“That was when I got the transition to go all the way to biology into what I’m doing today.

“What you realise is the organisation and structure of that data in isolation is not really massively different from any other data you see in any other context.

“You just have to understand the language in a biological system to make predictions and analysis.

“That’s where it started. I led the discovery team for about eight years, and when they got the big money, they decided to go to Oxford.

“But I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere’.”

After selling his shares and “moonlighting for two years”, Sola founded Hexis Lab in 2013.

He describes “a project meeting in Scotland with a wealthy backer”, which led to the formation of the company and the successful delivery of a “particularly personal project”, which has ensured continued investment and the ability to do what he does best.

He says: “One of the mistakes we learnt from the previous company was everything was done on computers.

“It was still a mystery to a lot of people that machines cannot predict everything.

“Actually, you have so much data that no matter how clever you are, you cannot work out all the solutions in your mind, you have to use data modelling or data science.

“The validation, which later evolved through collaboration and partnerships, and with academic partners, was quite crucial.

“I wasn’t happy to start a company just doing predictions, we needed validation and I didn’t want an office where people sit at computers all day modelling away.

“You’ve got to smell and feel the experiment and what is going on in the lab.

“That’s why I’m in the lab every day.

“I want to understand what assumptions they’re making, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it.

“Because from that, I’m learning how to improve the systems and assemble them.

“We have access to some brilliant students, and they know they come here to work.

“We are constantly bombarding each other with information.

“A lot of the time, I have to keep stopping myself from doing new things all the time, because I haven’t finished the other stuff.

“And I’ve gotten distracted with all the new ideas, which is not very good for business.

“One of the disciplines I’ve had to learn over the years is to stop the curiosity, otherwise we just stop.

“Elizabeth and the kids have to remind me of that.”

It was eldest daughter Grace, 19, who proved the inspiration behind Hexis Lab’s serious expansion into the hair care market, and women in India and Africa who, Sola says, have been ignored and neglected by the same big companies who are now watching developments and studying papers from the Newcastle labs with interest.

An accomplished swimmer, who has represented England and is currently studying and training in the US, Grace has been in the pool on an almost daily basis since she was eight.

Sola can’t forget the early wake-ups, the journeys to every baths in Newcastle, and the pounds wasted on finding the best hair products for his daughter.

He says: “One of our key unique distinctions that we’ve done, which we’re really passionate about, is to make sure we have a way of testing ingredients and formulations in different skin and hair types.

“Because, until now, the majority of products that are developed globally have been tested on Caucasian skin and European hair, which has a lot of different issues.

“My daughter started talking about it as she got older, because having good hair means something, and we were buying all these products. We tried everything.

“My wife has blonde straight hair, and I have tight curly black hair, so Grace’s hair is a mixture.

“It’s recommended black women shouldn’t wash their hair every day to protect it, but because she is swimming every day, she has a high need and we had to find a solution.

“We created something, which was the best product she had ever used, and she said, ‘are you going to do this?’

“That was a moment of germination.

“And now we are on the journey.

“I’m excited; I’ve spent all my life in science, and now it is not just about me and interesting ideas, it is about everybody else.”

Sola adds: “We need to communicate that and expose them to this opportunity, and the funding really is about creating next generation skincare and haircare ingredients in the laboratory, creating new technology.

“You can do a lot of simulation and prediction in the lab.

“You don’t need animal testing.

“The industry is phasing it out, but when it comes to clinical testing we are already there, and we know we will get the right answer because we know what the answer is going to look like because we created the modelling.

“It has been ignored.

“It is one area people have overlooked as needed or necessary, but there is a shift in the industry and we need to make it fairer and clear for everyone.

“There are times in life when you can make a real difference to the world and create something new and brilliant, which will help people.

“We are at that point and ready to see where that journey takes us.”

www.hexislab.com

Words by Colin Young
Photography by Mike Sreenan
www.michaelsreenan.com