Feature Stories
Beauty and the Biz: Story of a Mainland Skincare Startup
Roy YE
Partner and Head of Science Division of UNISKIN

Beauty may sometimes be only skin-deep. However, not only is it very satisfying to the eye of the beholder, but it also boosts confidence of the ladies who exhibit this desirable quality. What is more, the success of beauty products demands both a profound knowledge of science and an in-depth understanding of the business world. That is particularly true of UNISKIN, an anti-aging skincare brand based in mainland China. One of its partners as well as Head of Science Division is Dr Roy Ye, a CityU alumnus.

From sea to skin

Dr Ye, from Huizhou, was awarded a PhD degree from CityU in 2015 after undertaking pioneering research into the effects of marine pollution on the immune and reproductive systems of Hong Kong’s ocean life. The programme was conducted under a State Key Laboratory (SKL) scheme managed by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

But isn’t skincare a far cry from research on pollution? “Not at all,” explained Dr Ye. “Both of them, as well as my previous job about gene mutation in cancer patients, are all about cells and molecular biology.” For the essential skills that have been so relevant and useful in his two posts, Dr Ye attributes to his PhD research. “There is a strong connection. The science methodology, scientific thinking, basic understanding of biology – all these I was trained in CityU.”

Tailor-made for Chinese skin

UNISKIN is a startup that began running business in 2017. As such, one of the biggest challenges the company faced in the past few years was to find a business model, by trial and error, that suits it. One aspect is positioning. Seeing that China needs its own mid- to high-end beauty brands, UNISKIN targets customers that are willing to pay higher prices for quality merchandise. Products are sold mostly online while a few offline booths and centres play the role of branding.

What makes UNISKIN quite unique among beauty brands is that its products are specially designed for Chinese women. “Foreign brands usually use Caucasian skin in their R&D, which may not be suitable for Chinese,” Dr Ye said. But how exactly is Chinese skin different from that of white people? “I’ll give you a concrete example,” he explained. “We Chinese have the term ‘yellow-skin wife’ because the skin of Chinese people would undergo a process called ‘glycation’ easily. That’s why our skin would turn yellow and dull as we age, and age spots would appear.” The anti-glycation quality of UNISKIN products can target and address this issue.

Integration of science and art


UNISKIN markets itself as an anti-aging skincare brand that emphasizes “innovative integration of science and art”. How precisely is this ideal achieved? First, the CEO and partners themselves have formed a melting pot of these two cultures of art and science.  Dr Le Du, founder and CEO of UNISKIN, was a medical doctor while one of the partners is an artist that studied art in New York and Dr Ye himself is a scientist by training. “Moreover, skincare products are, of necessity, a blend of science and art: consumers want to become more beautiful, and they seek commodities containing ingredients that are scientifically proven to achieve this goal.”

But UNISKIN has one uniquely strong point: molecular biology, which is precisely Dr Ye’s speciality. While most other Chinese skincare brands are chiefly concerned about the chemistry of the products, UNISKIN focuses on basic biology and skin cells, and would conduct skin tests for customers to find the most appropriate products for them. Another competitive edge is the design of its products – the containers and packages are all aesthetically pleasing.

Besides skincare products, the company plans to expand its business in medical cosmetology, oral liquids and beauty devices in future.

UNISKIN is undoubtedly a commercially lucrative startup that is growing rapidly. What accounts for its remarkable success? Dr Ye humbly cited the social trends at large as reasons. “First of all, the new generation of Chinese are confident of China-made goods. Secondly, mainland China has an excellent supply chain. And thirdly, the marketing channels have evolved much – there were only TVs and websites in the past, but now we also have Douyin and Taobao live streaming, etc.” Last year, UNISKIN even received financial backing from the distinguished capital venture firm Sequoia Capital China. All these prove that startups could get marvellous opportunities in the mainland.

Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs

For young people aspiring to establish and run startups in the mainland, Dr Ye offers valuable practical advice that Hong Kong’s youth should heed. There are three aspects that we should bear in mind. The first is about the wider development scene. “China is the largest-growing economy in the world. It was the only country that enjoyed a positive GDP growth last year and will probably achieve the greatest growth this year. In addition, Hong Kongers use the same language as mainlanders, so it’s easiest for you to seek opportunities in the mainland.”

However, not all opportunities are the same. “Various sectors would offer quite different opportunities. Steel and traditional cars, for example, are developing slowly if not declining. On the other hand, sectors like green industries and biomedical fields are developing rapidly. Needless to say, one should go for the more promising terrains.”

The third point concerns the difference between Hong Kongers and mainlanders. “For young mainlanders pursuing their studies in Hong Kong, they may stay at the SAR for three to five years. It’s imperative that they keep abreast of the reality and development of the mainland.” How about Hong Kong locals? “Hong Kong and the mainland have quite different cultures, and Hong Kongers and mainlanders have quite different environments in which to grow up. Therefore, it is highly advisable for a Hong Kong youth to find a partner that is from the mainland. In this way, they would complement each other in a synergistic way, which helps them provide better products and services for their customers.”

Contributing to society

As the saying goes, “The early bird catches the worm.” Dr Ye suggested young people start getting in touch with the business world while they are still pursuing their studies. He feels that CityU is a very special educational institution. In what sense? “Our entrance is just outside Festival Walk,” Dr Ye quipped wittingly. “It is itself a very commercial place!” Jokes aside, Dr Ye wants to encourage CityU students to think, while still in college, what they want to contribute to the world after graduation. “Scientists should not just stay in the laboratory. They should get out of the lab and serve the community. Concentrating on one’s studies and developing one's business sense should go simultaneously, not one after the other.”

Not only does Dr Ye talk the talk, but he also walked the walk while studying at CityU. “There’s a fast-growing knowledge-based website called Zhihu in mainland China. I started writing articles and answering questions posed by readers on this site. This gave me greater exposure to the commercial world.” Writing articles for Zhihu not only allows Dr Ye to train his thinking and develop insight, but he has also earned a fine reputation because of this. Now, Dr Ye has nearly 150,000 followers in Zhihu.

As the world-renowned French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur famously said, “Chance favours only the prepared mind.” Dr Ye’s incisive analyses posted on Zhihu caught the eye of UNISKIN’s CEO Dr Du. That was how the two young talents got connected and Dr Ye later became a partner at UNISKIN. His path from scientist to entrepreneur has been as much serendipitous as planned. After all, it is a fundamental rule of life that the harder one works, the more ‘luck’ one would have.

Mission vs money?

There is also a patriotic element in Dr Ye’s dedicated work at UNISKIN. “If we as a Chinese brand earn money, we will bring financial gain to our staff and their families will also benefit. And with the money earned, we can continue to invest in China.” He further explained the rationale behind all this: “A foreign company will leave only a meagre amount of profit in China, but we as a Chinese enterprise can leave much profit and re-invest in the country.”

Young people often have a sense of mission and many of them also want to earn much money. How are we to strike a healthy balance between the two desires? Dr Ye believes that it is actually a false dichotomy. “Earning money and having a mission should not be diametrically opposed to each other,” he pointed out. “Having worthy missions means doing meaningful work and solving important problems, which must also be financially profitable.”

Yes, science and art can fuse seamlessly, research and business can be conducted interdependently, Hong Kongers and mainlanders can collaborate intimately, mission and wealth can be pursued harmoniously – that is the beauty of it all.