Microbiology Student Creates Acne Treatment Startup
For teenagers and young adults, battling acne can be a constant struggle. Austin Wittmer, a 2019 alumnus of the Penn State Eberly College of Science, believed people waste money buying countless types of creams and medications, trying to find the right treatment for their skin, and it’s all guesswork—trial and error. Wittmer knew this frustration from experience, and decided to use his academic microbiology training to create a solution to end the guesswork.
“With 23andMe, you order a packet online, it ships to you, in their case you send back your spit, and they send you the DNA results report,” says Wittmer. “With DermatoloMe, instead of spit, it’s skin samples. You order a kit, send it back with the skin sample. We test it and send you your results.”
Wittmer explained that everyone has bacteria on their face called “P. acnes.” By analyzing acne samples, Wittmer can determine the strain of P. acne each individual has. Based on this information, he can then suggest the best antibiotics to use against their strain.
“I had bad acne for a very long time, all through middle and high school, even into college,” Wittmer said. “When I came into college, I did a microbiology test on my own skin and used the correct treatment based on the results – and it worked wonderfully. I thought, maybe there’s a business idea in this.”
In fall of 2018, Wittmer tested his business concept through Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank’s Idea TestLab. Through the customer discovery process, he validated his idea and saw his interest and excitement to further pursue the startup grow as well. Ready to take the next step and turn his idea into a business, he applied for the Happy Valley LaunchBox FastTrack Accelerator soon after.
“In terms of the entrepreneurial resources, I used all of them,” Wittmer said. “I am trained in microbiology, so with my degree, I knew nothing about business. I would go in each week for our sessions, and they would be talking to me about cash flow, or funnels, or branding, or marketing, or the ideal client, and I would be like, ‘I have no idea what this is.’ They helped me overcome a lot of confusion and the steep learning curve.”
The biggest challenge Wittmer faced was finding a way to ensure the skin test worked on other people. He needed to acquire lab space. So Happy Valley LaunchBox Chief Amplifier Lee Erickson encouraged him to cold call people around town asking for space. Although he was unable to secure a space that met his needs for the startup, Wittmer said mentors like Erickson from the FastTrack Accelerator provided him with the encouragement and advice he needed to more confidently present himself and his business idea to others.
“Starting a business is about first learning how to clearly articulate the problem you are trying to solve, why it’s a problem, and why existing solutions fall short,” Erickson said. “Like many startups, Austin’s idea required him to figure out many different things, from the science, to the business model, to the logistics of shipping and processing the test kits. He was able to shift gears relatively easily between these different aspects of building a business, and do so quickly, while minimizing costs.”
In addition to the Happy Valley LaunchBox programs, Wittmer also participated in PennTAP’s Inc.U Competition and competed in the final culminating event, “The Investment,” a Shark Tank-style televised student startup competition. He also pitched at the 2019 Invent Penn State Venture & IP conference as part of the student startup showcase.
While Wittmer currently is working for Eurofins, a testing laboratories company, in vaccine and analytical research while he continues to develop DermatoloMe, he says he has been able to apply the lessons he learned from Happy Valley LaunchBox to daily problem solving, and he highly recommends the programs to all students.
“I learned more in the 20 weeks at Happy Valley LaunchBox than in the rest of my four years of college classes,” Wittmer said. “The lessons I took away from LaunchBox have proven invaluable, especially knowing how to take an idea, tackle all of its vulnerabilities, and make it sound and concrete.”
FastTrack Accelerator 2020-21 applications are due Oct. 11. More information is available on the Happy Valley LaunchBox website.
Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank is one of 21 innovation hubs that were provided seed grant funding by Invent Penn State, a state-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation, and student career success. For more information, visit the Invent Penn State website.