Health Technology Showcase

Five Questions and an Elevator Pitch: TrueTONE

Watch the VideoTeam TrueTONE discusses a sunscreen that would help people of all skin tones combat problem associated with ultraviolet exposure.

1. What is the need that your project seeks to address?

Joshua: Sunscreen is a really good option to combat the problems associated with ultraviolet exposure but it's underutilized, even though its benefits are so pronounced and readily visible. Only one in 10 Americans use sunscreen daily. Around 40 percent of the population wears it sporadically, twice or three times a week, which is still inadequate use.

One of the reasons, particularly for people of color, is that the experience isn’t positive – using sunscreen just doesn’t feel right. When we sought to understand the reasons, we learned that the sunscreen itself simply doesn’t match their skin tones, creating an unpleasant experience. More specifically, there are two classifications for sunscreen – it’s either chemical-based or mineral-based. Mineral-based sunscreen is more effective, but oftentimes it leaves a white cast on the skin because it may be formulated with zinc oxide, for instance, which particularly leaves an exaggerated cast that many people of color don’t like.

Sasha: And we know that melanoma is a problem in people of color. Even though they have fewer cases, they have worse outcomes. When people of color are diagnosed, it’s often with later-stage melanoma. Frequently, they don’t see a doctor until it is too late. Some simply lack access to skincare professionals. Or in some cases, their primary care physician is less equipped to diagnose melanoma on skin of color as opposed to non-skin of color, so they never refer the patient to a dermatologist.

2. How does your solution work?

Joshua: TrueTONE is a digital app that facilitates the customization of mineral-based sunscreen for all skin tones. We capture a machine learning-driven digital face scan and collect some additional information about user preferences and lifestyle. In the future, we want to add more educational and public health information to our offering to get people of color more invested in their own skincare and to help them take more control of their health.

TrueTONE processIn two minutes, TrueTONE will deliver customized skin tone-matching sunscreen and resources to learn more about the damaging effects of ultraviolet exposure.

3. What motivated you to take on the project? And what activities have you undertaken?

Sasha:  My mom, Dr. Samirah Said, is a dermatologist and a consultant on this project. Because of her, I've worn sunscreen my whole life. I've tried all the different sunscreens and nothing is quite right. I’ve had ample access to skincare and sunscreen, and it still doesn't work for me. So I wanted to solve this problem to provide everybody with better access to sunscreens that they’ll use every day.

Sarthak: All three of us are people of color with very different skin tones. We tried all the different tints that are available today and none of us were able to find a perfect match.  We're a sample size of three and we had difficulty, so we felt certain many more people have been having the same problem. We believe the product we're making can make a big difference in getting people of color to wear sunscreen.

Joshua: In terms of what we’ve accomplished since taking our project forward beyond class, we’ve finished the first iteration of software development. And we’re now turning our attention to the formulation of the sunscreen itself.

4. What’s the most important thing you learned in advancing your project?

Sarthak: One thing that I've learned about this project and about start-ups, in general, is that the best ideas are often the most simple ideas. But even the simplest ideas can be very complex to execute. I can explain our idea in two words – customized sunscreen – but we’ve discovered a plethora of inter-related activities that need to be managed properly to make the concept come to life and actually help the people we’re trying to help.

Sasha: It’s not just the technology itself, but all of the other factors that we have to consider for a product to be successful and achieve the desired outcome, which in this case is more people wearing sunscreen.

5. What advice do you have for aspiring health technology innovators?

Joshua: One thing that is really important is to put a lot of thought into the initial idea and try to anticipate all the activities you’ll need to undertake and the challenges you may face in trying to develop it. It becomes a little easier to tackle each step when you have the big picture in mind rather than if you had only lightly considered what your path forward would look like.

Sasha: Another thing that I’ve found to be so important is the team. All of our teammates have different expertise and I've learned a lot from them. Surrounding yourself with people from different backgrounds and different areas of expertise can really expand your worldview.

Sarthak: Adding to that, I’d say that mentors have played a big role in the success of our project by providing us with valuable advice. So it’s also a good idea to find mentors with a variety of expertise, too.

Lastly, remember to consider the experiences of your target customer. I go surfing all the time and I talk to a lot of surfers about what sunscreen they use, especially surfers of color. So many have this pasty white sunscreen because they're out in the sun and it’s the only option. But all of them say that if they had a better sunscreen they would use it. It’s important to do formal and informal market research because what the customer wants should guide your solution so it really fits their needs.

Original Team Members: Joshua Leaston, Marshal Pang, Sasha Ronaghi, Sarthak Shah
Course: Biodesign for Digital Health
Biodesign NEXT Funding: Awarded for winter and spring quarters 2022