Back in 1953, an American company that made suntan lotion adopted a popular advertisement that depicted a young girl in pigtails walking down the beach. A playful cocker spaniel tugged a corner of her bathing suit to reveal a bare bottom that clearly wasn’t tanned. This cheeky humor sold a lot of tanning product at a time when having sun-kissed skin was considered healthy and attractive.
Times have changed. While a bright blast of sunshine looks and feels oh so good, we’re more mindful of ultra violet (UV) rays and how they damage the dermis. Minor annoyances like wrinkles and dry patches may lead to actinic keratoses, a precancerous skin growth which could become squamous cell carcinoma. Blocking the sun’s most damaging rays is a higher priority than inviting them to bronze our skin.
A team of university students from Canada--whose families were touched by skin cancer--developed an easy-to-use product that helps consumers evaluate the efficacy of sunscreen at a glance.
Studying nanotechnology engineering at the University of Waterloo in Kitchener, Ontario, Andrew Martinko didn’t anticipate his interest in science would morph into medical technology and be followed by nonstop business development in the growing entrepreneur sector. Neither did his co-founders Chad Sweeting and Derek Jouppi. But personal experience is a powerful motivator. “We found value in solving this problem,” Martinko said, and “we decided instead of working for someone else, we would develop something ourselves.
“The basic idea is that everyone wants to know how to protect your skin,” he continued. “Suncayr (pronounced sun care) shows you when and how you have the sun protection that you need.”
Suncayr is a smart sticker that you press on your skin before you apply sunscreen to your body. When you apply sunscreen (including a smear on the sticker), the magic of science and technology takes over.
The sticker absorbs the active ingredients from the sun screen. It will turn clear if you’re adequately protected or will be purple if you need to apply more. You can keep the same sticker on all day, and monitor it for changes in color. The sticker will tell you when it’s time for a sunscreen reapplication.
“You’ll always know your current level of sun protection,” Martinko said. This was important for Martinko and the other two co-founders, as each of their families were impacted by skin cancer diagnoses. “It’s not uncommon: One in five people get some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. It’s preventable if you take the appropriate steps.”
A sticker, while a pretty simple thing, has two high-tech components: the detection dye that responds to UV light from the sun, and the material on top of the sticker that that mimics the way your skin absorbs and releases sunscreen. The latter was the true tech challenge.
The co-founders learned that Australia has a high rate of skin cancer, so they decide to conduct clinical trials there. From there, they began working with dermatologists in Buffalo, including some on staff at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Care.
In 2018, Suncayr, as part of 43North’s cohort, located the business to the organization’s Ellicott Street headquarters.
There were some small pilot sales in Australia and the U.S. last summer, with favorable response. Martinko says consumer feedback was good. People are thinking more about using sunscreen to protect their skin from sun damage, according to Martinko. An inexpensive, simple-to-use product (the product will sell in retail drugstores and online) empowers consumers to take charge of their health and to be more aware.
So far, Martinko et al (the co-founders have eight employees) like what they are seeing in Buffalo. They determined the U.S. would be a key market for their product, Martinko said, and they also felt that Buffalo had the right combination of factors that support entrepreneurs.
“We thought Buffalo had a lot of advantages for new business, especially within the manufacturing sector,” said Martinko. They partnered with a company to manufacture the stickers here, in addition to making Buffalo a significant research site.
“It’s been a great experience in Buffalo for us so far,” Martinko said. “It’s been a long journey and I’m impressed. Since we started with 43North, more organizations are involved and taking an interest in what’s happening in Buffalo. This will all continue to grow.”
For now, Suncayr is anticipating the more immediate future, with plenty of outdoor festivals, beach days, garden time, and outdoor relaxation.
“We want to help people tackle their sun safety, starting skin health,” Martinko said. “We can’t wait for the summer to come. “