Combining cosmetics and technology

How a PhD student’s chemistry research initiative turned into a wearable-electronics start-up

Imagine being able to change the colour of your fingernails with a wave of your smartphone.

Thanks to Alejandra Huerta’s start-up company, you may soon be able to do that. AIM Colours is developing a product it calls ePolish, a new type of artificial nails made with flexible electronic materials.

The seed of this idea was planted in 2018, during Huerta’s third year as a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry. For a research proposal, she explored the possibility of using organic materials to change colours in cosmetics. “As I started that research, I realized maybe that wasn’t the right approach,” she recalls. But her interest had been piqued. Some brainstorming with her sister, a computer engineer, led to the idea of using flexible electronics instead.

An unexpected path

Huerta’s story shows how curiosity-driven research can lead to unexpected career paths. It also illustrates how innovative McGill students can tap into a growing network of programs for aspiring entrepreneurs.

For six years, Huerta was a member of the lab of Prof. Chao-Jun Li, Canada Research Chair in Green/Organic Chemistry – a field of chemistry that seeks to reduce the use of environmentally damaging chemicals and chemical processes.

While completing her PhD work over the past three years, Huerta also pursued her ambition to blend cosmetics and technology. Prof. Li was “very supportive” of her endeavours throughout that time, she says. “He was always very encouraging, especially during the pandemic, when we were all working from home. I really feel like he embraces entrepreneurship."

A Clark SELF scholarship, designed to equip McGill scientists with executive skills, enabled Alejandra to pick up business know-how through the Desautels Faculty of Management mini-MBA program. Participation in the Quebec Scientific Entrepreneurship Program helped her explore the possibility of turning her idea into a start-up enterprise.

Dobson Cup

In 2019, she and her sister, Isabela Dominguez, participated in McGill Dobson Centre’s Lean Startup Program, and developed a business plan. And in 2020, they placed third in the “innovation-driven enterprise” category of the McGill Dobson Cup, the university’s flagship start-up competition.

The $8,000 prize from the Dobson Cup enabled the sisters to incorporate AIM Colours.

In search of a technical advisor, they reached out to Boris Vaisband an Assistant Professor of Computer and Electrical Engineering at McGill, who previously worked in hardware design for a number of big Silicon Valley companies. “He became our mentor in terms of connecting the whole system and making sure it was all feasible,” Huerta says. With support from the Faculty of Engineering’s Engine Centre and from Mitacs, a Canadian not-for-profit organization that fosters innovation, Vaisband and AIM Colours have successfully collaborated in two research projects to date.

Alejandra Huerta graduation photo

By the time Huerta earned her PhD degree last August, she and her sister had incorporated AIM. After a trip to Mexico in September to visit her family for the first time since the pandemic had begun, Alejandra returned to Montreal and plunged into full-time entrepreneurship last October.

Through two Canadian organizations -- Riipen and Venture for Canada -- AIM has benefited from the contributions of 30 student interns, who helped develop the fledgling company’s branding, website, and mock-ups for its app. And through a McGill Women’s Alumnae Association mentorship program, Huerta has benefited since January from guidance by an alumna who works in the fashion industry.

AIM is now putting the finishing touches on its prototype and hopes to pilot the product early next year.

Market niche

Initial customers could include artists and models. “They need to have their nails done as part of their image,” Huerta says. “That market segment would be our first niche.”

A fashion model, for instance, may need to change outfits during a photo shoot, with each outfit calling for a different colour of fingernail polish. ePolish could provide a more convenient option than using press-on nails and replacing them with each wardrobe change.

Another part of the product’s appeal could be environmental: nail polish is made from plastics, which often wind up as microplastics in the soil or water when the polish chips or is sanded, Huerta notes.

To move toward commercialization, the company will need more funding. To that end, it is applying to the McGill X-1 Accelerator program, which is geared to start-ups demonstrating “early traction.” Participating in that program would help ensure “that we can show investors that our technology is sound and it can be applied to the purpose that we want,” Huerta says.

Coming to McGill

Huerta first came to McGill in 2011 on an undergraduate exchange program through her university in Mexico. She returned as a PhD student a few years later. At that point, she took some courses at McGill’s School of Continuing Studies to build on the French she’d learned in high school.

To share her passion for chemistry and learn how to convey it to a broad audience, Huerta also joined the Department of Chemistry’s outreach group, enabling her to put on chemistry demonstrations at local high schools. Her outreach activities drew the attention of the Mexican consulate in Montreal. That, in turn, led to her creating a program to showcase the talent of Mexican researchers in Montreal through online demonstrations.

Alejandra's chemistry demonstration at local high school

Effective communication, of course, is a crucial skill for entrepreneurs, as well. Huerta believes her years in the lab helped her develop other tools that will prove valuable beyond academia. “I feel that doing the PhD actually prepared me to know how to administer my time and how to do the research aspects of the product,” she says.

Taking the plunge

Taking the plunge into full-time entrepreneurship has meant further expanding her skill sets. “Having done even just the customer research and talking to potential investors, it has given me a very different set of skills,” Huerta says.

Moving on from academia has also meant adjusting to a fast-unfolding career path with no certainties ahead. “It’s a nice journey,” she says, “but definitely stressful in the sense that there’s no guarantees and no security.”

“I’m giving myself this opportunity to do something I really enjoy and that I’m really passionate about. And so far everything has been moving forward very quickly. So I’m just staying focused.”

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