Summer has oficially arrived and in May 2019 Judit Camargo created Roka Furadada, a company that’s going to distribute sun cream with smart solar filters that activate according to the radiation they receive.
We connect Zoom, as one does nowadays, and see each other for the first time. Judit hasn’t been to the hairdresser’s during the lockdown. That is her observation, not mine. The ice has been broken.
We’re going to talk about your solar filters, we’re going to talk about your company, but let’s talk about you first. You got a degree in chemistry and several masters and you’re about to finish your PhD.
Yes, it’s on biomedical research applied to public health. I have two papers left to write. But since I founded the company, my workload has increased exponentially. Combining everything is complicated.
Starting a business in your last PhD year… That requires nerve. [we laugh] You have this science and business double profile. What is in science and business that appeals to you?
What I like in science is research, the discovery and the impact of what you do. As for business, it’s the same. Companies are often regarded as tools to make money, but there is also a very important social impact. I started working while I was studying my first masters and I realised that the pace, the investment and the capacity for development that a business environment offered me were much more interesting that those I had then at the university. But, actually, working in the technical section of a company is not that different from doing research in a university, except for having more resources and making a better living.
“Actually, working in the technical section of a company is not that different from doing research in a university, except for having more resources and making a better living.”
In fact, Roka Furadada is doing research on smart solar filters.
Indeed. We’re quite advanced because this project started in a research centre of Ferrer in 2005. The project has been around for a while, but the molecules are new and that requires time and investment. Later, around 2015, Ferrer prioritised applied research and dropped pure research. Some projects were left hanging and that’s when I discovered this project, which is super interesting.
You said that smart solar filters are new compounds, that you created them.
They are new molecules. One of the main issues of solar filters is that they are tautomeric molecules, they have different structures in equilibrium that absorb radiation until they are degradated depending on the dose of radiation they receive. So, when you add a specific concentration of solar filter in a sun cream, its protection capacity is gradually lost as the absorption capacity is reduced. But you don’t get the same radiation everywhere and at any time of the year. Therefore, the effect of a factor 50 sun cream can last for 15 to 20 minutes on the beach at midday in August, but it can last much longer on a spring morning.
People don’t know how the current creams work or how long their effect lasts.
That’s why we decided to make a product that only activates when the radiation dose increases. And this radiation transforms the molecules, which are precursors to the current solar filters. That is, they are still tautomeric molecules, but they have a longer path, they are more stable.
Is it and advantage that smart solar filters are more stable?
The current solar filters need stabilisers, which exposed to radiation generate a series of degradation products with an environmental and toxicological impact. First, we wanted to solve the issue about the duration of the protection in a high exposition situation. Then, and that’s why we’ve taken so long, we wanted these molecules to be in a capsule of amorphous silica, but, as opposed to the usual encapsulation, we wanted them to be fixed.
What’s the difference between the usual encapsulation and fixing the molecules?
The encapsulation technique was mainly designed to release some products slowly. It could be used to realease pharmaceutical products that might cause allergies on the skin. This controled release reduces the chances of allegic reactions. But they were not designed with the environment in mind. We managed to fix our molecules in that capsule so that, when they absorbe enough radiation and generate degradation products, they stay in the silica matrix. This way we avoid toxic effects on people, coral and the environment.
“We managed to fix our molecules in that capsule. This way we avoid toxic effects on people, coral and the environment.”
You are also studying how to provide a window of time before protection for the user to synthesise vitamin D from solar exposure. How’s that going?
It’s a very difficult process. The problem when you start a business and look for funding is that you need to focus on certain issues. Currently, we’re focusing on releasing the first molecule to the market as soon as possible. But there is, indeed, a plan to ensure that the user can synthesise vitamin D for a while.
I believe that the smart solar filters are ready but you need more funding?
We’re assessing whether to do the final polimerisation of the filters in batch or flow production. That’s why we need the founding. We aim to make production as automatic as possible to be competitive. At the moment, most solar filters are synthesised in China and India and we want to make them here. One of our smart solar filters is purely organic and is ready and in the register phase, that is, it’s being introduced in the European Union list of approved solar filters.
I’ve seen on your website that your team is all female. Was this a decision or were simply the best qualified people women?
I believe it’s about contact. I meet more women in professional associations. On the other hand, when I was recruiting, the people who seemed more prepared to me were indeed women. In fact, I was thinking that when I hire new staff I’ll have to do positive discrimination and hire some men. It’s good to have a mix.
“When I was recruiting, the people who seemed more prepared to me were indeed women.”
Don’t. They are hired everywhere. [we laugh]
When I need someone, what comes to mind are women that I know well, with whom I’ve worked and I’ve worked very well. It’s something spontaneous.
In fact, you have been part of events about women in science and innovation. What is the message that is not repeated in those events that maybe should be said more often?
Hmmm… The message that’s not repeated. Oh, my, that’s a tough one. I think that we don’t say that, in the end, women have to be willing to do things. We say that if someone want to do something, they have to be able to do it, without the obstacles that we normally find. If you look at the the principal researchers in big technological centres, they are men mostly. And it’s not a matter of talent because there are women with lots of talent. It’s the glass ceiling. The same way I may organically choose women, maybe men choose men. Sometimes there’s also a lack of personal will if there’s a lack of support in your environment. Then they say it may be an education issue. It’s a very complex issue. It can’t be reduced to a simple explanation.
[This interview has been translated and abridged from the original interview in Catalan published on the 3rd June 2020]