The business of being Dr Barbara Sturm
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Gstaad is an incredibly well-serviced village for luxury goods, where you can take in a Damien Hirst exhibition at Gagosian or treat yourself to a new Hermès/Louis Vuitton/Prada handbag – but you’ll struggle to find a restaurant open after 8pm on a Wednesday night in mid-November. I know this because I’m here to interview German skincare guru Dr Barbara Sturm who, after a whirlwind tour of shop openings (two in NYC to join her spas and boutiques in Düsseldorf, Los Angeles, London, Miami and Dallas), and a minor accident when she ran into a glass door in Los Angeles, is hunkering down for a week or so with her father and daughter Pepper, eight, before she sets off to Dubai for more of the same. As I lap the ghostly streets of this chi-chi ski resort looking for her house, I can’t help but wonder: how does a jar of moisturiser get you here?
Sturm’s passion for skincare is rooted in her belief that inflammation is our worst enemy. It was in 2002, while practising as an orthopaedic doctor and working as part of a research team developing the pioneering Orthokine treatment for inflamed joints, that she started exploring the possibility of injectables that used the same principles. You could, she reasoned, extract clients’ blood, spin it in a centrifuge to extract the anti-inflammatory proteins, and then inject it back into the face as an anti-ageing treatment. Following the success of the so-called “vampire facial”, clients asked for something to use at home, so she started producing a cream she had originally developed for her own blackhead-prone skin – with the addition of their own blood proteins. In 2014, Sturm’s custom MC1 cream – the take-home version of a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) treatment – became a beauty industry sensation.
I’d like to be able to claim some credit for Sturm’s stratospheric success, but sadly I can’t. In 2014, when I was beauty director of Net-a-Porter’s print title, Porter, the company’s vice-president for global beauty, David Olsen, came over to my desk enthusiastically proclaiming Sturm to be the next big thing in luxury skincare. “It’s got my own blood in it!” he said, referring to the MC1 cream. “Ugh! Why would anyone want that?” I replied. Regardless, Olsen launched Sturm’s collection (without his, or anyone’s, blood in it) and the rest, as they say, is a home in Los Angeles, one in Düsseldorf, a celebrity following (Kate Hudson recently co-hosted a party for Sturm in the Hamptons), and this particular, rather lovely, long stint in Gstaad.
The original MC1 cream has since been overtaken by a blood-free line of serums, moisturisers, hair products, even children’s skincare. New city-chic boutiques offer a range of treatments from microneedling to scalp massages and the 15-minute de-stressing “ear seeding” treatment. Everything is underpinned by Sturm’s passion for anti-inflammatory science. This month, she is bringing The Sturm Haus: Anti-Inflammatory Workshop to London. The two-day event (tickets from £50) will feature talks in wellness education, skincare consultations, express facials, sound baths – and vagina clay-sculpting sessions. It may sound wacky, but she’s built an estimated $150mn business on the back of it.
“When Dr Barbara Sturm launches a new product, there is always excitement,” says Annalise Fard, director of beauty, home, fine jewellery and watches at Harrods. “It’s her consistent innovation that has led to the remarkable growth of the brand.”
Sitting in the crisp mountain light, fresh from a Pilates class, what’s most noticeable about Sturm’s make-up free complexion is that she has a beguiling collection of smile and frown lines, something cosmetic brand founders usually prefer to iron out. Her beauty routine, she says, is focused on taking time out for hikes in the fresh air, uphill skiing, eating and sleeping well – and using her own skincare. “People forget how important skin is for our immune system,” she says. “Underneath our skin cells are our dendritic cells, which communicate with our immune system – so whatever we put on our skin shouldn’t interfere with its natural purpose.” Nor does she wear sunscreen 24/7 – unless she is in the mountains or by the beach, she doesn’t believe she needs it. “We need sun exposure for vitamin D production, for our respiratory tract, for our mental health, for our immune system.”
Her bigger-picture thinking eschews the latest trending ingredients in favour of a philosophy that is all about strengthening skin. She prefers to focus on exosomes, the sac-like structures found within a cell, containing some of our DNA proteins. Having been obsessed with them for 20 years, she has just launched a line of creams and serums – called Exoso-metic – with lab-synthesised growth factors and exosomes that help to boost cell communication and thereby initiate renewal and repair processes. Her website boasts “before” and “after” pictures submitted by happy customers, while for those put off by the £380 price tag, she hosts free online skin consultations with her team, and has just launched a Microbiotic line (from £30) that is aimed at a younger consumer; one item is called “The Ultimate Stinky Pimple Treatment”.
Having a scientist at the helm has become de rigueur for any new beauty brand, from Noble Panacea’s Nobel Prize-winning Sir Fraser Stoddart to Augustinus Bader. But does it guarantee that a cream is any good? Sturm’s products don’t come with the clinical trials you might expect for such a stalwart believer in science, though the company stresses that all products are tested rigorously for efficacy and safety. “I don’t do fake studies,” she says. “And if I did a clinical study I’d have to pay £2mn or £3mn for a test on 20 people.” (The going rate is actually closer to £10,000 to £20,000 per claim, but across a brand with as many SKUs as she has, I can see how that might ramp up.) But one CEO of a beauty conglomerate, who preferred not to be mentioned by name, says clinical tests are vital: “They help you assess claims, product performance and real efficacy. This is second nature for truly science‑backed brands.”
Over the past four years, revenue has grown tenfold, with profitable growth accelerated in the past three years: 2019 saw “minimal” investment in the company by Keyhaven Capital, with Sturm retaining “ownership over decision-making”. But Sturm, who grew up in communist-era East Germany until her parents managed to move to West Germany, says her role hasn’t changed much. “At a certain point you need to expand your operations,” she says. “And, you know – what do I know about warehouses? Nothing.”
Back in Gstaad, the grey morning sky has changed to a crisp blue. A mountain view fills the window of the wood-flanked interior; in Sturm’s garden I can see rabbits in a run, waiting for Pepper to come home. I ask her if there was ever a time when things were tough? She starts speaking German, checking with Ulirike Deucker, her longest-serving colleague, and they laugh about the time they opened her first clinic in Düsseldorf in 2006, with its five rooms – and sat there waiting for the phone to ring. But I am also reminded that here is someone who managed to get a degree in medicine while also breastfeeding her baby girl Charly, now 26.
“I am a hustler,” she laughs. “And you have to be a hustler if you want to fulfil your dreams.” The dictionary definition of a hustler is someone who is at worst an illicit dealer, at best an aggressive salesperson. Sturm is no hustler. But as a determined, hard-working, highly smart business founder, she is definitely fulfilling her dreams.
The Sturm Haus: Anti-Inflammatory Workshop is a ticketed event at The Stables, London WC2, 27-28 January, drsturm.com