Ignae’s CEO Claire Chung speaks about the brand’s Azorean roots and approach to beauty

Clean, sustainable and performance-driven beauty startup Ignae has launched a new suite of treatments at The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong. CEO Claire Chung talks to Tama Miyake Lung about the brand’s unique Azorean roots, award-winning proprietary technology and holistic East-meets-West approach to wellness

Look up the Azores and you’re immediately met with effusive descriptions like “nature in its purest state”, “the rawness of gorgeous landscapes”, “a true hidden gem” and “Europe’s best- kept secret”. This group of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean is not only the world’s first certified archipelago by EarthCheck, the leading scientific benchmarking certification for travel and tourism, but also a recognised sanctuary of biodiversity and geodiversity with thousands of endemic species of plants and animals.

As it turns out, this rare, pure, pollution-free environment – not to mention being home to a treasure trove of botanicals and Europe’s highest concentration of hot springs – is also the perfect natural laboratory for a cutting-edge skincare brand. “Miguel is originally from the Azores and he was working in Brussels for the agency that does all the regulatory work for new product launches and ingredients. And he was seeing that a lot of the ingredients that tested really well for skin regeneration were things naturally found in the Azores,” says Claire Chung, who joined forces with founder Miguel Pombo to become CEO of Ignae in 2020.

“So he returned and founded Azores Life Science, which I think is very important because the DNA of
the company and the brand is really R&D. He worked with the University of the Azores to do a lot of research in wound healing, so it was really about super regenerative powers and then Ignae was launched five years later.”

Ignae, whose mission is “to create performance- driven skincare by enhancing the ingredients found in the rare ecosystem and pure nature of the Azores”, focuses on developing high-performance products that are clean, vegan, cruelty-free and crafted with biotechnology. In addition to its eight facial products – including a Daily Enzyme Cleanser, Enriched Regenerating Serum, Blue Light Serum and Volcanic Clay Mask – and a Regenerating Body Oil, Ignae has launched three 90- to 120-minute facial and body experiences at The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong. The Digital Detox Retreat, Powerful Recharging Facial and Fountain of Youth Holistic Facial combine Ignae’s potent regenerative properties with relaxing manual techniques and practices influenced by traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic philosophies.

Chung, the former general manager of Yoox Net-A- Porter Group in China, can personally vouch for Ignae’s transformative powers. “How I learned about Ignae was I had been living in Shanghai for seven years already and I was using very well-known international skincare brands, but I think the stress and everything really had an impact where my normal products and routine were not keeping ageing at bay,” she says. “I heard about Miguel through mutual contacts and he sent me some products. I literally saw visible change in under 30 days. I was so impressed.”

After going to the Azores to meet Pombo and learn more about the science behind the brand, Chung decided to take the leap and become CEO. In the four years since, Ignae has doubled down on its R&D activities with the patent-pending EPC Factor Complex – liposomes with a nano structure that can slip beyond the surface of the skin with minimal resistance to reach deep into the layers to regenerate your skin cells – being the first of what they hope will be several breakthroughs in skincare science.

“We won a grant from Google. We have 10 ingredients in the pipeline to launch. Last year, we won an R&D grant to develop new products from algae. Those are going to be super exciting to launch in the spas and with our partners,” Chung says. “Because our botanicals are sourced in the Azores from this mineral- rich volcanic soil, they have a much higher antioxidant level. And what’s really critical is that with our EPC Factor, we use 100 times less biomass to create even more powerful results. So that means we’re able to be fully sustainable and we can grow the business without impacting the environment.”

This is particularly important for a brand like Ignae, which relies almost entirely on the Azores’ trees, plants, flowers, algae and even water for its key ingredients. This includes antioxidant-rich camellia extract from TerraNostraPark,energisingcryptomeriajaponica extract from FSC-managed forests in São Miguel Island, anti-inflammatory spirulina from Graciosa Island and powerfully healing volcanic thermal water from the more than 30 hot springs found in Furnas Valley.

But beyond the Azores’ rich natural resources, Ignae has also tapped into the history and heritage of the islands. “I thought it was amazing that the Portuguese invited the Chinese to teach them to grow tea in the Azores,” Chung says, referring to the Gorreana Tea Factory that was founded in 1883 and is the oldest tea factory in Europe still in operation. “The Portuguese were the first to go around Asia, so many of the species in the Azores are also Asian. For example, we use [extracts of] camellia japonica and Japanese cedar tree. And our first spa partner was the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon. Because of the history of the islands and the Portuguese, we wanted to blend the European with Traditional Chinese Medicine.

“We also work with the professors at the digital innovation centre of Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, really trying to think of unusual treatments and protocols combining East and West, which have different, let’s say, views on wellness.” At the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, for example, the Fountain of Youth Holistic Facial features a tailored gua sha massage technique developed in partnership with the university to enhance blood circulation, skin elasticity and cellular regeneration, not to mention release tension in the facial muscles. Paired with the highly concentrated active ingredients from Ignae’s proprietary EPC Factor, the result is an immediately visible anti-ageing effect.

The Digital Detox Retreat and accompanying Blue Light Serum were also inspired by Chung’s years in Asia. “One of the reasons I wanted to join Ignae was I had a kind of wish list of all the stuff I needed as
a consumer,” she says with a laugh. “And having lived in Hong Kong and Shanghai, one of the big things was pollution. I think it’s kind of an extreme lifestyle where, you know, the great products I was using weren’t cutting it. But with Ignae, I saw it come in and function really well. And so we discussed developing something for pollution for the Asian consumer and, specifically, for the urban consumer. And blue light, of course, because everyone’s on their WeChat all day.”

The Blue Light Serum is made with calendula officinalis flower extract, known for its anti-blue light, skin-firming, wound-healing and anti-inflammatory properties; as well as aloe vera, hyaluronic acid and ectoin, the latter a natural extremolyte (stress-protection molecule) that brightens and protects skin from pollution and blue light-induced pigmentation. Used in the morning or as a nighttime serum, it filters blue light and protects against cyber and air pollutants.

“I’ll share with you this little funny anecdote,” Chung says as we start to wrap things up. “The original range had a colostrum [produced by cows] and one of our biggest fans at first was Joanna Czech, the celebrity facialist, and she loves colostrum. We wanted to be plant- based because I just thought the market was moving that way. But in the original testing, Miguel tested colostrum from the Azores and colostrum from New Zealand. And the ones from the Azores had a higher antioxidant content. Do you know why?

“They’re exposed to very strong winds! The cows are standing on these cliffs, they’re grazing on these hills. The Atlantic wind is coming through and because of that, the animals built up a higher amount of antioxidants. I think that becomes, in a way, one of our key USPs – we’re using biotechnology in order to tap into the goodness of Mother Nature from the Azores, make it very powerful, but sustainable at the same time. There are all these factors behind the brand. I just feel like we’ve discovered the fountain of youth in the Azores.”

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