Thea Pham, co-founder of U-Defi Inc.

Thea Pham, co-founder of U-Defi Inc. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Thea Pham, 24

Title: Co-founder, U-Defi Inc.

Company: U-Defi Inc. in Westwood is a subscription skin care company that formulates a unique product for each customer based on individual skin molecular signatures.

Employees: 2 Co-founders are Pham, a UCLA PhD candidate in neuroscience who serves as chief executive, and UCLA MBA candidate Van Nguyen. They plan to add three to five more employees in sales, marketing, computer science and branding.

Financials: U-Defi, a winner of UCLA’s 2018 Knapp Venture Competition, has completed its R&D phase and plans to launch fundraising in the fall. Plans call for the product to be available to the public in 2020.

What led you to start this business?

I have very sensitive skin, and as I am a very curious person. I just love looking at ingredients, what works and what doesn’t. I (went) through a lot of products and realized the inefficiency in the current industry. I know as a scientist every skin is unique. Working in the lab, I suddenly realized I could use this scientific method to test my skin’s molecular signature and create a skin care product that works for me. I hate that the current industry calls it “anti-aging.” It is maintaining skin health, which should start earlier. The biggest organ in your body should be part of that.

How does it work?

We send you a skin tape, like a Scotch tape, and you peel it off. We analyze it for your molecular signature and formulate a cream for you. The most exciting thing is, three months after you use our cream, we send you a second test with actual data on how your skin is doing. I am a scientist. I need numbers.

Are there advantages/disadvantages to starting a business in your 20s, and if so, what are they?

Because I am new to the beauty industry business and I come from a science background, to be able to look at the current model with a fresher look leaves room for making constructive changes. I feel like I am much better at taking risks. I don’t have a family and everything (yet); that gave me the flexibility to work really long hours and take on as many risks as I could. I am an outsider, but I am not unfamiliar with the industry. I spent the past six years running through hundreds of products. I am young in age — but not in ability.

Do you have any mentors and advisers?

U-Defi is a separate entity from UCLA, but we get a lot of support from UCLA Anderson School of Management. Our advisers include Peter Liu, Carter Cast and Gabe Greenbaum at Pritzker Group Venture Capital; Dawn Serpa, vice president of marketing at Dermstore.com (Target Corp.); and Trish Halamandaris and Janet Chung at UCLA Anderson Venture Accelerator.

Does social responsibility play a role in your business?

Yes. I think the company started out of a scientist’s frustration, but the bigger aspect is that we are trying to help people embrace their natural beauty. We are not trying to fit you into a box. That is going to be our mission, to keep that going forward and redefine beauty in a different way. On a personal note, I am an immigrant (from Vietnam), I have been in the U.S. for 10 years. I came on a full (scholarship) to go to a private high school in New England, then came here to earn a PhD in neuroscience, and then to build a business from the ground up. It’s the American dream that I always heard my parents talk about.

Do you feel that your business is particularly tailored to the Los Angeles market, or do you feel you could have launched it in another location?

With the show business scene, L.A. is the trend leader in beauty and cosmetics. This is absolutely the right place for us to start this business. We will target the L.A. market heavily in our go-to market strategy. With the support of the L.A. startup ecosystem, it’s a great time and a great place for us to launch.

What do you do for fun?

I am quite an adventurous person. I do aerial dance, specifically silk and pole dancing, CrossFit, photography and travel. I’ve been wanting to go to Tibet for as long as I can remember. I really like high-risk work for sure.

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