Correction Appended: January 4, 2008
Tandem Technologies' ship had sailed. Literally. The cargo vessel promised to the young water-treatment company by the U.S. Maritime Administration was instead deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2002. Tandem's founder, Robert Lyles III, a recent graduate of Kenyon College, had planned to conduct research on the ship that would prove to investors the promise of the technique he had developed for treating the ballast water taken on by ships. And no ship could mean no funding. The sudden setback might have sunk Tandem. But surprisingly, it set the company on an unexpected new course--skin care.
Lyles, who pursued biology and environmental studies in college, is impassioned about an increasingly pernicious environmental problem caused by ballast water, which cargo and other ships take on, carry and release to help stabilize and balance them. "There's a smorgasbord of bacteria, viruses, crustaceans and small fish in ballast," Lyles says. And when flushed into strange waters, these organisms can take over, with devastating effect. An infestation of zebra mussels began to radically change the Great Lakes ecosystem in the 1980s, and the MSX virus depleted the oyster population of Chesapeake Bay in the 1950s. Scientists have traced both disruptions to ballast water.
The federal Aquatic Invasive Species Act, passed in 1990, requires ships to disinfect their ballast before discharging it, but critics say its standards aren't tough enough. (A stricter version of the law is pending.) Lyles' electrochemical technology promises more pristine ballast.
Tandem, based in Ashburn, Va., was testing its process in the lab in early 2001, and Emily Durham was working regularly with the treated water. She noticed something unusual: her forearms and hands looked and felt softer. Durham and the rest of the Tandem team didn't think much of this unusual fringe benefit. "We said, 'Hey, that's great,' but didn't want to deviate from our original goal," Lyles says.
After their ship didn't show, they changed their minds. Lyles, Durham and consultant Paul Gray decided in 2004 to create a skin-care company--with Tandem's seawater as the marquee ingredient--and siphon most of their new company's revenues back into Tandem's research. Less than a year later, C'watre was born.
The name--a reconfigured spelling of "seawater"--is meant to reflect the technologically transformed ocean water that is the sole ingredient in Haeru Activating Ageless Serum and the first ingredient in the company's other skin-care products, which range in price from $25 to $75. The natural targets for C'watre's marketing are spas and wellness centers. Heike Muschik, owner of Sunpoint Retreat, a spa in New York City, sells C'watre's entire line; her staff uses its professional products. "Our clients say that the skin appears invigorated after using them," she says. C'watre sales are on course for $2 million next year.
So what's the secret? Even Lyles isn't entirely sure. The zapped water has been ionized, he notes, and this may account for how it behaves on and in the skin. Stig Friberg, a colloid chemist and an expert in skin structure, suggests that C'watre's technology may alter the properties of the ocean water, which might in turn allow the treated water to better penetrate the skin.
C'watre may be riding the crest of a trendsetting ocean wave. Major skin-care companies are looking at these "enhanced" waters with great interest, says David Fowler, CEO of Wellness Enterprises, which produces water filters and water for skin-care manufacturers. "These waters hydrate better and are biologically stable," he says. "Fungus can't grow in them, so you don't need to add preservatives."
Despite their success in turning ballast into beauty, Lyles and Durham plan to hire new managers for C'watre, then head back to their original research next year. By then, Lyles hopes, tougher regulations on ballast water may have passed, boosting demand for Tandem's technology. Meanwhile, it will be known for the ship that launched a thousand face creams.
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Stig Friberg was a distinguished research professor at the University of Utah in St. George. Friberg has no affiliation with the university, which is located in Salt Lake City.