Arbre: From Sunburn to Spruce

Ideas for startups come from a lot of places. Many founders start off by trying to solve a problem that they’re facing, and then they realize that their solution might benefit many others, too. For Stephanie Tien and Kristina Knox, founders of Arbre, the problem was the sun.

“One summer in 2019, we went up to Wasaga Beach for a cottage weekend,” remembers Stephanie. “I got a really bad sunburn on my scalp. A week later, as the sunburn was healing, it started to peel and made it look like I had dandruff. Kristina and I were talking about it and realized that there wasn’t anything that could protect your scalp from the sun unless you wanted to wear a hat, and I don’t look really good in hats – it’s not always the best solution.”

Stephanie and Kristina realized that the problem would be solved by a product that could protect one’s scalp from the sun, without making their hair greasy or requiring them to wear a hat. This led to them coming up with Spruce, a tinted dry shampoo with SPF 20 that Arbre released to the public in early July.

However, the version of Spruce that’s available for purchase now is very different from Stephanie and Kristina’s earliest prototypes, which were made in Stephanie’s kitchen.

“We started out by getting materials based on products we’d seen in stores, or that we used ourselves that we liked,” explains Kristina. “ We ordered them online, mixed them up in Steph’s kitchen, and tried them on ourselves. That served as the basis for our current formulation.”

To move their formulation out of a mixing bowl in the kitchen, the duo reached for some outside help. “Once we realized that [making sunscreen] was something we could do, we began working with a cosmetic formulator who specializes in creating products similar to ours,” Kristina continues. She and Stephanie worked with the formulator to refine a formula that felt good, had the SPF level they wanted, had natural and safe ingredients, and that they were both excited to use.

“I’ve been using it the past five months, and it’s been working for me!” Stephanie says with a laugh.

After nailing down the formula for their sunscreen, the duo began building the foundation for bringing Spruce to market. “We’ve definitely been really involved with the UTE entrepreneurship community, and the wider community in Toronto and Canada,” says Kristina. “We’ve participated in a  lot of pitch competitions and won grants that helped us fund the development, testing, and regulatory processes behind bringing Spruce to reality.”

Of note is the vibrant community that has sprung up around Arbre, which Kristina is particularly proud of. “[The community] was built online through our Instagram account, and in-person through ICUBE, the Black Founders Network, and getting to go into classrooms and giving guest lectures to engage with the community. It’s a lot of fun,” she remarks.

Indeed, the duo are thankful to ICUBE for helping build their business acumen and getting Arbre through the pandemic. “During the time we were stuck at home, all we did was work on the company!” explains Stephanie. “That was when we joined ICUBE and the Ideation Lab – that was such a great experience. Kristina and I both come from science backgrounds, and we don’t have business training, so ICUBE was really foundational for Arbre.”

Still, Spruce was a little burnt before it had a chance to shine in the market. Arbre was faced with constant delays from a supplier of one Spruce ingredient, which led to a delayed launch and some disappointed crowdfunding backers. “When you have a timeline or a quote for the way something is planned, you’re usually not going to get what you want based on those timelines – it won’t go as planned,” Stephanie says.

“Developing the product sounds seamless, but it really wasn’t. Each step in the process was a hurdle, we had to figure out what we wanted to do, who we had to talk to,” Stephanie continues. “Navigating this type of challenge was our biggest hurdle to date – but we learned along the way how to set proper expectations with customers, and that not everything will go as planned no matter how prepared you think you are.”

Regardless, the duo sorted out their supply issues, manufactured their sunscreen, and Spruce is now available for sale on the Arbre website, much to the excitement of their supporters. But Kristina and Stephanie are already looking to the future and are envisioning a whole range of sun protection products.

“We want to create a range of products for different parts of the body, different people, different skin tones,” says Stephanie. “We’re only approved in Canada right now, and we want to expand overseas too.”

“We want to try to be as inclusive and accessible as possible, and grow from there. So there’s lots of exciting stuff to come!” she concludes with a smile.

To learn more about Arbre and Spruce, check out their website:

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Indigenous business training program created by RedBird Circle Inc. in partnership with UofT Libraries, ICUBE UTM and The Bridge at UTSC

An experiential learning program that follows the school 3 semesters schedule, for anyone with a great idea who wants to make it happen.

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