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Challenge Accepted!

07 Apr 2022

It started as a scientific challenge, turned into a business idea and evolved into a working partnership between professor and alumna. IMU’s retired microbiologist professor Ong Kok Hai (in the photo above) and alumna Dr Felicia Soong share their thoughts on the journey to end acne problems.

Why acne?
Prof Ong: Acne is a universal skin problem that can have tremendous physical and emotional impact on the individual with chronic or severe acne problems. For some people, the scars of acne may last for life. There are oodles of products and “cures” that are available but in spite of all these products and expertise available, the acne problem is still so prevalent and recurrence is common. My conclusion was that no one had come up with a satisfactory solution. This to me was a scientific challenge!
Dr Soong: When I was a teenager, I saw my brother suffer from cystic acne. He would lock himself in the room, isolate himself and was always moody and wearing a cap. My mum brought him for facials and he came back looking as if he had been tortured. Since then, I’ve treated many patients, especially teenagers suffering from acne and their self-esteem is always on the lower spectrum. They are mainly shy, trying to hide their face with a cap/long hair and have no eye contact. But once their skin improves, they start smiling and are more socially adept.

How did it all start?
Prof Ong: Having invented the rapid typhoid test with a fellow scientist and good friend while I was in Universiti Sains Malaysia, I found that the ability to solve a scientific problem was a really exhilarating, but arduous journey. I took up the acne problem in 2006 as a personal project. I researched its pathology i.e. how it was formed, what were the various types of acne, present modes of treatment by doctors, pharmaceutical products against acne in the market and their respective modes of action. The next step for me was to come up with my own formulation and testing with individuals who had acne problems. There was then reformulation, minor product modifications and refinements. This involved time and money. It was part of the journey that called for determination and persistence.

How did your paths cross after IMU?
Prof Ong: From 2006 until 2013, I was marketing my acne and other skincare products through a direct selling company. But there were marketing and financial challenges and after seven years I stopped using this business model. But I never stopped believing that my acne products were good and that they CAN help solve the acne problem. At the end of last year, after retiring as a full time Professor at IMU, I toyed with the idea of reviving my acne products, especially now that e-commerce is becoming a normal part of our daily lives. It was then that I met my former student Dr Felicia Soong through my NGO, Rainbow Bridge Malaysia. When I found out that she was now an aesthetics physician, I told her about my cosmeceutical products and she was very interested. I suggested a partnership to form a new company.
Dr Soong: I was drawn to Prof Ong’s Rainbow Bridge project and offered my time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prof called me up one day and said he would like to have a chat with me. So, we met up at Rumah Titian Kaseh which is one of his many philanthropic projects, and he briefed me on his skincare products and immediately I said, “Yes!” At that point I had been practising aesthetics for more than 12 years and was also actively involved in beauty pageants as I was Mrs Universe Malaysia 2018. Many of my pageant sisters have always encouraged me to start my own skincare as I love sharing beauty tips and myth busters on skincare routines and treatments. So, when Prof presented this opportunity to me, I felt God answered my prayers!

How do you think your work can continue to help others?
Prof Ong: Maybe one day we can work with children’s welfare homes and help teens with acne problems. We can educate teenagers, especially the less fortunate, on the various aspects of acne, and how to use products properly; this would be a good and meaningful part of the company.
Dr Soong: This will be important because once a person’s self-esteem/confidence is restored, he/she starts feeling emotionally secure. This newfound positive energy influences their behaviour to be more motivated and they can enjoy their social interactions be it at school or at their workplace where they do not shy away from presentations, team projects and meetings with other stakeholders at work. They no longer isolate themselves and build more meaningful relationships. I have faced my own insecurities (I have always struggled with weight issues, dry and sensitive skin), persevered and overcame them. When I became Mrs Malaysia Universe, I was able to relate to the burst of self-esteem and I started to see the strong link of beauty from both inside and out.

What is the partnership bringing to the table?
Prof Ong: Dr Soong’s clinical experience, patient load, and market needs coupled with my scientific and formulation experience is a winning combination. With her input, we have created a few brand-new products. At the same time, we refined our acne range of products. Today, I honestly believe that this range can not only clear acne problems but can also prevent recurrence of acne.
Dr Soong: We learn a lot from each other! I am constantly learning from Prof Ong on the processes involved in acquiring good quality ingredients, the interaction with the manufacturing lab and of course, not forgetting his thought processes, knowledge and expertise as a scientist. On top of all his philanthropic and project works, Prof Ong is learning about e-commerce, social media, recording IG videos and becoming an online influencer! Most of all, we set our egos aside and work with each other and when not-so-right decisions/actions are made, we learn from the mistake and move forward. No pointing fingers!

Words of wisdom
Prof Ong: As a teacher, my advice to all my students is: “Whatever you do, always give your best. The rest will follow.”As a scientist, my advice is: “Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is useless knowledge; it should be applied to be of any use. Good research is not how many publications you get out of it but how your new knowledge can be applied to benefit people.”
Dr Soong: To future aesthetic physicians, don’t pursue it just for glamour and riches. The work of an aesthetic physician is very rewarding because it helps people regain their confidence. Learn as much as you can, improve your knowledge and keep abreast with the latest advancements and techniques. Don’t judge your patients, or your clients because their desire to improve their confidence or social status is vital for their quality of life. Respect your patients’ uniqueness. And finally treat your colleagues in the industry as friends: learn and support each other.

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