PORTLAND, Maine — Maine lobsters have departed this world and reemerged in umpteen pleasing ways over the years: lobster rolls, lobster bisque, lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, lobster tails, and boiled lobster in the rough. Their shells are even used for compost.
Now, a young Maine couple is pitching another benefit: They say a protein in the lobster’s circulatory fluid, which is usually washed down the drain, can help ease skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis.
The protein, hemocyanin, is a key ingredient in the skin cream that Patrick Breeding, 27, and Amber Boutiette, 29, distribute from a bare-bones, former steel factory on the outskirts of Portland. Breeding said the protein helps lobsters fight off diseases, boosts their immune system, and plays an important role in regenerating their claws and other limbs.
So if it works for lobsters, they speculated, why not for humans?
Their business, Marin Skincare, has earned $1.1 million in revenue in less than two years, they said. It’s among the latest ventures to emerge from a scrappy, Maine startup culture that prizes innovation, sustainability, and less waste.
“They had a desk in here for a year” after launching in 2020, said Patrick Arnold, chief executive of the New England Ocean Cluster, a Portland-based incubator where Breeding and Boutiette navigated the company’s early growth.
“They really are fulfilling part of the vision to value-add the resource, so that your product is worth more than the landed price of the lobster,” Arnold said. “We love it.”
Still, the notion that disposable goo from a sharp-shelled lobster might soothe a person’s ravaged skin can come as a surprise to the crustacean-cracking public.
“We’re huge fans,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Community Fishermen’s Association. “They took something from the waste stream that was a cost for someone to get rid of, and hopefully they can turn it into a profit-making endeavor.”
Breeding and Boutiette have partnered with Luke Holden, owner of Maine-based Luke’s Lobster, who sells them the circulatory fluid, called hemolymph, which is collected at the lobster company’s production facility in Saco.
Breeding and Boutiette isolate the protein at their workplace laboratory, drive a pickup truck seven hours to New Jersey to deliver it to a cosmetics manufacturer, receive the product back in Portland, and then ship the cream to their customers.
“It’s been constant. I have no idea what a 9-to-5 job looks like,” Breeding said.
Breeding and Boutiette are not the only scientists to seek health-related applications for lobster byproducts. Robert Bayer, research director at Lobster Unlimited in Orono and former executive director of UMaine’s Lobster Institute, has investigated whether the animal’s fluid can be used in the fight against viruses and cancer.
But the skin cream, the couple said, is a novel use of the lobster that they discovered almost by accident. As UMaine graduate students in biomedical engineering, Breeding and Boutiette were working with Bayer, often in his kitchen, as he researched health-related uses for the crustaceans.
At that time, Boutiette said, she suffered from severe eczema, a condition that led her to cover her face with hoodies, scarves, and caps in the classroom. Sometimes, Boutiette said, she could not see the blackboard because of cracked skin and seeping oils in her eyelids.
“It was just miserable, and there was no single thing that worked,” she recalled. “I told myself, I can’t live like this. I was afraid of looking people in the eye.”
Boutiette was persuaded on a hunch in 2017 to try a prototype of the cream, which had helped with cold sores and rashes, the couple said. Within two weeks, her skin no longer was ravaged, she said.
“It blew my mind. I wasn’t expecting it to do much, and this was just off the cuff,” Boutiette said. ”It would be an understatement to say it literally changed my life. I finally felt I could live as a college student.”
The protein is mixed with natural ingredients, including hyaluronic acid, which hydrates and repairs skin cells, Breeding said. No drugs are used in the manufacturing process, he said, which means the cream does not require approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
“We’re telling the world, ‘Here’s this thing we discovered. Here’s what it does for the skin,’ “ Breeding said. The message is not: “Use this thing and it’s over,” he added. “Use all the tools in your tool kit.”
The cream does not produce the side effects of the topical steroids often used to treat eczema, such as itching, burning, and redness, among other conditions, Breeding said.
Dr. Jeffrey Dover, a dermatologist in Chestnut Hill, said the couple’s product “sounds interesting.”
“Glycoproteins and hyaluronic acid are very well known structural components of the skin,” Dover said. “At the very least, these products will help to naturally moisturize the skin and may have some anti-aging properties as well.”
The couple, whose business had filled their South Portland home before they moved it to the factory, did not hire a full-time employee until late September. Their product, called Marin Soothing Hydration Cream, has sold faster than they can stock it, the pair said.
Despite the rapid growth of the enterprise, their small laboratory shows how hands-on this business is. Plastic sheeting stapled onto wooden struts forms the walls and ceiling of the lab. Tiny vials, two white lab coats, and a refrigerator for the protein take up other space.
Breeding, a Connecticut native, and Boutiette, from Skowhegan, said that advice and camaraderie from other budding Maine entrepreneurs have been invaluable, particularly as they learn on the fly to build the bones of a business.
“This is very obviously a work in progress,” Breeding said.
Arnold, of the New England Ocean Cluster, sees a symbiosis between Marin’s early success and other, simultaneous efforts to reimagine, rebuild, and maximize Maine’s ocean economy.
“Whatever you’re fishing, whatever you’re growing, previously you would look at only 30 to 40 percent utilization for that catch, and the rest would go to the landfill,” Arnold said. “We want to see 100 different uses.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.