Bedford, IN — When Megan Cox left her home in Bedford to study at MIT, she never imagined her degree would bring her back home. The 2014 alumna envisioned herself pursuing a career in chemistry, maybe in the food or oil industry.
Instead Cox's solution to a beauty dilemma midway through college led to the creation of a blossoming cosmetic company. Now, Cox, 24, is following her breakout lash and brow enhancer Wink with a line of "Farm to Face" products she is making with ingredients grown in the backyard of her grandparents' Southern Indiana home.
To create her products, Cox did what any good Massachusetts Institute of Technology student would do: research. She sifted through reams of studies in deciding what natural ingredients to use in her artisanal skin-care line Amalie Beauty.
"There's lots of research out there; some reliable, some not," she said. "You'd be amazed how much you can learn."
It all started in an MIT lab or, more accurately, an MIT field.
As an undergrad, Cox joined the cheer squad. Like many of her cohorts, she started getting lash extensions. After about a year, her aesthetician recommended she take a break to allow her thin lashes to recuperate. To her dismay, Cox saw that her lashes had shrunk to about a third of their original length.
Products that lengthen and thicken lashes, such as Latisse, existed, but they had the unsettling potential side effect of darkening the irises. Cox liked her blue eyes. She started looking for an alternative way to grow lashes.
Latisse contains the chemical prostaglandin that stimulates lash growth. Rather than using a synthetic prostaglandin, Cox wondered if she could prod the body into increasing its own production of prostaglandins.
"I basically went one step back from the process where Latisse was," Cox said. "I had to find the right mix of essential fatty acids."
Cox tried a few recipes on herself and the other members of her cheer squad. The end result was Wink, which stimulates lash and brow growth.
Formula in hand, Cox headed into an MIT lab to mix about 500 vials of Wink. Instead of taking a planned summer internship in Miami before her senior year, Cox returned to Bedford, scraped together $2,000, mostly in $100 savings bonds that had been Christmas presents from her grandparents, and with a friend, started Amalie Beauty, which bears her middle name.
Sales grew thanks to news stories, blog mentions and word of mouth. Today, Cox sells about 10,000 bottles of Wink a year. Each bottle sells for $40 and lasts about two months.
About two years ago, Ginger Biddinger, co-owner of Biz on Fletcher, heard about the product from a client. From Bedford herself, Biddinger decided to carry Wink in her salon.
"I'm just thrilled it's mostly a natural product," Biddinger said. "We do have repeat customers. We don't sell a ton of it, but the people that have used it do rebuy it."
Miles away from Amalie's Bedford "headquarters" (basically Cox's childhood home), esthetician Tamara Sullivan received a postcard promoting the product in her mailbox in Beaverton, Ore. She hadn't heard about Wink but decided to try it.
The product worked well so she started selling it to clients at her Dulcederm salon who needed help after overtweezing their eyebrows. She'll use it herself whenever she feels she's losing hair from her eyebrows or eyelashes.
For some, the story behind Wink's creation adds to its appeal.
About two years ago, Pat Green saw Wink and Cox featured on a blog. A Latisse user, Green had been looking for a more natural alternative.
"I read all about her and her entrepreneurship, and I thought this is one extremely brilliant young woman," said Green.
The two began a relationship over email in which Green, who is 70, would mentor and advise Cox.
About a year ago, Green was visiting her husband, who was working away from their Arizona home. During her visit, her husband was diagnosed with cancer, and the couple immediately flew to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for care.
Without time to return home to pack, Green asked a friend to send clothes and other necessities to Texas. But she was out of Wink. She emailed Cox and explained the situation. Cox responded that her products had shipped for the day, and she was leaving for China, where Wink was being manufactured, the next day. Still, Cox made a special trip to FedEx to send Green a few extra bottles.
At Christmas that year, Green received another package from Cox. Knowing what her customer had been going through, Cox had sent chocolates.
"She's really like an everyday hero to me in terms of what her life mission is and how she cares about people," Green said. "Even though I'm older than her, I'm learning from her."
Over the past two years, Cox has learned some key lessons. In June she introduced Shine, a face-brightening oil, which she small-batched and bottled herself.
The last few batches of Wink were made in Texas and the bottles filled in New Jersey, but Cox is thinking of taking over production of Wink herself. She has one employee in Bedford who helps with fulfilling orders.
And, she has done as much as possible with her latest line, growing almost all the ingredients in a small garden outside the home where her grandparents have lived for more than half a century. There, she tended to spearmint, lavender, lemon, thyme and a sage plant that has been in her family for four generations.
After harvest, she plans to debut three products: Calm, for eczema and dermatitis, Clarity for adult acne, and Rewind, an anti-aging face oil.
Once more, though, Cox learned some tough lessons. She had hoped to make a total of 1,000 bottles of the three products. But she harvested less than expected and wound up with about 200 bottles total, which go on sale Nov. 1.
And, she was not able to grow everything that went into this line, using castor, pomegranate and jojoba oil as primary ingredients. Next year, she's hoping to use black walnut oil, high in omega-3 fatty acids, for her farm-to-face products. A large black walnut tree stands in the backyard of her grandparents' house.
Next spring, she's planning to farm on her family's new 42-acre Greene County property with an eye to producing about 1,000 bottles of each product in her Farm to Face collection.
"I really like the idea of having seasonal beauty and local beauty," she said. "Just because an ingredient is grown halfway across the world doesn't mean it's something better than you can find here."