Meet UK-based entrepreneur Ahana Banerjee, who raised $1 million at 22 for Clear, her skincare app

The Forbes 30u30 founder shares her journey from wanting to be a physicist to Y Combinator to running her own company

Priyam Marik Published 06.06.24, 03:52 PM
Ahana Banerjee set up Clear after successfully pitching her business idea to Y Combinator at the end of 2020

Ahana Banerjee set up Clear after successfully pitching her business idea to Y Combinator at the end of 2020 Ahana Banerjee

Four days. That’s all the time Ahana Banerjee had for a second chance at becoming an entrepreneur. Back in December 2020, her first interview with Y Combinator, a US-based start-up accelerator and venture capital firm, had gone well, if not quite according to plan. The panel Ahana had pitched to had liked her, but not her idea. “I was dreading that I’d get an email with a rejection,” recollects Ahana, now 24, speaking to My Kolkata over video call from Oxford.

When the email eventually arrived, it asked if Ahana was ready to pivot to a different business, something she would have to draw up from scratch and pitch in less than 100 hours. With her degree thesis due shortly, most people in Ahana’s position would have passed up the chance and reapplied in a few months. “But I had to prove to them that I’m capable as a founder; so I proceeded to plan out every single hour on my calendar for the next four days,” says Ahana, who has recently made it into Forbes 30u30 as well as The Sunday Times Young Power List for 2024.


The idea that Ahana came up with was one that affected her personally. Persistent skin issues had plagued Ahana throughout her life, so much so that she had taken to maintaining Google files to document information about her skin and share it with her doctor. “But why do I need to maintain 100 spreadsheets to track everything? Why can’t there be an app for this?” wondered Ahana. That was the genesis of Clear, a mobile app that helps customers get data-driven, unbiased skincare product recommendations. “With Clear, you can track your skincare routine, measure skin changes with progress selfies, and build a community where you can find people with similar skin types and concerns,” explains Ahana.

Currently valued at $15 million, Clear has partnered with more than 3,000 brands and has more than 20,000 users (including Ahana herself). But back in December 2020, Clear was just a concept, and a road to redemption for Ahana.

‘I wasn’t going to give up on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

In the four days between her first and second interviews with Y Combinator, Ahana fleshed out the business model for Clear, built a landing page, secured 300-plus sign-ups and squeezed in full user demos, too. In other words, she had not slept since a nerve-wracking 10 minutes with Y Combinator. The conversation turned out to be much longer the second time around. “We spoke for almost an hour and it ended very abruptly, with them saying that the first batch starts in two weeks and asking me to open a US bank account. I couldn’t understand if they were going ahead with my first idea (a transcribing software for meetings) or the second. When I asked them, the reply was: ‘It’s your business, figure it out.’”

Figure it out she did. With job offers in the finance sector already waiting in her inbox, Ahana decided to take a calculated gamble. She was going to drop out of her physics course at the Imperial College of London and become a full-time founder at Clear. “I was lucky that I had already fulfilled the requirements for a bachelor’s degree… I wasn’t going to give up on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Ahana, whose experience with investor pitches has made her an expert at narrating stories, both long and short.

Born in Bhubaneswar to an Odia mother and a Bengali father, Ahana was all of one when she moved to the UK. Having spent her childhood in Chester, she faced an inevitable culture shock when she returned to India, this time to Delhi, as a 14-year-old. A couple of years later, she moved to Singapore to finish her schooling, before heading off to London to study physics. “Education enabled me to live the life I wanted. While in India, I realised my privilege and the influence of technology on daily life. That’s when I made up my mind that I wanted to impact people through science, especially through physics,” says Ahana.

Even as Ahana continued her studies, she completed a series of internships in some of the biggest companies in London, before getting involved in a start-up that matched graduates with prospective employers. A passionate musician, Ahana would also travel for gigs, before all her hustling came to a halt due to Covid-19.

‘Honestly, at times, it felt nothing short of begging’

Ahana was a national-level gymnast in primary school and played her fair share of football and touch rugby

Ahana was a national-level gymnast in primary school and played her fair share of football and touch rugby Ahana Banerjee

Once Covid came, clarity, or rather, Clear was not far behind. Ahana had found her purpose and, with the support of Y Combinator, a number of doors had opened. The next challenge was to raise significant funding to keep her company afloat. “Raising the first round of funding is probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life so far,” sighs Ahana, before breaking into a smile. “It sounds glamorous. Raising $1 million at 22. But the actual process is anything but. I made over 200 pitches, and almost 90 per cent of them resulted in rejections. There were days when I was pitching to 10 different investors. I had no family connections. I didn’t know anyone in the investment space. It was all about cold calls and emails and messaging people on LinkedIn. Honestly, at times, it felt nothing short of begging.”

Rising to the challenge, Ahana managed to get “a number of great investors on board who helped me focus even more on adding value to the user’s experience”. Years of chatting with people on Reddit about skin problems had given Ahana crucial lessons on how people thought about their skin. Using Artificial Intelligence (AI), she was able to use that knowledge to supplement the data gathered by the app to give customers first-rate advice without being partial to any company or its products. “No brand can pay us to push their products. That’s not our business model. We don’t make money through advertising or sponsorship. Instead, we work directly with cosmetic chemists and R&D teams, providing them with data-driven insights on product efficacy. This helps mitigate the massive data gap in the industry, allowing companies to constantly innovate and improve,” clarifies Ahana.

Clear has only two full-time members — Ahana (the CEO) and her CTO (who works out of Seoul). This means that Ahana is about as hands-on as one can get, dabbling in everything from coding to client management. “It’s a dream come true to be a part of something that’s so meaningful to me. When I visit dermatologists and see them using Clear without them knowing it’s my company, it fills me with pride. So far, we’ve grown entirely organically with no marketing whatsoever. Thirty per cent of our users come from India, with the US and the UK also up there as our biggest markets,” says Ahana.

‘I’ve come to prioritise the things that are truly important to me’

As of now, Clear’s user base is 90 per cent women and 10 per cent men. Ahana, for her part, wants to break the stigma around skincare prevalent among men, since “skincare isn’t just about beauty and cosmetics, it’s also about hygiene and health”. Apart from increasing the ratio of male users on the app, Ahana wants to upgrade “the patient-dermatologist relationship, making it easier to book appointments, suggest medication and share progress”.

At 24, Ahana is in a select league of young founders who have gathered decades’ worth of expertise and wisdom in a few years of relentless work. But such gains have often come at the cost of her health. “There’s always the risk of burnout. For the first two years of Clear, I didn’t take a break, and it started impacting me. I stopped playing video games and I stopped hanging out. Today, I have a much better sense of what I’m ready to sacrifice. There’s no point in overworking myself to the extent that I fall ill and fail to…work,” chuckles Ahana. “I was a national-level gymnast in primary school and played a fair bit of football and touch rugby growing up. I love exercise, and I’m glad to have been able to fall in love with that once more. I’ve come to prioritise the things that are truly important to me.”

As the accolades keep pouring in — headlining young achievers’ lists alongside the likes of Erling Haaland, Carlos Alcaraz and Sheyi Cole — Ahana maintains that her mission for Clear remains the same: “To never compromise on helping people, who, like me, have suffered with their skin. To use science and technology to enable people to make better decisions about their skin.”

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