Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70. It was this statistic that prompted Johanna Young to found Solbari, a brand of UPF50+ sun protective clothing, hats and accessories that has just received a $10 million minority share investment. It’s all in the name. Solbari is short for solar barrier, and creating a wearable, fashionable, effective and comfortable one is precisely Young’s vision. Founded in Young’s two-bedroom Melbourne apartment in 2013, Solba
Solbari now sells a product every 90 seconds, with over 300,000 customers across over 160 countries. Globally, the UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) apparel market is set to reach US$1.4 billion by 2030 with a strong CAGR exceeding 7.7 per cent. The market is driven by growing skin cancer awareness, according to recent RationalStat industry analysis. In 2023, the industry had a suggested value of US$861.6 million. Specialised fabric that is rated UPF 50+ can block a minimum of 98 per cent of solar UV rays. Most regular cotton shirts in contrast allow ten times or more UV rays, 20 per cent, to reach the skin. The not-so sunny side up Warmer climates and sunny days on the golf course enticed Young to leave London and a career in finance and return home to Australia, along with her “very fair” British husband, whose doctor explained that he was at extremely high risk of developing melanoma. Solutions-focused, Young dedicated the next 18 months to researching everything she could about UPF fabrics, visiting fabric mills, trade shows, dermatologists, and cancer charities to truly understand how the sun affects the skin and which fabrics were vanguard in performance and sustainability. It took an additional six months to have the first products made. “I was trying to tackle as much as I could on my own because I started Solbari without an investor,” Young told Inside Retail. “ABGF is the first. Prior to that, it was just me, my savings and my conviction that I could make a difference.” The Australian Business Growth Fund (ABGF), which announced its investment earlier this month, is industry agnostic. It partners with businesses on a long-term investment horizon basis, investing $5-15 million and up to $30 million in subsequent rounds, only ever taking a minority share capped at 49 per cent in the SME sector. The fund backs market disruptors that have unique value propositions through an equally unique public-private model facilitated by an alliance between the Federal Government and six leading banks. Young said the decision to take on funding from ABGF was not about the numbers, but rather accessing the organisation’s network to drive further growth in Asia, Europe and North America, as well as the children’s UPF apparel market. “We didn’t seek the investment because we needed money. We actually don’t need money as we’ve been profitable since day one. We’ve got no debt,” said Young. Solbari has a strong growth trajectory over the next three years, Ghazaleh Lyari, ABGF co-head of investments told Inside Retail. “There were multiple people interested in buying the whole business, but Johanna didn’t want to sell a controlling stake. She’s been at it for 10 years now and still has a lot of fire in her belly and wants to be involved in the next phase of Solbari’s growth.” ABGF found the current global positioning of the business attractive, being positioned as the second UPF apparel brand in the US market and between the first and second in the UK, with 60 per cent of revenue coming from international markets already according to Lyari. From a profitability and global growth perspective, “Solbari’s numbers have been really attractive so far as a predominantly e-commerce business, with a virtually untapped wholesale capacity. Before we invested, Johanna was bombarded with interest from domestic and global wholesale marketplaces that are really interested in the specialised nature of her products,” said Lyari. Customer service priority As an e-commerce business, Solbari has been global from day one. The third garment it ever sold was to a customer in the US. While Young ran the business herself in the early years, figuring out how to build a website with Shopify, one of her first hires was to assist with packing orders and customer service. “It was very important to me that we could get the orders on time and that we were able to answer customer queries within 24 hours,” said Young. Doing business the right way is integral for Young, and Solbari gaining B-Corp certification two years ago “was just an evolution of where the business came from,” she said.