L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator: Creating the Future of Beauty

Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator, at its New Jersey site. He says he looks for opportunities “where beauty and technology meet.” Photo Credit – Bryan Anselm

Article by VICTORIA GOMELSKY

The New York Times

CLARK, N.J. — Guive Balooch has seen the future of beauty — and it’s a smartphone.

As global vice president for L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator, a 26-person team that operates like a start-up within one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies, Mr. Balooch partners with academics and entrepreneurs to make products on the forefront of the $438 billion global beauty industry.

“Everything starts with this pillar in my mind of where beauty and technology meet,” Mr. Balooch said while touring the New Jersey facility that houses the incubator’s first lab, founded in 2012. (San Francisco, Paris and Tokyo are home to additional labs.)

Since the incubator opened, Mr. Balooch has overseen the development of five products — a mix of wearables, objects and apps — that further his vision of a future in which cosmetics are connected, customized and designed to meet each consumer’s needs.

Take his team’s latest invention: the Kérastase Hair Coach Powered by Withings. Introduced in early January at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the sleek silver hairbrush — the product of a three-way partnership of the incubator, the smart technology maker Withings and Kérastase, L’Oréal’s luxury hair-care brand — is described as the world’s first smart brush.

“More than 50 percent of Google searches today in beauty are about hair,” Mr. Balooch explained.

The device aims to banish bad hair days by offering technical insights into the state of the user’s locks, plus personalized advice on how best to care for them.

Scheduled to go on sale this year for less than $200, the brush contains a conductivity sensor that knows whether hair is wet or dry; an accelerometer and gyroscope to measure the speed and force of brush strokes; a microphone that captures auditory data; and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity to upload all that information to an app, which uses an algorithm to analyze the statistics and detect breakage. And, oh yeah — the bristles feel pretty good, too.

“It was very important for us to make a high-end device that, taking all the technology and sophisticated aspects away, is the best brush you’ll ever see,” said Cédric Hutchings, chief executive of Withings and vice president for digital health at Nokia, which developed the hardware.

Mr. Balooch said the brush uses a combination of synthetic fibers “that mimic $200 to $300 brushes on the market.”

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The Kérastase Hair Coach Powered by Withings is a smart brush with its own app. The product is scheduled to go on sale later this year.

It’s a category he knows well. In 2007, after earning a doctorate in biomaterials from the University of California, San Francisco, and following postdoctoral studies in cell biomechanics at Stanford, he took a job with L’Oréal in Chicago, where he was challenged to “understand the physics of hair,” he said.

“I would take hairs of ethnic descent and I would test relaxers on them, shampoos, conditioners, then I would break the hairs on a machine,” he said.

Mr. Balooch’s work impressed the L’Oréal brass, who in 2008 asked him to join the company’s research and innovation team, and build relationships with start-ups and universities. When the incubator was formed five years ago, he was “the right man for the job,” said Mr. Balooch’s manager, Stephan Habif, senior vice president for L’Oréal’s research and innovation arm in the Americas. “This is L’Oréal — we believe in entrepreneurship.”

That may explain why the incubator is staffed by men and women who share Mr. Balooch’s academia-meets-Silicon Valley background.

“I hand-chose everybody more for their souls than their résumés,” Mr. Balooch explained. “If you put a UX designer, a physicist, a biologist and a micro-engineer all together in a room, the tension between their ideas creates really cool things.”

Makeup Genius, the incubator’s first project, proved him right. Introduced in May 2014, the virtual makeup app relies on augmented reality technology, in which graphics are superimposed onto real-world imagery, to let users try on various shades of L’Oréal cosmetics before buying.

Mr. Balooch said he tried to make the app, which boasts more than 17 million downloads, in-house until perfecting the feature that distinguished Makeup Genius from other such apps (its ability to track facial movements in real time) proved a formidable challenge.

At a conference, he discovered Image Metrics, an animation company known for its special effects work on the 2008 aging-in-reverse film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The movie won an Oscar for best visual effects.

“So I said, ‘Would you be interested in making an app with us around makeup?’” Mr. Balooch recalled. “Six months later, we had Makeup Genius.”

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A machine made by Mr. Balooch’s team to custom blend Lancôme’s Le Teint Particulier foundation to match any of 22,000 skin tones. CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

The incubator’s second project, the Lancôme Le Teint Particulier, is a customized foundation blended at the point of sale using a color-matching algorithm that sorts through 22,000 skin tones.

Le Teint Particulier, introduced in 2015 in two Nordstrom locations and scheduled to be rolled out globally this year, isn’t the first custom foundation on the market, but Mr. Balooch contends that it is the most accurate.

“You could have a beautiful display, but if you don’t go home with a product that really is to your skin tone, you’re never going to reorder,” he said. “We have people cry when they try it. Because it’s meeting a consumer need.”

In the case of one project — My UV Patch, introduced in January 2016 by L’Oréal’s La Roche-Posay skin care brand — that need might even be lifesaving.

The heart-shaped patch is a wearable adhesive containing photosensitive dyes that change color when exposed to UV rays.

It was designed in partnership with MC10, a health tech firm based in Cambridge, Mass., that specializes in flexible electronics, and built by PCH, a manufacturer with a hub near the incubator’s San Francisco location.

To demonstrate how easy it is to use, Mr. Balooch peeled off the back of one sticker — it measures about one inch and is half the thickness of a strand of hair — and affixed it to his left hand. “It’s like a second skin,” he said. “It lasts up to five days. You can wrinkle the skin with it, you can shower. We had people swimming with it.”

When paired with an app, Mr. Balooch said the monitoring device had been proven to change behavior.

“The data today shows 60 percent of people who use the app have less sunburn and 30 percent are using more sunscreen,” he said.

“I love the idea of that project because it’s truly about changing the lives of consumers. Because we’re in R. & D., our goal is not to market products. Our goal is to make great consumer technologies and then work with marketing to put a beautiful story behind them.”

Correction: April 3, 2017
An earlier version of this article, using information from a company developing the Kérastase Hair Coach Powered by Withings, misstated the hairbrush’s price. When it goes on sale later this year, the brush will be sold for less than $200, but it will not be $179.