Having Vanquished Hair Frizz, Living Proof Looks to Skin Care and Cosmetics

12/1/08

Since I wrote about Living Proof this summer, we’ve had a flurry of comments and questions about the Cambridge, MA-based firm’s biotech-inspired products for combating frizzy hair. And my Xconomy colleagues and I have had some questions of our own about the company and its wares, so I recently caught up with Living Proof CEO Rob Robillard and co-founder Amir Nashat, of Polaris Venture Partners, to get some answers.

Living Proof was keeping details about its operations and products close to the vest late this summer, in part (I later learned) because the startup had gotten word from Allure magazine that its “No Frizz” products would be among Allure’s “beauty breakthroughs of the year” and not to talk about them before the magazine’s story came out in October. Now Living Proof, which even drew a mention on the Today Show for its technology last month, is planning a series of launches for the products over the next several months, Robillard told me. And Polaris’ Nashat filled me in on the genesis of the company.

First, however, Robillard shed some light on the technology behind the three-year-old firm’s anti-frizz line. The key ingredient in all the products: a lightweight material called polyflouroester, which Allure describes as an ingredient in coatings for CDs and contact lenses. The substance, Robillard says, combats frizz by both coating porous hair shafts, preventing water from penetrating them, and by smoothing over hair cuticles to prevent surface friction. He argues that polyflouroester prevents frizz better than silicone used in other products because its molecules’ smaller size enables them to fit into tiny pores in our hair that silicone molecules cannot get into.

Robillard says he decided to start selling a limited supply of the hair products back in September on the Living Proof’s Web site, and then the firm struck a deal with QVC to sell off the rest of its initial batch of products on the home-shopping channel. (Robillard didn’t provide sales figures, but he mentioned that as of two weeks ago QVC had nearly sold out.) In the first quarter of 2009, Living Proof plans to fully launch its no-frizz products on QVC, its Web site, and at Sephora beauty shops.

What’s next? While shielding details of future products from competitors in the beauty industry, Robillard says that Living Proof plans to also move into the skincare and cosmetics segments of the beauty market. “The vision of the company is to eventually be in all [product] categories and all channels of distribution,” he says. “We want to be the next consumer products company in the beauty industry.”

To hear Nashat talk about Living Proof, there’s a well-calculated business plan behind the research-focused startup. “The consumers are increasingly looking for performance that is based on real technology in the beauty category,” Nashat says. “It’s true in pretty much all sectors of the economy, but especially in the beauty category, [consumers] have been promised science and they haven’t really gotten it—and they’re waking up to that.”

The idea for Living Proof originated with Nashat and his partners at Waltham, MA-based venture firm Polaris several years ago. Nashat, who was the interim president of Living Proof (formerly Andora) until late last year, says he and his partners brought their concept to legendary MIT inventor Bob Langer several years ago, and he agreed that there was an opportunity to apply advances in biotech research and materials science to the beauty industry. Langer signed on as a founder, and the firm has since accumulated a library of materials patents from MIT and other research institutions.

Nashat declined to say how much Polaris has invested in Living Proof, but did acknowledge that the firm is its sole investor. And we know from reports that Polaris invested $7 million in the company this summer. In support of the venture firm’s business case for Living Proof are a number of recent high-profile acquisitions of beauty products outfits by consumer products giants. For instance, Proctor & Gamble (NYSE:PG) purchased skincare firm Nioxin Research Laboratories for an undisclosed sum in September. And Clorox (NYSE:CLX) shelled out a whopping $925 million to acquire natural beauty products maker Bert’s Bees last year.

So with all that money on the table and all that science in the bottle, do Living Proof’s products actually work? If you believe the readers who commented on our previous stories, the answer is a resounding yes. But a commenter named Kirsten also questioned their safety, noting that they have quite a powerful odor: “By the time you’ve applied an ample amount the whole bathroom is a fog of noxious fumes, which you can’t escape because they are now emanating from your head of hair and follow you around from room to room.”

So I put the question of safety to Robillard and Nashat. The beauty care industry is self-regulated, Robillard says, and he says the firm tests its products for potential human side effects much as the biotech industry does. As for Nashat? “Let’s put it this way,” he says, “My wife uses it.”

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