Dispatch: Coming to a Sephora Near You: MIT-Engineered Hair Care

Where there’s a lab, there’s a lab rat. Standing behind the single salon chair stuffed into a back room at the Living Proof offices in Kendall Square, a male tech in baggy jeans oversees the slathering of cream from an anonymous white bottle onto one half of the test subject’s damp scalp. “Don’t worry about using too much,” he says instructively, earnestly. “Saturate.” That we’re dealing with hair product and not, say, test tubes full of cancer-fighting serum makes the experiment no less scientifically legit; this is, after all, an operation with MIT roots, and laboratory SOP is to be stringently observed. There’s a variable (one side plied with unseemly amounts of hair cream) and a control (the untreated side). The test subject—that’s me—wears a safety smock.

Boasting major cosmetic as well as scientific breakthroughs, Living Proof has big ambitions: nothing short of eradicating bad hair days, restoring consumer faith in beauty advertising, and, while they’re at it, shaking up an entire industry. With financial backing from Waltham’s Polaris Ventures and scientific cred provided by MIT’s famed Robert Langer (whose office walls display so many awards one can’t be sure there are walls at all), the company makes revolutionary hair products: ones that work. Its debut, a daily treatment called No Frizz, uses an original molecule called PolyfluoroEster in place of silicone, the generally ineffectual industry standard for 30 long and fuzz-filled years. Polaris managing partner Jon Flint, a genial and curly-haired guy with a background in biotech investment, says Living Proof will do for beauty what Apple did for computers. The lab tech seems pretty confident, too.

Of course, the beauty business is based on promises and claims. And so the test subject is skeptical. But after a blow-dry, the results are unmistakable: The No Frizz side is sleek; the other markedly fuzzy. The tech takes a clothing steamer to my hair. On the No Frizz side, droplets of water actually roll off. Somewhat dramatically, even.

 

According to a report assembled last year by the YWCA, the average woman spends $100 a month on beauty products, which can add up to about $60,000 over the course of a lifetime. Absent other measures of effectiveness, price becomes the yardstick, the belief being that the cost of a treatment is directly proportional to how well it works, and, by extension, how much better it can make your life. Last October, when skin-care giant La Prairie introduced a platinum-based antiaging moisturizer that retailed for $1,000, eager shoppers flocked to stores like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman in hot pursuit. To buy a tub was a leap of faith, a bet that a $1,000 face cream must do something that a $6 jar of Oil of Olay can’t.

Science has largely neglected beauty, or rather the other way around. Most cosmetics brands have focused on eye-catching packaging, pleasant smells, and celebrity endorsement instead of proven efficacy. “They use all these scientific buzzwords, but it’s just marketing,” says Polaris partner Amir Nashat, a Ph.D. who helped found Living Proof. It took Nashat half a day with a few dozen bottles of gels and sprays in the Polaris conference room to reach the conclusion that the myriad products lining store shelves were basically identical. Big, risk-averse companies like Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal, he says, are “all about using ingredients that are familiar and science that is conventional.” Not to mention that by coming up with true innovations, they’d render obsolete everything they’d previously created.

Living Proof had its serendipitous beginning in 2005. Mitch DeRosa, a Financial District salon owner who’d been cutting Flint’s hair for 20 years, had proposition. He and his mentor, Ward Stegerhoek, a stylist who worked on photo shoots for magazines like Vogue, were seeking investors for a private-label hair-care brand. Such lines typically originate in the same strip of New Jersey industrial plants, unique only in label and maybe an ingredient or two (and not the ones that matter—that olive oil in your conditioner is not working the magic you’ve been led to believe it is). Besides the fancy packaging and slight variations in texture and smell, there’s nothing novel about a $30 tube of Frédéric Fekkai styling cream.

Flint wasn’t interested in funding DeRosa and Stegerhoek’s venture, but he was intrigued. He and Nashat went to Langer, a wildly prolific inventor with whom Polaris had launched more than 15 biotech companies. “Bob took one look and said the claims being made on the skin-care side—about curing wrinkles and so forth—were completely bogus,” says Flint. “The molecules they were using were way too big to penetrate the skin. That was just the start of it.”

Says Langer, “We’ve helped develop ways to treat patients with all kinds of illnesses—cancer, heart disease. I thought, Well, we can probably tackle frizz.”