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

Bob Langer and his fellow eggheads at Living Proof fight frizz with advanced science.

By Alyssa Giacobbe | Boston Magazine |

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.”

The early days at living proof were very different from those at just about any other beauty company. For one, says Flint (right), “it was very nerdy,” and predominately male. With $1 million in seed money from Polaris, Langer assembled a small team of his best scientists. “These were people who’d never given any thought to solving beauty problems,” says Flint—including their own. “Between us,” says Nashat, a self-described Dep guy, “we’d probably only ever spent about a total of 75 cents on hair products.” (Good thing DeRosa and Stegerhoek remained on the board.)

Talking to Langer is a little like being an English major in advanced chem (naked). He speaks of scientific philosophy and delivery systems and polyurethanes in ladies’ girdles. It all relates, somehow, to hair products. “Most researchers don’t take the same fundamental approach to science,” he says. “To ask what kind of molecular structure is right to stop water from permeating draws from the same philosophy I’ve used my whole life, whether we’re developing a beauty product or a pool cleaner.”

Headed by Dan Anderson (pictured right), a molecular geneticist who’d worked with Langer for eight years, and Betty Yu, a scientist from Johnson & Johnson, the Langer team labored for two years seeking a breakthrough. Living Proof researchers would use their petri dishes and Bunsen burners to analyze lip gloss and eye serums, then debate the results. “We’d sit around for hours and ask each other, Why does hair get frizzy? Why does hair have no volume?” says Nashat, whose desk is now piled high with issues of Glamour, Allure, and Science. “There’s this stigma in pharma that consumer products in general are less honorable. Obviously we’re going to keep trying to fight cancer. But these are things that many women are very passionate about. It upsets them. My wife uses it and I’ve seen how excited she gets.”

Frizz just happened to be the battle first won. Silicone, the key ingredient in nearly all frizz fighters on the market, works—and not very well—by weighing down the hair shaft. By contrast, Living Proof’s PolyfluoroEster is smaller, far more effective at repelling water, and excellent at reducing surface friction. Its properties are similar to that of contact lens coating. “We had people tell us they’d gone out in the rain, gone to bed, and woken up with hair like they’d just come from a blowout,” says one lab tech.

Once No Frizz was deemed safe—no animals were tested, only wigs and, later, family and friends—DeRosa began using it on clients. Each of the founders also tried it out themselves (except DeRosa, who is bald). “It allows the hair to do things that even the hair wasn’t sure it could do,” says Nashat. For a hot second, he and Flint considered selling the formula to a larger corporation to produce. “But we thought, No way,” he says. “A company like P&G would make billions, and pay pennies. I want to make the billion. And that’s how Jon and I decided we needed the brand equity and not just the patent. I threatened that the product was so good I’d sell it out of the trunk of my car.”

He wouldn’t have to. In December 2007, Flint hired former L’Oréal exec Rob Robillard (pictured right) as CEO. “The beauty industry has been full of crazy claims for years,” Robillard says. “Our approach is to tell people we’ve created something very simple. It’s high-tech, but we’re not going to give you some superlatives. We’re not going to talk to you about stem cells. You’ve got frizz? Here’s a solution.” Soon after he was hired, Robillard inked a deal with QVC, which began featuring Living Proof last October. The shopping channel has proved to be a perfect launching pad: For five uninterrupted minutes, Robillard talks about the product while testing it on volunteers. “Forget where it comes from or how it’s made,” he says. “People just want to know: Does it work?” Next month Sephora will start offering No Frizz in all 215 stores nationwide.

QVC won’t release No Frizz sales figures, but DeRosa says he unloaded more than 300 bottles through his salon in the first month. “I’m not kidding, I’ve had to turn people away,” he says. He’s also begun select testing of the follow-up—a volumizer tentatively named Bounce, set for release next year—on clients. Robillard says he gets more than 100 letters a day from people wanting to know when the next Living Proof product will come out. “A woman sent me a note that said, ‘I’ll take anything you people are selling!'” he says. “So, you know, we’re working on it.” Researchers at the Living Proof lab now have 10 potential hair and skin care products in development and recently added a full-time testing stylist.

“I’ve learned that science is not on the same timetable as beauty,” Robillard says. “They’ll come when they’re ready. At this point, nothing we launch can disappoint people. Making products that work—that’s sort of our thing.” No marketing required—or not much. The name Living Proof, after all, was dreamed up by a branding firm.

Writer-at-large Alyssa Giacobbe has more beauty products than she needs.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/12/mit-engineered-hair-care/