How This Scientist Makes Your Favourite Beauty Products Smarter
Last week I was lucky enough to sit down one-on-one with Guive Balooch, the Global Vice President of L'Oreal's Technology Incubator. You may not have heard of Balooch by name (unless you're a fellow beauty nerd, in which case, hi friend!), but I've no doubt you're familiar with his work. Balooch is the man behind some of the most clever beauty and health technologies in the world, heading a team that is effectively shaping what the connected bathroom of the future will look like. From Makeup Genius, an app that allows users to try on makeup via augmented reality, adjusting it according to their skin tone for a true representation of the product (ACTUALLY genius), to My UV Patch, a wearable technology that measures daily exposure to UV and makes personalised protection recommendations, Balooch is empowering consumers one project at a time. The latest development to come out of the Incubator is Kérastase's Hair Coach, a "smart" hairbrush created in collaboration with Withings, a company known for building health monitoring devices. The brush uses a variety of technologies to analyse the health of your hair, relaying bespoke advice to an app to guide you on how to better take care of it. Basically, it'll give you all the expert info a hairstylist would, without the salon product upsell. And yes, it is coming to Australia soon. Keen to know more?
Keep scrolling for our exclusive Q&A.
Byrdie Australia: What's the overall aim of your team within L'Oreal's Technology Incubator?
Guive Balooch: Our goal is to bring technology and beauty together using an approach informed by the behaviour of consumers and how that may change. It's about creating complementary technology to conventional products in a way that makes them more personalised. We're a small team so we don't work on a thousand projects. We have to be really careful about what we choose to work on. In every project, we really strive to follow certain values. In particular it's important for the consumer to be able to benefit from the technologies we create—that's the link between the product and the science behind what we do.
B: Is there anywhere in particular you look for your ideas?
GB: The ideas I get are really from living my life. I travel 1.2 million kilometres per year, and I'm always in a different place, interacting with different people from all walks of life. That's where I get inspired. I wish there was an ideas equation that worked, because people ask me all the time, 'How do you come up with these ideas?', and I don't have any answer. When I travel around the world, I always have my products with me and I'm testing them and talking about them. Sometimes I get inspired by a certain technology, sometimes it's the consumers, sometimes it comes from the people on my team or from within our company. Sometimes it just comes out of nowhere.
B: Do the women in your life come to you with all their beauty problems?
GB: All the time. [Laughs.] My wife grew up in the Philippines, and she's very much into beauty. Beyond that I come from California, Berkeley specifically, and I have a diverse set of friends from all walks of life. There are women in my circle of friends who have very different opinions. All the time I'll have people say, 'You know, you should create a...' and I'm like, 'Thank you but I have enough to do!' [Laughs.] But it's good! Beauty is so interesting. People have such strong and varied opinions about what they want. It's so demanding in terms of consumer expectations, which makes it fun.
Beauty is so interesting. It's so demanding in terms of consumer expectations, which makes it fun.
B: How do you choose which beauty category to innovate in next?
GB: I don't really choose. The first three or four projects I worked on were makeup-related, and it just sort of happened that way. Colour cosmetics was my first idea because it's there's so much innovation that can happen in terms of personalisation. So that was low-hanging fruit. After that, there was a natural gravitational pull towards a new category. I had people say, 'Hey, you haven't done anything yet in hair,' which made me think about what people would want in that space. Hair is a very complicated thing to innovate, I can tell you. [Laughs.]
B: What can you tell me about Kerastase's Hair Coach? How did you decide to put a microphone in it?
GB: My first job at L'Oreal was actually to comb through swatches of African American hair, putting in relaxers and different shampoos and testing them with a microphone. So when we first made the brush I was sitting in a meeting with my team and I said, 'You know what, what if we were to that as inspiration?' If you want to measure hair breakage you could use a camera, but I don't know if I would want a camera in my brush. That's kind of weird. [Laughs.] Having the L'Oreal Technology Incubator team sit in R&D is sometimes a benefit when it comes to thinking of scientific ways to measure things. But yeah, the microphone is a weird thing. [Laughs.]
B: What comes first, the brand pairing, or the technology?
GB: Always the technology, never the brand. I never do anything for a specific brand because I don't want to dilute the value I want to provide consumers. I think it would create challenges around being free in my thinking. Of course, I don't discount the brands—it's the brands that make these technologies what they are. Makeup Genius is Makeup Genius because of L'Oreal Paris, not because of me. They did an amazing job with it.
B: What would you say have been the most rewarding for you to work on so far?
GB: The My UV Patch, for me, has been the most rewarding thing. There's an aspect of it, and maybe it goes back to my geeky side, but there's a goodness to it that goes beyond beauty. The majority of ageing comes from the sun, so there's obviously the beauty side of it, but just five sunburns gives you double the chance of having some type of skin cancer. If I can play a part in helping even a few consumers to use sunscreen more, I'm happy. There's something really noble about what La Roche-Posay is doing with the technology, because they don't want to charge consumers for it. I also didn't want them to, but it's their decision of course. The fact that they made it available free of charge makes me feel very proud of not only my team's achievement, but of La Roche-Posay. I loved working on it.
La Roche-Posay's cult Anthelios XL SPF 50+ Sunscreen ($29) is Byrdie editor-approved.
The majority of ageing comes from the sun, so there's obviously the beauty side of it, but just five sunburns gives you double the chance of having some type of skin cancer.
B: What does the connected bathroom of the future look like to you?
GB: I think about a holistic approach to connectivity where health and beauty meet. Right now it's about connecting your scale to your toothbrush to everything else you use during your morning routine, and eventually probably your mirror is going to know and understand you, but it's different from the way people think about connected homes. Mainly because there's a sense that maybe I don't want all of that technology in my bathroom. There's an intimacy factor associated with your bathroom, so I think for me it's about working on technologies which help people determine the right routines and products for them. In that way it will naturally infiltrate your bathroom because the technology is tied to things that we normally use like our hairdryers and flatirons and brushes. Those items will hopefully provide some connectivity that adds value to the consumer's life. Maybe one day everything will be controlled by something like a mirror—without us having to pay $10,000 for it—but I'm not sure we're there yet. It's gonna take a while before the day-to-day consumer is going to want to own a mirror that tells them things about themselves. Maybe a long while.
B: What can you say about both the safety of the technologies you create, and the ways in which they gather data?
GB: When I speak about electronics in front of an audience I always get questions around safety. The reality is, as a scientist I can tell you there's nothing unhealthy about any of these types of technology. But you can't ignore the fact that consumer perception is changing. We have so much technology around us and it causes people to worry—you can't just change that. So we are very mindful of how we create technologies. For instance, we shouldn't ask people who download the Makeup Genius app—and we don't—to give us their name and email or refuse them use. People don't want you to track their personal information. So it's things like knowing that if you're going to put a microphone in a hairbrush, you'll make sure it can only listen to your hair. We really do think about what consumers are thinking and how they feel about owning the technologies we create. When you have something in your bathroom it's even more important, because as I said, there's an intimacy factor there. People don't want someone tracking them in their bathroom. [Laughs.]
B: What would you say about how you're bringing back a personalised consumer experience?
GB: It's going to eventually come to a point where you won't have to just rely on the expertise of a makeup artist to know which shades to use. If I'm a consumer that wants to go into a store but only have a few seconds to buy something, I'll have the technology to help me choose the right things quickly. Personalisation, and allowing consumers to get to know themselves better is already happening through things like virtual try. With Makeup Genius, for instance, it allows consumers to do something as simple as scan a product and see it on their own face. It will bring beauty to a new level when it comes to interactions. Our hope is that it's empowering for the consumer.
B: What's the best positive feedback you've received?
GB: I'm really proud of two things. The first is that 60% of people who use My UV Patch in the States have less sunburn. My KPI was just a few percent! Granted, some of those numbers could be based on the notion that wearing the patch creates an awareness itself, but that's still a positive impact. What really did it for me was going to a counter fitted with a Lancôme custom foundation tool [called Le Teint Particulier] and seeing an African American woman cry because she was finally able to get the right shade of foundation for her. Sometimes, as scientists, we questions the importance and impact of beauty in consumer lives. Granted, beauty is not the same as medicine, but to see someone have that reaction you realise it can really make people happier. It was just one person, it wasn't a statistic or a study, but it was enough to make me feel that we had created something of value.