Polaris and MIT’s Langer Meet L’Oreal. Don’t Believe It? There’s “Living Proof”

Move over Mary Kay. Some of the best and brightest brains from MIT and other research powerhouses are applying their scientific prowess to the multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry—and they’ve recruited a veteran of beauty-products giant L’Oreal to pull it off.

It’s all happening in the heart of Kendall Square, on Rogers Street (home also to Xconomy’s Cambridge, MA, headquarters), at a secretive company called Living Proof, where MIT graduates are injecting advances in chemistry and materials science into cosmetic products for hair and skin. And though Living Proof sounds a bit different from the scores of other nascent startups incubating in its neighborhood, some of the area’s usual suspects, such as Polaris Venture Partners and famous MIT professor (and Xconomist) Robert Langer, are behind the operation.

Living Proof has been brewing for a few years, previously as Andora. (In fact, the firm just closed a $7 million Series A-3 financing with Polaris and other investors, according to a report in PE Hub.) Yet many of the details of the firm have only recently been revealed on its new website, in which CEO Rob Robillard, who cut his teeth in the cosmetics industry with L’Oreal, provides a first-person take on the company, the employees, and the star-studded board of directors.

In addition to Langer, the board features former chief counsel of the FDA Peter Barton Hutt, one of the most influential food and drug attorneys in the country. The other directors include Polaris partner Amir Nashat, who came to the VC firm from Langer’s lab at MIT, and Polaris co-founder Jon Flint.

Despite Living Proof’s new Web presence, neither Nashat nor Robillard would comment on the company or the science involved in its hair and skin products. (When Nashat told me the firm is still in stealth mode I was reminded ever so slightly of John Travolta as Tony Manero: “Don’t touch the hair.”)

I did manage, though, to track down a patent application filed by the company that may shed light on the science brewing there. According to the application, conventional styling products rely on polymers “to give hair shine, to style hair, to give hair a desired texture or feel, and to repair damaged hair”—but the products aren’t as effective or long-lasting as they could be because the bulky polymer molecules are tricky to dissolve in shampoos, gels, and lotions. The application indicates that Living Proof intends to get around that problem by using light or heat (from a hair dryer, curling iron, or the like) to trigger the formation of the polymers out of smaller molecules in the hair product right on the hair, a process called in situ polymerization.

It was less clear how this science would apply to skin care, if at all, but Living Proof could easily have other tricks up its sleeve. For example, I found some clues to link well-known Harvard dermatologist R. Rox Anderson with then-Andora when I wrote last year about Polaris’s Nashat and his efforts at the startup. Anderson has developed laser-based techniques for removing hair and birthmarks, and is one of the founders of New Jersey-based Freedom2, which markets a tattoo ink that is easily removed with lasers.

Living Proof says on its Massachusetts Biotechnology Council profile that it expects to launch its own products within a year to 18 months. While cosmetic applications of serious science may sound silly, the huge market for beauty products trumps many of the medical devices and pharmaceutical markets that Langer and Polaris are typically known to pursue. The U.S. market for hair products and services grew from $9.7 billion in 2002 to $10.5 billion last year, according to UK-based market research firm Euromonitor International. As a man who’ll cop to using gel and spending too much for haircuts, I was still surprised to see that U.S. men spent 50 percent more in hair salons in 2007 ($967.7 million) than in 2002 ($646.8 million). Of course, Living Proof would have to compete for these riches with consumer products heavyweights such as Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal.

For Polaris and its fellow VC outfits, the vanity of consumers is a popular bet. Our own king of hair puns, Xconomy CEO Robert Buderi, recently chronicled the prodigious fundraising at Boston startup Follica, which proposes to alter the fate of adult cells to grow new hair or eliminate unwanted hair. And if I had a dollar for every venture-backed medical devices startup with a new system for sculpting or removing fat…

Now for Langer and Polaris it seems that salons and cosmetics aisles are the new frontiers.

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3 responses to “Polaris and MIT’s Langer Meet L’Oreal. Don’t Believe It? There’s “Living Proof””

  1. Mrs. Bernard says:

    Where ca I purchase Living Proof frizz tamer?

  2. Mrs. Bernard says:

    Where can I purchase Living Proof frizz tamer?

  3. Kayle says:

    Wow, no i didn’t believe it until i read the article. I hadn’t heard of this yet either and this is an older article.