Guive Balooch, global vice president at L’Oreal, heads up the company’s technology incubator. He’s the brain behind products like a machine that creates custom foundation and skin patches and nail art that detect UV exposure–both of which were honored as Innovation by Design finalists. This year, Balooch is one of our judges, so Co.Design sat down with him to talk about what good design means and how he keeps innovating in the beauty-tech space. You can apply for the 2018 competition here.
Fast Company: What is your background and how did you end up running L’Oreal’s technology incubator?
Guive Balooch: I grew up in the Bay Area, and came up in a product development environment with the Silicon Valley boom many years ago. So I did my academic life, got a PhD in biomaterials at UC Berkeley, was at Stanford for a few years, then worked as a scientist at a pharmaceutical company. When I was working in pharma, I was interested in having a bigger connection between the product development and consumer, and I wanted to be in a more fast-paced, product design-oriented industry.
I fell upon a job that was at L’Oreal in 2007. I said, I’ll give it a try. I didn’t know anything about the beauty industry. And little by little, I assumed a number of positions within the company, from basic science to running a team around collaborations with academics, because they saw my academic background. And from that I thought maybe I should work with startups coming from universities, and that’s when our executive management team thought, maybe we should ask Guive to run a technology team. That was six years ago now.
They approached me saying, Guive, “What will be the future of beauty around technology?” They saw tech was affecting a lot of other industries and that beauty was going to somehow be affected, but they wanted–from a product development standpoint, and experience standpoint–to figure out how we could shape that and how we could create that for our industry. The technology incubator started with the idea that we’d create products and experiences around the intersection of where technology was going and find ways to adapt that to what beauty was and where it could be in the future.
FC: Tell me about Custom D.O.S.E., which L’Oreal launched at SXSW this month. How does it work, and why are you excited about it?
GB: The past four of five launches we did within our team–the most recent before DOSE being the UV nail sensor we did with Yves Béhar [which won an Innovation by Design award]–were all about this realization that data and technology today is leading to more and more people understanding their own beauty and lifestyle habits. Through tech and design we can create very customized and interactive experiences for beauty consumers.
What does that mean pragmatically? I meet people all the time saying, “I just want to know what’s right for my skin. What’s the right active ingredient (like an acid or retinoid) I should use?” If we could design a factory or lab-grade technology within a place where customers could speak to a professional, like a dermatologist, then we could create a platform to allow people to co-create their skin care, personalized just for them, within a few minutes. That was the creation of D.O.S.E. The tech itself is like a mini factory or mini lab machine. You go through some questions that dermatologists believe are important to assess the skin state, through an UI we’ve designed that makes it very simple. Then, with your dermatologist, you can choose the right actives, which are elements that you can typically only mix in a factory or lab. D.O.S.E. brings the potential to take these actives and make a customized serum that you can go home with.
The design was done with the Silicon Valley engineering firm PCH. The machine itself is very sleek but has all the elements you’d see in a large factory machine: canisters that can dispense the formulas and actives, a lab-grade mixer at the top, all designed with connectivity so everything is fully controlled within the tablet. It’s about more than personalization, it’s about beauty for you–this ability to give everyone what their skin needs through something that never could be done before without it being in a factory or laboratory.
FC: What are the most exciting innovations at the intersection of skincare, beauty, and technology right now? What do you have your eye on?
GB: Beauty is very fast-paced but an industry with a lot of opportunity. Every person has a very particular and specific way that they feel about beauty. I think that provides an enormous platform to innovate, and that’s why we’re at a very exciting inflection point where technology can provide value–like the ability to use technology to coach, to allow ability for people to virtually try products, like with the augmented reality we see today. We launched the app Makeup Genius five years ago, which was a first step into that. There’s a lot of potential around personalization and beauty for you. We see using design and tech to provide precision and empower consumers to create their own experiences and products though technology.
I think AI and machine learning are going to bring a lot of value when it comes to making sure that all the choices are brought to a point where they’re more customized for everybody. Beyond that, there are so many fields today–things like regenerative medicine, and other areas–where personalization can really benefit. I personally am really into the idea that hardware and software design can provide some excellent experiences for consumers today around the beauty industry.
FC: What do you think is good design? What does that mean to you?
GB: I believe in the idea that design can bring warmth to technology. An example is Yves Béhar’s work on Snoo, a crib that is an absolutely beautiful crib, but in the end has a lot of tech to help children fall asleep. When design is used to bring warmth to touch and change consumer behavior in a positive way, I really believe it is transcendent.
I also believe very strongly that design can fuel innovation. You can have incredible technology, but I think the best design is when it’s completely integrated seamlessly in your life. This is something I think a lot of designers talk about, but in beauty where there are so many routines and day-to-day interactions between products and consumer expectations, design can really fuel a new experience of seamlessness.
FC: Within the incubator, how do you encourage innovation? How do you incorporate some of these ideas into the work you’re doing?
GB: I think the key is understanding the fact that there are many elements around how you create a project. You need to know what you’re really good at and where you need to go outside to get the best support. I personally am very proud of the diverse team we have today. We have engineers from all kinds of backgrounds, we have UX designers, data scientists, PhDs, artists, and that fuels a lot of new ways of thinking.
We know the science of beauty very well because we’ve been doing this for so long. We know how to market products in the traditional sense around beauty. But when it comes to technology, we need to work with the right partners. I’m quite proud of partnerships we have done with people like Yves Béhar around industrial design, with people like PCH around manufacturing and engineering, and with professors like John Rodgers, like we did with UV Sense on the nails. I always go to the people who are really passionate and the best at what they do and find ways to integrate all of that into products that can bring us to the next level in beauty and technology. The only way to do that is to take a very on-the-ground approach and work with the best in class, be that internally or externally.
FC: What do you think are the biggest challenges design is facing right now?
GB: I think the challenge is how to find the right marriage between design and where the future of technology is going–how to best incorporate design and all the elements of what we create in terms of product development and new technologies, but at the right moments. It’s a good challenge to have. But we’re now seeing an important moment where people expect all experiences to be very seamless. Millennials–thank god I’m not one of them–want everything in one second and seamless and easy. These are challenges that designers are facing in a very positive way.
FC: Why is this work important? What real value do these products bring to people’s lives?
GB: The most successful projects we’ve done in beauty and tech have been the ones where we’re really listening to what consumers want as the next level of beauty. For instance, it was very complex to make Le Teint Particulier–a machine that makes foundation that’s a project we have with Lancome. It needed to be at the point of sale and there were a lot of technical challenges we had to overcome. But simplest part was that 50% of women can’t find the right shade of foundation. When you think of all the possibilities of what you could dream of from a merchandising and retail standpoint, none of them could ever meet the potential of just making, out of 8,000 potential shades, the perfect one–right there in two minutes. That is where tech and design could change the life of consumers, when the merging between the two is bringing a new level of performance by listening to what consumers really need in their life.
And take the example of UV Sense. Every time I go to the U.K., someone always tells me, we don’t need sunscreen here because we don’t get sun. That’s exactly why we developed UV Sense. There’s a lack of education and people don’t understand the exposure they get form the clouds reflecting sun. So while Le Teint Particulier is a deep consumer need, UV Sense is a call for action. We need to be able to provide platforms to listen to what our customers’ needs are, but also be proactive in understanding how we can help to make sure they live a better life in the sun–those things that will not only help their beauty but their lifestyle. The times we’ve been able to meet those demands through beauty and tech–and design has been an important element of that–is when we’ve really succeeded in making a big change in our organization and also for our consumers.
FC: What is your bigger ambition for the tech incubator and where do you see it five years from now?
GB: I really believe that our team can create a future for our consumers where every person, no matter where they are in the world or who they are, can have a platform to make the right beauty routine for them. No matter if you want to learn how to put on makeup perfectly, or if you want to have the best actives for your skin, or if you want to be able to find the perfect hair color, I want us to create platforms in the next five years where we’re creating a future where people will be able to customize for their specific needs. It’s moving from beauty for all, which is a great ambition at L’Oreal, to beauty for you. In the next five years, we can develop the entire platform for people to do that. Then we move into a world where consumers become the company and we become the technology platform to get them to have what they want as quickly as possible.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.