You can already find  artificial intelligence inside your Facebook account, your Siri app, and even your Netflix recommendations. Soon you may find A.I. in an unlikely place: your shampoo bottle.

Launched in early December, New York City-based beauty startup Prose developed a software that analyzes 85 customer data points to automatically formulate a line of hyper-personalized professional hair care products.

This isn't just shampoo designed for a few standard variables, such as curly, straight, or dyed locks. Stylists at 16 partner salons in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles help customers analyze their hair via the Prose app. Prose then promises to generate a unique formula for customers that takes into account individual factors such as lifestyle and environment. So, for instance, if you live in an area with a ton of smog, want all-natural ingredients, and happen to be a vegan with dyed hair, your products are designed for those specific conditions.

You can't get that level of customization on the drugstore shelf--and the company is betting that consumers are ready and willing to shell out $28 to $58 for the privilege.

Automating personalization

About a year ago, Arnaud Plas, a former VP of digital and e-commerce strategy at L'Oré​al, wanted to fill what he saw as a gap in the hair care industry--how to bring the professional experience to a wide audience. Through a mutual friend, he reached out to Catherine Taurin, Prose co-founder and R&D adviser who's based in France. She was working as a chemist for a salon in Paris that provided personalized hair care services for celebrities and affluent people alike. They tossed around ideas about how to automate the hair consultation process without losing professional quality. With two additional co-founders, they decided to start Prose.

"We wanted to identify what consumers wanted to have, and for us, personalized beauty is the best experience we can offer to consumers," says co-founder Plas, at Prose partner salon Alchemy Space in New York.

The startup combines both automation and human expertise to produce its personalized shampoos, conditioners, and masks. During the in-person salon consultation process, stylists collect 85 data points that describe a client's current hair conditions, lifestyle, and environment. Prose's A.I. software then uses that data, plus 76 natural ingredients, to generate a custom formula. The company says more than 50 billion combinations are possible.

"We're not doing A.I. just for the purpose of doing A.I.," says Plas. So far, the startup says it has designed 1,000 formulas, and the more additional data points it receives will allow it to continue to refine its algorithms.

The human factor

Prose doesn't just depend on algorithms--it also needs humans to refine the process. Consumers fill out a questionnaire via an app at one of Prose's partner salons. Having a stylist there to help with the consultation is crucial, because often "people do not know the right answer, such as the dryness of their hair," says Nercy Sullivan, stylist and owner of Alchemy Space. Stylists who partner with Prose receive a 25 percent commission and don't need the products at their salon--only the app.

The fact that Prose still relies on the human touch is what Plas is betting will help the products stand out from other personalized beauty products. "Humans are bringing their knowledge and expertise, [and] machines make it scalable for automation to process the data," says Plas.

Shannon Romanowski, director of research at market research firm Mintel, suggests Prose has identified a real opportunity, as 32 percent of consumers look for products designed for their hair type. The personalized products market historically has been focused more on color cosmetics and skin care rather than hair care. The first two categories don't have a great track record for getting personalization right--makeup companies, for instance, are often criticized for maintaining a narrow idea of beauty, particularly in how they often exclude women of color. Romanowski says this is less of an issue with hair products.

Still, the beauty industry is a crowded one, and Prose, like any new brand, faces the challenge of name recognition. Growth will depend on how well the company can win over stylists and salons as much as consumers. And to do that, the products will have to deliver on their customized promises.

In the future, Plas says, Prose will work on computerized hair recognition tools to be used in salons. The startup has 10 employees, including a data science team in Paris. With the $7 million Prose has raised to date from investors including Forerunner Ventures, it plans to expand its R&D team in Paris.

 

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Published on: Jan 17, 2018