The Head of L’Oréal’s Tech Incubator Talks Innovation Strategy

There’s a hard truth about being the face of innovation for the world’s largest beauty company.

It’s not the rigorous travel schedule packed with digital culture and tech shows, such as this week’s CES, to represent L’Oréal. Managing that while directing development to pioneer new forms of hardware and software can make for a mother lode of multitasking, but breaking new ground is also exciting. Good thing, too, because whatever inspiration is left needs to fuel new concepts and creative solutions, ensuring a steady stream of ideas worthy of the company’s high-profile pipeline for inventive products.

More from WWD

Each part looks challenging, but altogether, it makes for an intensely intimidating to-do list. That’s one reason why tech chief executive officers, especially at startups, often sport messy hair, kicks and a hoodie. They’re too tired or stressed to put on anything else.

And so at CES in Las Vegas, when WWD caught up with Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oréal’s tech incubator and the executive who owns that ridiculous list of responsibilities, he looked inexplicably fresh. The huge layout and constant energy of CES exhausts most people almost immediately, but not a dark circle or under-eye bag was evident on the vice president, inviting a suspicion that L’Oréal must reserve some top-notch secret serums for its own ranks.

He flashed an easy smile and terrific hair. It was understandable given who he works for — a multinational beauty empire with $34 billion in sales from its portfolio of brands, products and services across hair care, cosmetics, skin care and more. But during the conversation, another explanation for his verve and energy became obvious.

This is the vibe of someone who’s genuinely excited about his work and his vision of how tech and beauty should fit together. To benefit consumers, he wants to solve concrete problems for them. It amounts to what he calls “assistive beauty,” and this view informs the way the incubator develops beauty tech.

“The more I do this job, the more I realize that we have to start with what people need and desire and then backfill it with technology,” Balooch explained. “Unfortunately when you do that, you need to have multiple sets of technology to make something happen — both physical and digital.”

But he believes the extra complexity is worthwhile if it delivers truly assistive beauty.

The principle drove development for L’Oréal’s two new devices: the new Hapta lipstick applicator, which was designed for consumers with limited motor capabilities, and Brow Magic, a system that uses intelligence, augmented reality and a hardware device that can create and print the perfect brow shape for the consumer.

In a broader conversation, Balooch shared more about these products, his tech strategy and his favorite innovation from his 16-plus-year career at L’Oréal.

WWD: You’ve created a lot of beauty hardware devices. Tell me more about your approach to developing that, and its interplay with the software. What is that dynamic when you have numerous technologies in a system like Brow Magic?

Guive Balooch: Well, if I want to shape my brow, I need this device that has all the sensors and all that. But I need to be able to analyze the shape of my face to know what brow shape works for it. Then to virtually try it on before I actually [apply] it, I need augmented reality for that and artificial intelligence, micro inkjet printing and sensors that can find the hair.

The more I realize that, when we start with what we want to achieve and then backfill it with technology, it’s usually not a tech-driven trend — and it’s not as easy, to be honest. Because you have to make them all work together in symbiosis. With Brow Magic, you have ink, which has to be cosmetic grade, AR that has to show you everything on the face, AI that gives you the recommendation and [the device] design and hardware that have to look beautiful, so people think they have a beauty product and not a tech product. All of them have to work together and, in the end, it also has to be easy, fast and simple for consumers.

Everything has to be hidden, because nobody cares about what technology is inside. They care about how fast and easy it works. So we have to simplify and not over-engineer anything. For us, that has always been the challenge that we are trying to solve.

Brow Magic
Brow Magic

WWD: It’s a lot of moving parts. Let’s start with one slice of that — the physical hardware. Can you walk me through your device strategy?

G.B.: In my opinion, there are two avenues that needs to entail. The first is, how will devices help us transform our skin or take hair to new heights? It’s the formula plus device, and that combination allows for new levels of performance. We’re about to launch a dual LED therapy with Lancôme [Absolue Dual-LED Youth Treatment, which was unveiled at VivaTech 2022], and the combination of formula, a ball that rolls and two LEDs lead to something you could never get with just the formula alone.

There’s a lot of noise in beauty devices today, and for me, what matters is that you have the right test and they actually work. That’s the big challenge with all of these new devices. So that’s the first thing.

The second is that things like Brow Magic and Hapta are rooted in a new type of beauty. We call it “assistive beauty,” and I believe strongly in that vision. I hope that such projects will bring our industry to a new level, where our fingers and hands will no longer be the barrier to achieving our desired results. Our skill level won’t be the barrier. And whether I have great or unsatisfying results won’t depend on how skilled I am with a pencil, or how much I know about beauty and makeup.

That barrier should be broken with technology. Everybody should be able to get what they want, and I think that’s where the technology and device world can really add value to beauty.


WWD: It’s distinct from tech companies, which all-too-often pump out solutions in search of a problem. You avoid that trap by starting with the dilemma, then weighing how tech can solve it. Was that intentional, or did it come about organically? Because it resembles the problem-led approach to research and development that beauty, as a science-based business, might use in the lab. Extending it to other areas would make sense.

It could also explain how you ended up with two very different gadgets, because they share a common theme: Hapta, the lipstick tool for customers with motor skill issues, and Brow Magic, a system that promises goof-proof, personalized brows for people who need help shaping their own — which is practically everyone else. They both aim to solve challenging makeup applications.

G.B.: That’s exactly right. So let’s look at the two populations.

One in 10 people in the United States today has a motor skill impairment. That’s 42 million people. That’s not an enormous population, but the key point is that there’s a problem to solve. There are people in the world who cannot experience the entire beauty industry. They have money and spending power, and they want the experience that everyone else has. They need to be included in our industry.

Then on the brow — this part is incredible — nine out of 10 women are not happy with the way that they shape their brow at home today. It requires skill, and stencil work is very difficult. You’re drawing, which is not simple to do. If you don’t have the skill that others do, it creates frustration.

It’s exactly like the Colorsonic project of last year. Coloring hair at home is difficult and messy. You start with that, then you try to solve the problem. It’s much harder to do technically, because you have to find a lot of tech assets, but much better for the result of the product and the people. [Fortunately] I now have 16 years in the industry, so I have enough tech assets that I can put these things together. I know that’s the way we will achieve things that help people.…It’s great that our industry is moving more toward technology, but we have to remember that our industry is successful because we understand what people want.

WWD: L’Oréal and you, in particular, have talked before about drawing from other areas of technology — like inkjet printers — and applying it to beauty, like with skin care and hair color, and now brows. Where else can you envision this inkjet tech popping up?

G.B.: After many years of trial and error, I find that the brow is the best thing for inkjet. It should be a way that we can do what tattoos do for us, [whether for] permanent or semipermanent, but not for daily use. When you really think about it, there are a few parts of beauty that have that kind of experience. One is the eyebrow, which is by far the most. The second is the lip liner, though a high level of precision is needed. The rest, in terms of inkjet printing, becomes complicated.

Again, you start with what consumers need, but then you have to make sure you have the technology to get it. If not then there’s no point to it. So I believe it’s the brow, and it’s such a big need anyway. Then after, there’s potential in using them to personalize things — but not directly on the face. [Makeup] palettes and things like that. But I won’t approach that until I feel like it’s something that’s easy to do.

WWD: L’Oréal has made great use of printer tech, but of course, it’s not the only one. I remember the launch of Procter & Gamble’s Opté Precision device in 2019. It claimed to erase blemishes or, really, cover them up by printing a tiny amount of makeup onto the skin. Are there any particular tech innovations you’re eyeing next?

G.B.: About P&G, I think they did a very interesting job on the Opté device, and I was very inspired by it. It was great work that they did on their team.

[As for the tech], you have the inkjet, and then you have this idea of making something very simple. But then there’s something else, and this is the one thing about Brow Magic I was convinced about. There are different consumer needs for makeup — for example, I want to cover my spot. How do I do that today? I can take a concealer and just cover it, right? I can do it with my hand very simply and very fast. But the brow is stencil work, very skill-oriented. So we look at the amount of skill needed to do something, and that’s why precision applicators have to be used, in my opinion, for the tensions that consumers have on the most complicated beauty skill levels.

But to answer your question about new technologies, yes. There’s the micro inkjet that we have to do. There are more miniaturized robotics, like what we’re creating with Hapta. It’s the first step for people with limited motor skills, but imagine doing really, really precise work one day. I think that that is going to come with “detect and apply.” I’ll give you an example: Maybe in the future, I could color one strand of hair. It sounds crazy, because I have 100,000 hair fibers in my head. But maybe I could have a device that can find that hair and only color that one set of hair that I want. The precision will come in the combination of physical and digital — and the way it applies that could be dispensing. It could be mixing. It could be inkjet. It could be all that, but enabled and powered by software that allows precision detection. I think the two together [of software and hardware] create the magic. The key is waiting until the cost is right, and it’s effective and fast. But I think we’re probably going to see a lot of potential for that in beauty in the next five years. We’ll see how fast it comes.

WWD: Something to look forward to then. But for now, let’s wrap this up with a quick jaunt down memory lane. You’ve created so many different gadgets, apps and even mechanical machines across beauty. Which one is your favorite?

B.G.: Oh my god, it’s like asking me for my favorite child.

WWD: I know, but surely one must have stood out, no?

B.G.: You know what? I will never forget Makeup Genius [a virtual try-on app launched in 2014 that offered digital makeovers in stores using a live selfie view. At the time, other options typically used static photos].

It was my most favorite innovation ever in my beauty career, because it was when there was no tech in beauty. AR was not applied in real time at all in the industry. But it solved a real need, which is that people didn’t want to physically try on products, [feeling that] they had to buy it. Now, what makes me proud is that it penetrated the market — not just for L’Oréal, but pretty much every makeup brand today has some level of virtual try-on. That started from our work. I’ve had lots of challenges in my career, but that was something we’re really proud of, not just because of the impact it made for our consumers, but for the industry in general. That’s one I’ll never forget. Maybe it’s the combination of timing, the magic of how it worked and the fact that it actually scaled that makes me really proud of the tech.

But the rest…I mean, I have to say that, like, with My Skin Track UV helping people with melanoma, and others, all of those have special places in my heart. Especially this new Hapta device. To me, it is really about beauty for all, creating beauty that moves the world, but also have emotional attachments too.

Makeup Genius has all of those things for me.

Click here to read the full article.