The Scalp Microbiome Isn’t A Well-Studied Area. K18 And HelloBiome Are Partnering To Change That.
K18 and HelloBiome have struck a multiyear partnership to unlock secrets of the scalp microbiome with the goal of creating scalp and haircare products and services effective for it.
The partnership demonstrates that interest in the skin microbiome, a blanket of bacteria, fungi, viruses, archaea and mites covering people’s largest organ, is extending beyond the face and body during a period of significant growth in the scalp and haircare category. It also demonstrates how important science is to beauty brands today as they aim to erect moats around themselves in a competitive market.
“We have a lot of conversations about scalp health, but very little research has been done into the microbiome habitat of the scalp, which is a first line of defense against pathogens. This is not just critical to the scalp, but to the health of an individual overall,” says Suveen Sahib, co-founder and CEO of K18. “We really want to take a deep dive into understanding this habitat and how it impacts our scalp and health in general.”
He continues, “The future of beauty lies in understanding biology. The more comprehensive and granularly we understand biology, the better the outcomes we will be able to create. It starts with insights. Those will lead us to build proprietary technologies. This is not just about creating microbiome-certified products. This is about actually understanding how this critical ecosystem works with the biology and gets impacted by everything we do, so we can figure out long-term solutions that address fundamental hair and scalp needs.”
Elsa Jungman, CEO and founder of HelloBiome, says, “I think it’s going to be mind-blowing what we can discover from data collection on both professional and nonprofessional routines. There’s been no data about this that has been published. Understanding the impact of treatments on our scalp health is going to be crucial to developing the next generation of innovation. To date, everything has been done without taking into account the scalp microbiome.”
“This is not just about creating microbiome-certified products. This is about actually understanding how this critical ecosystem works with the biology and gets impacted by everything we do.”
HelloBiome’s relationship with K18 started last year, when the companies began drawing up a plan for studying the scalp microbiome. How often harsh salon treatments affect the scalp microbiome will be a prominent element of the research HelloBiome conducts in partnership with K18. Currently, the professional salon channel contributes in excess of 60% of K18’s sales, and the brand sells products such as Professional Molecular Hair Mist and Peptide Prep Pro Chelating Hair Complex specifically to salons. In retail, K18 is at Sephora.
Sahib expects the brand to possibly have products informed by HelloBiome’s scalp microbiome research released in the next 12 to 24 months, but he’s in no rush. “Our focus is not on incremental products, but on breakthrough products. Our approach is about, what’s a product that will best serve a need?” he says. “It can take 12 months, 36 months, 48 months. We are defined not just by the product, but by the outcome we seek.”
The focus on breakthrough products has been winning strategy for K18. Last year, the brand told the publication Women’s Wear Daily it was projected to hit $100 million in 2022 sales. This year, WWD cited industry sources in a projection that K18 would hit $100 million in sales from its newest standout product, Molecular Repair Hair Oil, alone. It was another breakthrough product, Leave-In Molecular Repair Hair Mask, that initially catapulted K18 upon its 2020 launch. Now, along with the oil and mask, it has Peptide Prep Detox Shampoo and Peptide Prep pH Maintenance Shampoo in its assortment.
K18 has roughly doubled its research and development budget of late, according to Sahib, and the hair follicle ecosystem has been at the center of its R&D. “The reason why the partnership with HelloBiome is unique is because we come with complementary R&D skills. Elsa comes from an understanding of the microbiome and data science. K18 has significant R&D investments in hair follicle ecosystem research,” says Sahib. “For us, it’s about, how do we together understand the deeper role of the microbiome in the hair cycle?”
“Even small brands with limited budgets want to find a way to collect insights to develop the right products for their communities.”
He adds that science is “extremely vital” in the advancement of beauty industry. He says, “If you look at beauty as an industry, it’s largely been driven by cosmetic chemistry, which is amazing, but cosmetic chemistry doesn’t understand biology. We have to understand biology to work with biology. When it comes to K18, the investments we made in biology five to seven years back has driven our push to understand biology more and more. The beauty industry has to pivot from working with cosmetic chemistry to working with biology to create better outcomes for their communities.”
Jungman is detecting that brands, especially indie brands, are shifting at least a portion of investment they’ve historically made in marketing to scientific research. Speaking of marketing, she says, “People have gotten a bit tired of it because it’s not a sustainable solution. Once people like your product, what’s next? Deciding to invest a bit more upfront in really understanding what you are bringing to market provides sustainable growth over time. You are building something way more meaningful.”
Jungman, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from University of Paris–Sud, formerly worked for K18 to propel its technology and was head of skin delivery evaluation at L’Oréal. She introduced HelloBiome in 2022 as an AI-powered microbiome assessment and data platform. It stemmed from Dr. Elsa Jungman, a skincare brand she started as as ELSI Beauty in 2018, and an at-home skin microbiome test it developed.
HelloBiome has multiple B2B revenue streams. It offers a white-label version of its at-home skin microbiome test to brands. Similar to what it’s doing with K18, it can collect data intended to fuel product development and intellectual property. HelloBiome’s research expands across the scalp, face, body and vulva microbiome. Lastly, it substantiates claims by, for example, testing a product’s effects on the microbiome before and after usage. That part of business can be tapped by smaller brands with limited budgets. HelloBiome has about a dozen big established and smaller emerging brands on its client roster.
“Even small brands with limited budgets want to find a way to collect insights to develop the right products for their communities,” says Jungman. “With HelloBiome, we have decentralized research, and everything is processed automically to help you receive your data. Even small companies with small budgets can collect data nad insights about their products and regiments to understand particular profiles, their claims and innovation.”