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Japan's Kao taps AI for tailored skin care as makeup goes high-tech

Beauty titans tie up with outsiders to lure millennials

Cosmetics maker Kao shows off its new beauty products and skin care services.

TOKYO -- Established Japanese cosmetics makers like Kao are teaming up with technology companies to exploit their troves of data and offer personalized products to lure younger customers. It is a departure from their past practice of handling all product development steps in-house.

They are following French industry leader L'Oreal in partnering with the tech sector to satisfy growing demand for individualized products.

Kao is slated to bring to market next spring a skin analysis service using sebum RNA in collaboration with Tokyo-based artificial-intelligence company Preferred Networks. They seek to enhance the accuracy of analyzing sample data. The aim is to get results in seconds rather than the two days now required.

Variations in profiles and amounts of RNA synthesized in the body can show day-to-day changes in skin condition, according to Kao.

Initially, customers will use the service by visiting designated stores for RNA collection, but Kao wants to let them handle this process at home and offer skin care suggestions in the future.

"Whether a cosmetic product works for a customer will be clear at the genetic level," said Yoshihiro Hasebe, a senior managing executive officer at Kao. "We want to offer not just simple skin care, but skin care that is certain to produce results."

Kao is tapping Preferred Networks to use the vast amount of data on human skin it has collected over the years. Predicting aging patterns and skin changes may be possible by combining RNA analysis data and skin data.

Rival Kose began testing faster product development with quantum computing startup MDR earlier this year. Cosmetics products typically take years to develop, using novel ways of mixing ingredients. Kose is turning to quantum computing, which promises to process information far faster than conventional methods, to try to find the best balance of ingredients sooner.

Specifically, Kose is focusing on data for "designing" cosmetics -- such as the timing of mixing ingredients. If testing gets on track, this could give rise to new products that could not be designed without detailed data and computing. This development method is expected to be deployed at new production facilities slated to come onstream as early as 2021.

Cosmetics companies make highly specialized products, so their only tie-up partners until now have generally been industry insiders like ingredient suppliers. They are now changing course and are reaching out for fear of losing younger consumers.

"To meet diversifying demand, using in-house technologies and ideas alone is no longer enough," said Kao President and CEO Michitaka Sawada.

There are a growing number of direct-to-consumer players in the U.S. that are winning young women's business with personalized products. Having precise skin analyses and calculated ingredient formulations has become essential to compete with these emerging disruptive brands.

After forging a nontraditional tie-up with appliance giant Panasonic, Kao on Dec. 4 released a hand-held device that sprays films of fiber that form an ultrathin membrane on the surface of the skin. This leaves the skin more moisturized than facial masks now available, the company says.

Kao took the unusual step of soliciting a commercialization partner in 2018, acknowledging a lack of know-how for developing and mass-producing a palm-sized device in-house.

"With this collaboration, we want to create a new category of beauty appliances," said Masahiro Shinada, managing executive officer in charge of the consumer business at Panasonic. The tie-up is also attractive for Panasonic, as cosmetics companies have strong connections with consumers.

L'Oreal has been leading the industry's collaboration trend. The French company acquired Canadian startup ModiFace in 2018 and has launched an AI-powered service to instantly assess skin aging with users' selfies. It looks at seven signs of aging, such as under-eye wrinkles, dark spots and pores. L'Oreal is also working with to let shoppers try on makeup items virtually via augmented reality.

L'Oreal is going digital as it seeks to become less dependent on sales from physical stores. Conventionally, consumers have bought makeup items in shops. But a growing number of people want to purchase them online, according to Chief Digital Officer Lubomira Rochet. Online shopping is responsible for driving half of the company's sales growth, she said.

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