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Fashion Force

Scientists in the salon

How a small Kendall Square start-up got the attention — and endorsement — of Hollywood’s best head of hair.

The company’s Kendall Square headquarters, which Aniston visited in November, is a short walk from MIT.

Photo by Jorg Carstensen/AP; Photo by Noel Federizo; Photo from Living Proof

The company’s Kendall Square headquarters, which Aniston visited in November, is a short walk from MIT.

The outside of the Kendall Square headquarters.

JON FLINT IS OUTNUMBERED at home. He has four daughters and a wife and, until recently, the family’s gender asymmetry was most evident in their bathrooms, where hair balms and sprays and serums and creams littered every surface.

Now the clutter is all gone — thanks to Living Proof, the hair care company Flint, a venture capitalist, started in 2004 with two MIT chemical engineers, two hair stylists, and an MIT-trained partner in his Waltham-based firm, Polaris Partners. This wasn’t an intuitive move for Flint, who has spent decades investing in biotech, medical devices, consumer products, and media. The beauty industry had never interested him before, and, more important, its reputation for being dominated by a meager number of massive companies was off-putting. But then a piece of news came his way and got him thinking: Bumble and Bumble had sold to Estee Lauder, it was reported, for upwards of $100 million dollars. “That was interesting,” Flint remembers wryly.

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The team at Polaris started doing research. They bought dozens of beauty products, lined them all up on a table, and read the labels closely. The ingredients, it turned out, were almost exactly the same. “It’s not for nothing that the beauty industry is referred to as ‘hope in a bottle,’ ” Flint says. “For the most part, it’s just a meaningless mathematical difference from product to product.”

And so Flint, along with Bob Langer, an MIT institute professor — he’s known as a pioneer in tissue engineering and for designing new ways to deliver drugs through the skin without needles — assembled a team of cancer biologists, chemical engineers, polymer scientists, organic chemists, materials scientists, and pharmacologists to begin work developing a hair-care line that wasn’t like all the rest.

Once the lab work was well underway, all that was needed was a Hollywood stamp of approval. And Flint and Living Proof’s CEO, Jill Beraud, and vice president of marketing were thinking big. They reached out to Jennifer Aniston, possessor of what is perhaps the most famous hair on the planet, who early on was “fascinated by the scientific approach” Living Proof was taking, she writes in an e-mail. She was shooting We’re the Millers in North Carolina, and thought the humid weather would make for ideal test conditions for the “No Frizz” line. Living Proof sent samples.

“For years and years I’ve been asked to endorse hair products and I’ve always said ‘no, no, no,’ ” Aniston writes. She worried that “people would ask, ‘Is this just another celebrity endorsement?’” and not trust her, but upon actually using the products, Aniston’s incredulity was converted into fervent enthusiasm. She’s now a part owner of and spokeswoman for the company.

Magnified “before” (top) and “after” photographs show the hair of a consumer who used Restore products at home five times over a two-week period. The company says the active molecules protect hair and reduce humidity-induced frizz.

Inside Living Proof headquarters, the scene is more laboratory than it is salon: Rather than rely on industry-standard ingredients — heavy silicones, greasy oils — scientists invent, synthesize, analyze, and have patented new molecules, including octafluoropentyl methacrylate, which shields hair from humidity, reducing frizz, and also repels dirt. Then there’s poly-beta amino ester-1 (PBAE-1), which, according to the company, “creates a microscopic pattern of thickening dots on every hair strand,” creating friction that makes thin hair look and behave “like textured, full, thick hair.” That idea came out of MIT, where PBAEs were created and used by Langer and others originally as materials for medical devices, explains professor Dan Anderson. “When we founded Living Proof we realized some of the same science and materials could have utility in cosmetics.”

The company devotes a significantly higher percentage of its expenses to research and development than the large, global beauty companies it’s competing with, says Flint. Another difference? Living Proof’s scientists, who have spent their careers in biotech or performing medical research, joined the team with no preconceived notions about what could and couldn’t work in beauty products, he says.

“The beauty industry is such a emotionally charged category,” says Beraud, whose own resume includes years spent at PepsiCo (she was global chief marketing officer) and Victoria’s Secret. “Women feel passionate about their products. I’ve worked on some of the biggest, most iconic brands in the world, ones that people really love. But when I read the testimonials about how Living Proof products actually changed women’s lives, well, I’d never seen anything like that before.”

Alice Gregory is a reporter in Brooklyn. E-mail comments to magazine@globe.com.

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