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Master Class: Clarisonic’s Robb Akridge

The microbiologist by training cofounded Clarisonic, and in so doing helped to pave the way to one of beauty’s most promising frontiers: devices.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 10/12/2012

Robb Akridge, PhD, is not your typical scientist. Yes, he can rattle off lists of multisyllabic bacteria and skin conditions without pause, or suddenly launch into the merits of sonic technology, particularly as they relate to the Clarisonic skin tool, which he created. But Dr. Robb, as he is affectionately known, is as comfortable on TV extolling the merits of Clarisonic as he is in a lab coat. His affable demeanor and prowess at making scientific processes relatable catapulted him into the unexpected role of brand front man. And it suits him: During a recent appearance on QVC, Dr. Robb set a personal record by generating $87,000 a minute in sales. Since Clarisonic’s introduction in 2004, the skin-care tool has amassed a cult following and sold roughly three million devices. In 2011, it attracted the attention of L’Oréal USA, which purchased Clarisonic’s owner, Pacific Bioscience Laboratories.

What’s your assessment of the beauty industry?

It’s fast moving, dynamic and very fluid. And it’s always looking for the next best thing. Currently, a lot of that is coming out of doctors’ offices and spas and then transitioning over to the cosmetics world. The main issue with that is when you go to a doctor’s office and get a 10-percent Trichloroacetic acid peel…if you want to sell that at Bergdorf Goodman, you can’t offer big bottles of acid and say, “Here, brush this on your face.” You have to soften the approach, but to a level where consumers see some benefit. But it’s not exactly what you get at a doctor’s office.

What do you think the industry needs to pay attention to most in the year ahead?

Let’s look even further out to the next five years. Baby Boomers are really maturing. They all are looking for the thing that will help keep them looking good. Another key area is young people. They are concerned about—almost obsessed with—fine lines and wrinkles and their appearance. A lot of people purchase products for problems that they already have. It’s difficult to convince someone to buy a product to prevent something from happening, especially if you are 20 years old and don’t have a line on your face. There has to be another marketing angle: Maintain the appearance of the skin. Clarisonic makes your skin more in balance. That’s the key. As soon as you get your skin out of balance, problems occur. You need to create products that aren’t going to throw your skin out of balance, but keep it in balance.

How and what made you want to get into beauty?
My background is infectious disease immunology. I was working on the AIDS virus for about eight years, including for four years at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. I was looking to set up my own lab and saw a tiny classified ad looking for a scientist with a background in inflammation. It was for Sonicare toothbrush… The primary inventor of Sonicare, David Giuliani, sold that company to Phillips to start [Pacific Bioscience Laboratories]. We didn’t know what market we were going to go into. We looked at market trends and saw that skin care was going to continue to grow for many years. Then we went down the road of LEDs, looking to kill bacteria that causes acne. This was before any LEDs were on the market. Then we looked at sonic technology for acne. We discovered something that could actually cleanse the skin better than you could by hand. It keeps your skin in balance and is very gentle to use. That’s how we got started. My background has come in handy because the skin is an amazing organ. When I took immunology, skin was defined as the first barrier to any invasion. Now, many years later, it’s considered a very dynamic organ that is constantly monitoring the outside environment. It can tell you whether you should accept something on your skin or reject it. It actually has memory. If you apply something bad on your skin it immediately lets you know by swelling up or getting itchy. Most people don’t realize that there is a bio film all over the exterior of your skin. That film of bacteria needs to be in balance.

What surprised you most about the beauty business?
In general, there is so little scientific proof that [beauty] products work. Clarisonic is a cosmetic device. We do not profess to be a medical device. But when we invented it, we treated it as if it was a medical device. All of our studies were Institutional Review Board–approved. We created the Clarisonic using the same safety and efficacy studies that we would for a drug. We know that it really works.

What were the key lessons from Sonicare that you used when creating Clarisonic?

We knew the pitfalls and it allowed us to shorten the development time to create a great device. In 2000, we were a virtual company. In 2002, we decided let’s get real and create a company and by 2004 we launched Clarisonic. The other learning from Sonicare is that the professional business is key. We received validation of our technology from doctors, cosmetic surgeons and dermatologists and aestheticians. They said the technology really works and it gives better results than they can achieve with their own hands. We shared that with the retail world and said, “Look—all these doctors are using it. Therefore, you should too.”

I once heard a retailer, who praised the selling power of Clarisonic, refer to it as a $100 wash cloth. How did you convince industry players and consumers that Clarisonic was a viable skin-care tool?
It’s actually a $200 washcloth. It was Michael George, [president and ceo] at QVC. I saw him at a cocktail party. I think I’ve sold over $100 million on QVC over the last four years. So, I said, “Not bad for a little washcloth.” He started cracking up. What convinced retailers to carry it was their customers wanted it. By the end of 2006, we were growing pretty well in the professional market and at retail. But, we have to give credit where credit is due, and that’s to Oprah. In October 2007, she held it in front of the TV camera and said, “You have got to buy this thing.” Within eight hours you couldn’t find one. We were sold out. We couldn’t get enough stock to go back on QVC until February [2008]. When I went on air, I sold out in four minutes. A couple weeks later I sold out in six minutes. It was crazy.

L’Oréal’s Carol Hamilton said her ultimate goal is to put one of the devices in “every woman’s hand.” How close are you, and how will you get there?
It’s a good goal. We are nowhere near there and that means opportunity. We’ve sold a total of about three million Clarisonics. If you start breaking down the different segments of opportunity, we’ve got so much territory in the U.S. to cover. Now, as part of L’Oréal, we are going after the world. No one has heard of sonic technology in other parts of the world. Prior to the acquisition, we were in the U.K., Japan and several other countries, but in a small way.

How can you apply the technology to more segments and create a larger portfolio of products?
We’ve concentrated on two areas: Sonic cleansing and sonic infusion with Opal, which uses a different frequency to infuse and hydrate your skin. You could divide sonic cleansing into different categories, like hair care, hair color and color [cosmetics]. We’ve been charged with being not only the Clarisonic manufacturer, but in the research and innovation world we are the device manufacturer for all L’Oréal brands and will be creating really cool things for different L’Oréal brands over the years.

What consumer segments interest you the most, and how do you hope to tap into them?

I like all of them, actually. Clarisonic is unique in that we can be broken down into different channels. In the professional world, the segment of people who like to be pampered is great. In retail, the high-end retailers are a great world for antiaging, cleansing and color. In Sephora, we can reach a younger crowd. It depends what segment you are talking about. It could be the gender groups, or by medical condition. Or the parts of the body, such as the face, the feet, the back, the head and the scalp. We have all these different areas that we can go after. The main goal is to create products that really work. People have to feel like they don’t want to give the product back when they are given a prototype.

What current scientific breakthroughs are most compelling for the beauty industry and why?
I am biased, but I’d say sonic technology. Clarisonic is designed to show a difference after one use. It’s instantaneous and that’s what you need to survive in the device world. Retailers are creating huge areas for devices, but a lot of them—if you read the fine print in their manuals—say they take six to 12 weeks before you see results. That’s just too long.

How would you describe your management style, and how has it evolved?
Prior to the acquisition, I was trying to do everything myself. Now, I have to depend on others, and I’m fortunate that I have this great team that knows the L’Oréal system. I’m more team orientated in style. We are all in it together.

Do you believe in mentors?
You’re never too old to have a mentor. There is always somebody in some area who knows more than you do. I think of Carol Hamilton as my mentor. She’s been in this business a heck of a lot longer than I have and she knows how to thrive. She’s very focused, but she makes it comfortable for you to talk to her. There are always issues that show up in any business and she’s very accepting of that. She’s got incredible insight and intuition.

What do you do to relax?

I love plants and I have 31 acres of forest with a salmon stream down the middle of it on the other side of the Puget Sound. I’m helping with salmon stream restoration on the property and creating an area that’s diversified. This property has been logged three times. The trees there now are about 25 years old and we are diversifying them, putting different species in. I’ve been doing it for eight years. I also have black bears on my property. In the salmon world, it’s never cool to be the first one at the party because as soon as you swim upstream you’re toast. The bears will get you.

In Brief

Robb Akridge holds a doctorate in microbiology with an emphasis in infectious disease and immunology from Texas A&M University. After spending eight years on AIDS research, in 1997 he became a principle scientist at Optiva Corporation, the maker of the Sonicare toothbrush. When Sonicare’s founder, David Giuliani, sold the business to Philips Oral Healthcare in 2000, he, Akridge and the rest of the team began plotting their next invention. In 2002, the idea for Clarisonic was born; it launched two years later. The business got a big jolt in 2007 when Oprah named Clarisonic one of her “Favorite Things.” Akridge now serves as Clarisonic’s global general manager.

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