The perfect complexion product for you is only a few scans away.

That’s the promise of MatchCo, a beauty start-up founded by Andy Howell and Dave Gross. The alumni of custom T-shirt company Zazzle have also worked on customization projects for the likes of Nike, Reebok, Timberland and Levi’s, harnessing the power of the iPhone to analyze and capture skin tones in order to formulate makeup specifically for customers’ colorations. MatchCo launches this month with an app and appointment-only Santa Monica store selling a single item – $49 Custom Tinted Hydrating Formula – but envisions delivering personalized products across the beauty spectrum tailored to preferences and skin care concerns.

About four years ago, Howell and Gross set out to apply their customization expertise to a new field and discovered it could address a persistent issue in the beauty industry: disappointment with foundation shades. “Matching color, especially in foundation, has been an age-old problem women have had,” said Howell, adding, “Being outsiders, we could come in with technology we knew would be really disruptive, and we wanted to find that key problem that was the most blaringly apparent. We loved the beauty industry, and the fact that it had been producing and marketing in the same way for so long.”

Well, perhaps not exactly the same way. Brands and retailers have expanded foundation assortments and experimented with technologies in attempts to direct customers to appropriate shades. Persuaded by survey results showing 94 percent of women wore wrong foundations, Estée Lauder introduced iMatch to measure skin intensity and undertone, and suggest shades stemming from those measurements. Sephora developed ColorIQ with Pantone to categorize customers into 110 skin tones and recommend products based on those tones. Purchased by L’Oréal last year, Sayuki Custom Cosmetics scans customers’ skin to assess tone and mixes customized complexion products at retail. Sayuki’s Facebook page indicates the brand is heading to department stores, but, unlike MatchCo, it hasn’t broken out of brick-and-mortar, at least not yet.

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“Sayuki is one step beyond that [ColorIQ] and, then, we’re 10 steps beyond Sayuki,” said Howell. He elaborated, “We really want to shift the paradigm of how women shop. Instead of her going in [to a store], looking at a wide range and trying to condense that down to something she can manage, we want to reverse that and make a really luxurious experience where she feels pampered and taken care of. We knew we could use technology to bring that experience to a level that was affordable, quick and, via mobile, very scalable….In our minds, it harkens back to the bespoke model of fashion where you are not choosing something because that’s mass produced that thousands of other people are getting. You’re getting something made just for you.”

The trick to giving women customization color-matching tools in their purses or pockets was transforming the iPhone into an accurate reader of skin tones. To do so, MatchCo, which has offices in Santa Monica and Palo Alto, hired Young Harvill, another veteran of Zazzle, as its chief technology officer. Harvill’s career is uniquely situated at the intersection of digitization and art. Recipient of a master’s degree in fine arts from Stanford University, he helped produce early virtual reality systems at VPL Research, co-invented virtual reality device Data Glove and conceived of Swivel, a three-dimensional modeling program for the desktop. “He had the artistic background, but also the math and science background to make this happen,” says Gross.

Over the course of one to two minutes as a customer taps her iPhone on white paper, wrists, cheeks and forehead, Gross explained MatchCo guides the iPhone video camera to collect hundreds of images of the customer’s skin. “We had to figure out how to equalize the lighting to get a true baseline of color,” said Howell. “Sephora’s ColorIQ uses what’s called a colorimeter, which takes as little as one pixel of measurement on the skin each time. Our product uses the camera’s entire image sensor to analyze thousands of pixels at a time, identifies all the outliers of color – for instance, hair or freckles or blemishes on the face – and then finds a median of the variations in her skin tone.”

After a customer’s skin is scanned and she places an order for MatchCo’s Custom Tinted Hydrating Formula, the company will manufacture the product in under 10 minutes inside its Santa Monica location, etch her name on the bottle and ship it to her rapidly (it’s aiming for turnaround time of 24 hours). MatchCo describes its initial product as a blend of primer, moisturizer and color coverage, and Howell and Gross underscored it appeals to a wide variety of complexion customers. Head of marketing Alisa Gould-Simon said, “It’s an all-in-one that takes care of anything you would want to get out the door and feel you have coverage. The whole point of this product is to take out the time, stress and money that’s spent on finding that perfect match that women want as a base for their makeup.”

The same product, though, may not be suitable for every day of the year. Women’s skin colors shift seasonally. In fact, MatchCo estimates sun exposure causes skin tones to change as much as 30 percent throughout year and, employing weather data, the company can propose to customers when might be optimal moments during the year to get rescanned to modify their tinted formulas. In addition, the company plans to allow consumers to dial up or dial down different product elements, including sun protection and acne control. Extensions into hair, lip and eye color are on the docket, too, as is a cappuccino maker-sized MatchCo machine that can sit at retail.

MatchCo declined to forecast first-year sales. However, it already has high-profile believers in its potential. Jami Morse Heidegger, founder of skin care brand Retrouvé and former owner of Kiehl’s Since 1851, is an investor in MatchCo. “It finally brings a customizable beauty experience directly to consumers and takes the fear and frustration out of shade selection. Its ability to create complexion products that suit the individual needs of all skin types and skin tones is groundbreaking,” she said. “In an age where instant answers seem to be paramount, the need for this technology will likely grow even more prominent.”

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