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Is K18 The Next Big Thing in Hair Care?

Hair investors are all hyped up after the Olaplex IPO — and some think K18's keratin-oriented technology may be the next big thing in hair.

K18 is vying to be the next big thing in hair care.

The beauty brand — full name: K-18 Biomimetic Hairscience — has fresh funding from VMG Partners, a TikTok campaign — #k18HairFlip — that has garnered more than 8.5 billion views, and is projecting more than $100 million in sales for 2022, according to the company.

K18 launched in late 2020 and was founded by Britta Cox and Suveen Sahib, who also created the Aquis hair towel. Both brands are part of the same parent company.

The editor and investment community frequently draw comparisons between K18 and Olaplex, which grew quickly and recently went public in an IPO that valued the company at more than $15 billion, but Sahib said the science behind the products is different.

“We’ve been working on it for many years, but we didn’t know if we could bring it to fruition,” said Cox.

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To develop K18, the team mapped the keratin genome, Sahib said, “to figure out which is the sequence which can actually repair the polypeptide chains in the hair.” K18 has filed patents and has an exclusive license for the keratin genome, globally, Sahib said.

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Cox and Sahib said K18 works differently than bond-building products. They likened hair’s disulfide bonds to horizontal rungs on a ladder, which can be glued back together with bond builders. K18 on the other hand, works on the legs (keratin chains) of that structure, “to actually reconnect polypeptide chains,” Sahib said.

Christine Thompson, director of color at Spoke & Weal, said that her team of colorists is now using K18’s salon treatment. “I started trying it on more severely damaged clients first … the more damaged the hair, you’re going to see more of an effect — you see it immediately and it doesn’t wash out,” Thompson said.

K18 sits within the fastest-growing category in U.S. prestige beauty: hair. From January to November 2021, prestige hair sales increased 48 percent year-over-year, to $2.1 billion. Hair care products, including shampoos and masks, were up 52 percent, to $1.5 billion, according to NPD. A recent salon survey by Jefferies suggested that K18 is among the top recommended salon treatments, following bond-building products from Olaplex, Redken Brazilian Bond Builder and WellaPlex.

K18 launched during the pandemic with more than 25,000 salons when many of them were closed, Sahib said. The strategy is similar to Olaplex, which debuted at salons and found success via professional recommendation long before launching a retail line. Clients were often sent home with a trial size of K18’s Leave-In Molecular Repair Hair Mask (full size, $75), which it also sells online. In December, K18 launched in Sephora.

Also in December, K18 launched the #K18HairFlip challenge, complete with a signature song, on TikTok. The resulting videos show people flipping their hair after using K18, and have generated more than 8.5 billion views.

For 2021, K18 generated $75 million in retail sales, according to the company, and Sahib projected the brand will grow 50 to 100 percent this year, landing it at between $112 and $150 million in sales. For comparison, Olaplex generated about $270 million in net sales for the first six months of 2021, before its IPO.

“This thing has scaled dramatically, really on the back of one primary product,” said Rich Gersten, cofounder and managing partner at True Beauty Ventures, an early investor in K18. “It’s generating incredible productivity and volume on a tiny assortment.”

Going forward, with a $25 million minority investment from VMG, K18 plans to keep the product assortment small, in line with its “less is more” philosophy, Sahib said.

He credited the “universality” of the product as well as the ease of use for K18’s success. “When you look at skin care, it’s about how you have healthy skin as a base so that you can get the most out of that skin with less. Yet that’s a complete contrast to hair care, where it’s all about more products, more routine,” Sahib said. “It’s about liberating your hair,” he added.

“This is not an overnight thing. They’ve had this incredible vision about what could really change hair care and they’ve been very focused on how to bring that to life,” said Robin Tsai, managing director at VMG. “They’ve done that in a way that’s been patient and prudent, but their idea of this is actually very innovative — it’s a very different approach to hair care.”

Going forward, K18 will focus on education, digital investments and R&D. “It’s about delighting and building great relationships with current clients, it’s not simply about expansion,” Sahib said. “In terms of products … It’s about thoughtful invention. I don’t think the world needs more shampoo and conditioner.”

As far as the Olaplex comparisons go — the K18 team has not seemed to mind too much.

“They are the ones who built the bond-building category, it didn’t exist before that. To us, it’s about creating synthetic biology as the next category … we see this impact in hair, skin, cosmetics, everything,” Sahib said.

 

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