Melisse Shaban was sitting on her deck one day, staring out over the ocean, wondering what her next project should be, when the answer came to her in the form of a phone call.
“I was thinking, is 5 o’clock too early for a martini, or should it be 5:30?” Shaban said.
Then the beauty industry veteran got a call from Shaun Westfall, now an investment banker with Jefferies, who asked her to take a look at a piece of technology from the ex-chief executive officer of Medtronic, William Hawkins.
Turns out, Hawkins was her next door neighbor at the beach. She went to look at the technology and met Luke Burnett, a bio-tissue engineer and colonel in the army. He told her about how the army was good at certain types of care — especially from bullet wounds — but wasn’t able to give that same quality of care for people who were injured by explosives.
“We hadn’t caught up to bone, tissue, muscle regeneration, 3-D printing skin, so quality of life for people who had served on our behalf was really a challenge, and Luke dedicated his life to finding devices, drugs and proteins that would help in an effort to improve quality of life,” Shaban said.
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It was a far cry from what Shaban had been seeing as a lifelong beauty and private equity executive. “In our industry sometimes…we sell hope in a jar. And sometimes we have expectations, especially for women, of achieving an aspiration of appearance that isn’t really achievable. We’re getting better and better at it, but this was really the first piece of technology I had ever seen that was rooted in these really deep clinical authentic bases,” Shaban said.
A woman who was working in the lab helping to develop the protein asked if she could take it to her family’s hair salon to test it on hair. “Sure enough, the protein was actually binding actually to the damaged sites in hair,” Shaban said.
The keratin they were using comes from a patented extraction process from human hair, as opposed to the animal-based keratin that the beauty industry normally uses, Shaban said. Shaban took the new keratin through a clinical trial, raised money, and started to figure out how to take this technology and turn it into a hair brand.
They eventually decided to build their own place to make the protein — an ex-tobacco facility — and now are able to use the protein for applications in hair, skin and nails, Shaban said.
Now that they had a way to manufacture the ingredient, they launched into making their first shampoo, which was a complete failure, because the protein was sticking to other ingredients in the shampoo formula and the hair wasn’t getting washed. Then Shaban found chemists who could wrap the protein and finally got the formula to work.
“We have a responsibility to be better. And we’re trying to figure out how to marry that with being a grossly commercial brand so we sell a lot of stuff,” Shaban said. That’s when they stumbled on the name Virtue, which was trademarked by Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson. It expired, and Shaban grabbed it.
“It took six years…but the products are unique and the technology is special,” Shaban claimed.