For a guy who tinkers with mechanical sensors, Jean-Michel Karam has an awful lot of charisma.
This story first appeared in the October 14, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
When he met with the beauty team at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York last year to introduce his skin care brand, Ioma, Karam was decked out in a checkered three-piece suit and patent leather shoes. At a commanding 6 foot 4 inches, his professional basketball player roots were apparent. He spoke with confidence and delivered a convincing pitch: Powered by diagnostic machines, Ioma is a game changer because it gives customers proof it works.
“He had us at hello,” confesses Deborah Walters, Saks’ senior vice president and general merchandise manager for cosmetics, fragrance and intimates. Kate Oldham, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for cosmetics at Saks, gushes, “He was so charming and dynamic. We were all so impressed with his intelligence and the development of the technology.”
A decade ago, Karam would never have imagined he’d be selling skin care products to Saks or anywhere else, for that matter. He didn’t find the beauty industry worthy of his time. He’d earned a doctorate in microelectronics from the Grenoble Institute of Technology and devoted his career to MEMS, or micro-electro-mechanical systems, playing a role in more than 50 patents and authoring or coauthoring over 250 scientific and economic publications. He’d built a company, MEMSCAP, based on developing MEMS technology for the avionics, optical communications and medical fields.
As Karam explains, MEMS are microscopic devices that detect changes to trigger desired responses. MEMS, for instance, sense that a car has been in an accident in order to deploy an airbag. Karam gives another example: “MEMS changed cell phones to smartphones. When you turn your phone and the image rotates, these are MEMS devices that tell it that you rotated it.” At MEMSCAP, Karam is applying MEMS to a vast array of equipment people use everyday — from airplanes to artificial hearts — to make it more intelligent or responsive.
“We do things that enhance human life,” says Karam. For a long time, that meant nothing in beauty. Eric Viviant helped change that. In 2002, Viviant, creator of Laboratoires La Licorne, a skin analysis and dermatological treatment firm that MEMSCAP acquired five years later, approached Karam to use MEMS to measure hydration in the skin. Karam declined. “I had a bad opinion of the cosmetics industry,” Karam admits. He summarized that opinion in two words: “pure marketing.”
But Karam is no lab-bound nerd. After founding MEMSCAP in 1997, Karam took it public in 2001, just as the stock market was heading into a period of prolonged decline, forcing him to learn corporate survival skills the hard way. To keep MEMSCAP afloat, he set out on a path of diversification to expand the company outside of its initial strength in optical communications.
Skin care could be a lucrative area for MEMSCAP to diversify into, but Karam wasn’t completely committed. He reluctantly gave in to Viviant and approved the development of a skin care machine. However, Karam wanted to keep the project low-key. He didn’t put much money into it, assigned the work to his operations in Egypt and told his staff not to talk about it to the press. That didn’t last. Press reports began popping up, and Karam was flooded with phone calls, including one from Vera Strubi, who at the time was chief executive officer of Thierry Mugler Parfums. “Vera was always looking for what’s on the cutting edge,” says Ben Gillikin, former president and ceo of Thierry Mugler in North America and now a member of the board of Ioma’s parent company, Intuiskin.
After Strubi retired in 2006, Karam lured her to MEMSCAP’s board and carved out a niche in his company for Intuiskin, then a division that specialized in skin instruments. With Strubi on board, Intuiskin produced skin care devices that took several measurements of the face with a hand-held probe. “We use MEMS technology to measure multiple parameters of the skin in one probe. We measure hydration, water loss, temperature, etc. in one probe. We can do more than 20 skin characteristics,” explains Karam.
At first, Karam wasn’t ready to pair skin care products with the devices, and stuck to selling the machines to dermatologists and ingredient companies. He successfully erected a network of dermatologists, but that wasn’t going to sustain a successful business. “You sell a device and then, after, what do you do?” he asks.
Skin care products were the logical next step, but for Karam, the brand had to truly stand apart. Karam stresses that Ioma is grounded in evidence. The system utilizes one of two in-store devices: the Beauty Diag is a hand-held probe that allows a skin care advisor to investigate the skin at a highly magnified level, while the larger Beauty Sphere takes pictures of the customer’s faces to examine various skin conditions. Both devices assess a slew of skin problems such as UV damage, bacterial activity, wrinkles and redness. After they finish a minutes-long assessment, customers receive print-outs with their diagnosis and are then recommended a skin care regimen with products that correspond to the seven different measurements. When a customer returns in four to six weeks, her skin is reassessed to measure how the regimen has worked. Product prices range from $60 for a cleanser to $205 for a night cream.
“There is something about the proof, that you can come back and compare the pictures,” says Oldham. “It can show that your skin is improving. That is a benefit that not a lot of other brands have. It is a differentiator.”
Ioma also provides a high level of customization, reinforced by its name, which is à moi or “for me” in French when it is reversed. There are 25 stockkeeping units in the line, but Karam points out that more than 8,742 different regimens are possible, depending on the measurements.
Karam foresees a time when Ioma could create specific products for individuals. “I know what your skin is because I can measure it,” he says. “We start with a unique regimen, and we will go to a unique product.”
Already, the company is extending the devices’ uses to include hair and body.
Still, there are hurdles. The pictures from the Sphere can be unsettling and scare consumers away. (The Beauty Diag avoids that by utilizing magnified images of the skin alone, not full pictures of the face.) Pressed for time, consumers may not have the patience to go through assessments or return for follow-up assessments.
Oldham believes the obstacles will be overcome because consumers crave confirmation. “It is not a way of life yet, but it could be the way of the future,” she says. “A consumer will say, ‘I am not going to buy this expensive product unless you show it is working for me.’ It is a way of bringing science and technology into the beauty arena in a more accessible way.”
Ioma’s early results are promising. In Europe, the brand is in about 300 doors, including Marionnaud. In the doors where Ioma has been sold for at least 15 months, Karam says it has soared to the top five on the best-selling skin care list. For every Ioma skin care assessment, three products are sold on average. In the U.S., the brand launched at Saks in New York in September and in Beverly Hills in October. Karam estimates Ioma will generate $2 million in sales in the two Saks doors next year, and expects worldwide revenue in the $20 million range.
If Karam is a believer in the cosmetics industry today, as he says he is, it is only because Ioma is making it less like the cosmetics industry and more like science, where evidence is paramount and results are tested repeatedly. “We are pragmatic. We are scientific people,” he says. “If a product doesn’t have efficient results, it will leave the street. We want to do things that are true — that have business sense,” he continues. “In the end, it pays.”