– Interview with Jacques Playe, CTO L’Oréal R & I –


Today, we are at L’Oréal. L’Oréal defines itself not as a leader in cosmetics, but as a leader in the field of beauty. A more extensive design that leaves the field open to innovative product strategies. This goes back to what I often say in my conferences: redefining or rethinking one’s business and then identifying the new business territories that are conducive to breakthrough innovation.

I meet Jacques Playe, Chief Technology Officer of L’Oréal Research & Innovation (R & I) – we have known each other for a few years because Presans had the honor of contributing to some innovation projects at L’Oréal. Her hero? – Roger Federer, able to combine efficiency and elegance. Our discussion leads us to first understand the main trends in the cosmetics market. Then, it is the role of Chief Technology Officer in an R&D entity that needs to be better defined, before finishing by situating this role within the more general framework of the group’s innovation strategy.


A. Current trends in the cosmetics market: the return of science and user centricity

Long-term trends that shape almost all industrial sectors (urbanization, pollution, water scarcity, etc.) are in addition to the major underlying trends that are transforming the cosmetics industry – and finally, beauty.


   a) The return of Science

Advances in science and technology are accelerating in many areas such as the microbiome, intelligent materials, or artificial intelligence. These areas offer prospects for major discoveries and innovations for the world of beauty. This makes it even more necessary than yesterday to have powerful upstream research, in order to seize all the opportunities offered by this ongoing scientific and technical revolution.


   b) A new competition

Alongside the major historical players, new competition is emerging. This is particularly the case for local players and “Indie brands”, companies that develop first by creating new product concepts, without inventing new technologies. The product itself is developed and produced by subcontractors. This emergence of new competitors requires even faster, agile and connected product development labs to consumers around the world.


   c) Explosion of the number of patents

Between this scientific revolution upstream and these new players downstream, the third major trend is the explosion in the number of patents in cosmetics, from a wide variety of actors. This is a sign of great innovation activity and the possible emergence of new competitors that could “disrupt” the market.

These three major trends mean that the research & innovation of established actors must act on three levers: an upstream research that focuses on the great scientific and technical breakthroughs to generate scientific discoveries and technological innovations, a great capacity to lead Application projects – transforming these discoveries and innovations into high-performance, consumer-centric products, and even more agile and consumer-centric development labs around the world.

In this context, more than ever, L’Oréal is betting on science and consumer knowledge. Historically, the bet of science has been one of the keys to the success of the company, allowing to accumulate knowledge around the skin, the hair, the scalp. The connection to consumers is part of the company’s DNA. These two points are particularly interesting, at a time when the majority of companies have finally understood that innovation must start from the user or the customer, and not from the technology. Are we witnessing the beginnings of the return of the pendulum? The beginning of the end of innovation that is based on the combinatorics of existing technological bricks, but rather on a clever balance between scientific discoveries and consumer needs?


B. The role of Chief Technology Officer

In this context, the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at L’Oréal Research & Innovation is to embody a major axis of this advancement of science and technology: digital. He is the actor of change and is there to change the game, and from this point of view we could say that there is also a lot of Chief Transformation Officer in this role of CTO. This is concretized by three main objectives:


   a) The Laboratory of the Future

Transforming the ways of doing research through the use of data, artificial intelligence and connected instruments. This transformation enables upstream research to accelerate discovery processes, development labs to be faster and more familiar with their consumers, and overall R & I to be more innovative, agile, and fast.


   b) The Beauty of the Future

To create the Beauty of the future thanks to the customization, which allows to offer from the diagnosis the most adapted product, and to the instrumental cosmetics, which amplifies the effectiveness of the products by the precision of application or the contribution energy.

Laboratory and Beauty of the Future are based on increased use of scientific and consumer data. It is by combining these two types of data that we create even more powerful products.


   c) New expertise

Transform the ways of working and develop new expertise around Digital and Instruments: data science, artificial intelligence, digital optics, modeling, mechatronics, robotics, scientific computing, as well as many skills in physics and biophysics.


C. L’Oréal’s innovation strategy

a) Breaking with the wrong frames

There is no single answer to the question of the innovation model. Before transposing the results of a benchmark, it is necessary to integrate parameters such as the corporate culture and the granularity of the projects. Between a company that manages some big projects and a company like L’Oréal that launches thousands of new formulas every year, the innovation process can not be the same. We must also take into account changes in the external context, an organizational model can be effective at a given moment and lose competitiveness if the context changes.

This is the case of the current context of Beauty and therefore the process of innovation of L’Oreal. The three major changes explained above led L’Oréal R&I to transform its model.

The approach today is more transversal, collaborative and user centric. It facilitates and accelerates innovation to serve the needs of consumers, which has led to transforming ways of working.

A precise framework is set, based on the needs of consumers and the vision of scientific and technical opportunities in each category. In this context, the teams have a freedom of action to build their teams and manage their projects. This is called having freedom in a well defined strategic framework (“freedom within a frame”) and thus promoting collective intelligence. This collective intelligence is key because the innovation of today is born at the crossroads of different disciplines, it is thus collective and collaborative by nature.


b) Define the words

Within a research organization, the institutional factor that contributes most to the encroachment of the stages on each other is the lack of an explicit definition of what innovation is and the functions that underlie it. -tendent.

Jacques Playe insists on this idea: today an organization that does not define certain essential words, its “glossary”, dies. It is unable to create the breeding ground for collective intelligence to develop because it generates misunderstandings.

Thus, the new organization of innovation, currently being rolled out, is based on the very precise definition of four major notions, four very different ends of R&I projects: Discover, Invent, Apply, Develop.

For example, a Discovery project does not have the same purpose as an invention project, even if both are part of a research activity. If we consider the discovery, it will be for example to examine the impact of the combined action of light and pollution on a given parameter of the skin to understand the mechanism. The deliverable result of this review will be a set of scientific discoveries: the evidence and understanding of a biological mechanism. From there must be implemented an invention project to address this issue, in this case an effective technological platform to protect the skin.


c) Prioritize

It is not possible to run after all the subjects at once, to be effective it is necessary to remain centered. Knowing how to give up is probably the most difficult exercise. For example, the fields of discovery and invention are determined by the R & I Department, in consultation with the business, in close collaboration with the Scientific Advisory Board of the group. It follows a prioritization of major research themes, projects to lead, initiatives to stop.

Moving to the application phase requires that an innovation be transposed to a set of products designed for specific consumers: hair coloring, skin makeup, eye makeup, etc.

Apply also requires a strong prioritization and therefore a strong renunciation. It is surely there, from the outset of framing a project, in its phase of “Design” that the integration Research, Business and operations must be the strongest. This allows to make the best choices between performance potential for the consumer, industrial feasibility and interest in the business. This choice is facilitated by the marketing of long time: the Direction of the innovation. An essential R&I department because it brings the vision of business and consumer to guide applications on the right topics.

Finally, the development laboratories correspond to the different brands of the group. Their function is to put the DNA of a brand on a product resulting from the application work. As close to R&I and marketing, they are the essential link between R&I and Business.


d) Put in coherence

The key to the success of this new version of the innovation model lies in the organization of the R & I activity in the form of projects led by cross-functional teams.

This choice results from the observation that innovation and invention are favored by the crossing of disciplines.

The transverse organization of teams brings experts to work in both discovery projects and application projects, for example. To make a good product that has an action on the skin, in the course of the application project there is always a need for the biologist who will help to understand what will actually happen on the skin – and conversely in discovery with physicists and engineers derived from the invention or application.



What is an innovation strategy? According to Jacques Playe, an innovation strategy consists of bringing together the needs of consumers, the major changes in the world and the great opportunities of science and technology. But the prerequisite is to clearly define its raison d’être, its “why”. L’Oréal defines itself as the leader in Beauty and not in cosmetics. It is a strong act, founder because it gives meaning, and therefore power to what we do.


First published on Forbes France