Proven wants to sell AI distilled custom skincare

YC-backed startup Proven wants to make it suck less for women to find skincare that works for them. The co-founders are taking what they describe as a “rational, logic-based” approach to figuring out which ingredients might be most appropriate for each individual.

As a TC Disrupt battlefield founder once memorably put it during her on-stage pitch, the beauty industry makes a whole lot of money from a whole lot of BS. And skincare falls squarely into the ‘full of it’ category, with its expensively marketed pseudoscientific claims touting ‘miracle’ fixes that most definitely aren’t.

Proven’s co-founders, Ming Zhao and Amy Yuan, say frustration when battling with this BS via their own skincare issues ultimately led them to found the business together. Zhao had had a stressful job in private equity which she credits with “really wrecking my skin”, while Yuan suffered adolescent skin problems and also has allergies that can affect it.

“After trying numerous products and investing — I saw it as an investment, in expensive ‘miracle’-promising products — nothing really worked for me,” says Zhao. “So I became very frustrated and I felt betrayed by our beauty industry. And eventually what actually worked for me were customized products that were made for my by a few different facialists. So that’s how the optimize idea of tailoring products to exactly someone’s situation, someone’s skin, first came to my mind numerous years ago.”

Yuan’s computational physics background informed the data-focused approach they’re taking with Proven. “I’ve done a lot of big scale supercomputing simulations,” she says. “And, I thought, given my background why don’t I just write an AI engine that gathers reviews for me to find skincare products that are automatically fitting to my skin. And when I talked to Ming about it we immediately had this spark — and started crawling data.”

Their core idea is to see whether deep learning and machine learning algorithms can distill useful information from millions of online testimonials for skincare products, plus a much smaller subset of publicly available peer reviewed scientific research papers — turning a mountain of what is obviously very variable data into, what they hope, is a formula for programming customized skincare products that work.

They’re focusing on skincare purely for women because it’s women who’ve written the millions of online product reviews underpinning this data + AI play.

“The average person spends 45 minutes to 1.5 hours researching products before they buy any beauty products and even after they buy based on the research that they’re able to do, 55% of people are still unsatisfied post-purchase. And that’s because of the proliferation of information that’s out there. No single person is capable of reading the amount of information there is in order to make a sound decision,” argues Zhao when asked why they think their approach can work. “Which is why we’ve built the largest database of beauty.”

Their database combines data on hundreds of thousands of skincare products culled from millions of users reviews. At this point Zhao says they’ve used their AI engine to analyze more than 8 million reviews and testimonials — “of basically anybody who’s bought a skincare product, a beauty product and has written a comment about it online”.

“In this database it also has more than a hundred thousand beauty products that have been talked about. So basically everything that’s on the market. As well as more than 20,000 ingredients — as well as 4,000 peer reviewed scientific articles on skin and on ingredients and on what works for skin,” she continues. “So it is not just reviews but it’s combined with scientific research.

“On our team we also have an award winning cosmetic chemist who is the person who helped to formulate all of our products. We also have dermatologist advisors on our team who put the human touch on top of the big database knowledge base.”

Potential buyers must first fill out a survey on Proven’s website, answering questions about things like their age, ethnicity, skin type and their skincare priorities. After which they’ll be emailed custom products they can buy — which will in turn be blended by drawing on Proven’s database of AI-distilled testimonials to match crowdsourced learnings to what an individual customer knows (or at least claims to know) about their own skin.

The service isn’t live yet — but will be soft launched in the US next week.

“The database is really powerful. It has all of the information and has more than 10 years of consumer testimonials on various skincare products,” adds Yuan. “One surprise that we had going into this space is how little research was out there on people’s skin and then what kind of ingredients would be effective on what kind of skin and in which environment.

“And then we feel like… why they’ve researched so little is because there’s not enough data to back it up — unlike pharmaceutical research where funding can go in and there’s clinical trials and a lot of different funding sources. Skincare is sort of in an awkward position.”

Globally, the skincare, beauty and cosmetics industry is estimated to be worth some $445BN at this point — a figure that’s only set to keep growing in an age of selfie obsession and perpetual digital self promotion.

So any skincare company that can come up with a slicker formula to help women find effective products could be a real game changer.

But, at the same time, there’s undoubtedly a lack of high quality data to drive genuine change. And without regulation of BS claims, well, misinformation is free to masquerade as eye-catching marketing. And that’s why pseudoscientific nonsense is so lucrative. And why there’s little incentive for the industry to change.

Proven’s founders say they’ve done a lot of cleaning and structuring of the data in their database before processing it for patterns. Even using fraud detection algorithms to try to weed out sources of fake reviews. On top of the cleaned and structured data they’re then applying various machine learning and deep learning algorithms to try to link particular ingredients with beneficial outcomes for different types of users.

But the big question is whether poor and/or low quality data — even if you’ve managed to scrape together an awful lot of it — can really lead to useful AI-powered decisions.

Where skincare is concerned, that remains unproven — unlike this startup’s name.

And with so many other unseen factors at play that can also affect people’s skin, such as diet, exercise, lifestyle, even genetic conditions, which won’t necessarily be being expressed within the limited confines of an online review, well, it’s just not clear whether anything of real worth can be distilled from such partial and fuzzy data.

Although there would certainly be poetic justice if the beauty industry ends up being successfully disrupted thanks to millions of user reviews debunking its not-so-miracle skincare cures.

We’ve not been able to test Proven’s service at this nascent stage. And clearly it’ll take time for its own user testimonials to roll in.

But if you look online, you’ll find skincare reviews are rife with dissatisfaction. So even if all Proven offers is doing some of the legwork to help people decide what to buy (or avoid buying) that’s at least a partial incentive — given that many women will already be spending lots of their own time and money locked in a frustrating trial and error process of looking for skincare that works.

They also say they’re looking at ways to visualize the learnings they’ve extracted from their database — to make that information accessible.

Away from the mainstream beauty market, the even more expensive skincare option is to pay for custom products from a dermatologist or other skin specialist. A route that can be effective, as it was for Zhao, but can also be prohibitively expensive. Certainly it’s not accessible to the mass market.

Zhao and Yuan say they want Proven’s skincare products to be accessible but they also argue that beauty products priced too cheaply can be perceived by women as ineffective or undesirable. So they also won’t be setting the price bar too low.

“One of our goals is to make beauty inclusive, and that is inclusive from many different angles — in that we’re not just making products for a certain subtype within a certain ethnicity. We want to be able to help many people with their skin issues, across ethnicities, across geographic locations,” says Zhao. “So in terms of pricing too we want to be approachable. But what is funny though, we know from our data that women don’t consider a product to be of high quality unless it is above a certain price bar. That’s just how we’re built. So we try to signal that our products are of the highest quality — because they are.”

For people with sensitive skin the challenge of finding effective skincare can be a full on nightmare. (Nothing says ‘unhappy customer’ quite like having paid for a emollient that actually makes your skin even worse.) So if Proven can narrow the risk of encountering irritants that’s also going to be compelling for at least a subset of consumers.

Though product customization can also be risky from a business point of view. Because if a personalized product ends up disappointing a customer will have few avenues to explore to come back for more.

The mainstream skincare industry does claim to cater to different skin types. But its categories tend to be fairly broad-brush, and arguably just make matters worse by creating yet more skincare products which buyers need to factor in to ‘buy and try’.

The lack of regulation on the beauty industry also makes it impossible for consumers to be confident in any of the claims being made by any of these products. A ‘miracle’ snake oil can (and frequently does) sit on a shelf next to a more basically packaged and less expensive moisturizer that contains essentially the same ingredients.

The same could be true of ‘AI-distilled skincare’ too of course. So for now it remains to be seen whether Proven’s personalized skincare products end up delivering more effective skincare than the average pot of cream plucked off the shelf.

After all “personalized” is just another word that sounds good but doesn’t in itself mean very much. So “personalized skincare” may end up being just another nice sounding but hollow claim.

On the other hand, if their “AI engine” actually manages to distill some valuable intelligence from millions of product reviews it could be a very winning formula. Beauty industry product promises that don’t disappoint would be a disruptive innovation indeed.

Proven says it will initially manufacture its skincare products itself, in the US, using an ingredients philosophy the co-founders sum up as “just what you need and nothing that you don’t”. They are also excluding some common but controversial beauty product ingredients, such as SLS, parabens, alcohol, triclosans and animal byproducts. (Although their products are not equivalent to fresh cosmetics, such as the custom preparations you might get from a dermatologist, as they do include some preservatives.)

While they’re starting with skincare — offering a small range of day and night serums, toners and creams to begin with — Zhao also says they see potential to expand into other wellness products if the personalized touch flies.

“We’re starting with skincare but we’d love to do the same thing… within all of the wellness category, because there’s nothing more intimate for me personally and for a lot of women I know than their skincare, than their bodycare, than their haircare,” she says. “The things that they put on and therefore are absorbed into their body. So we want to help everyone to have a more personalized experience with these essential, important categories.”

India’s Capillary Technologies raises $20M from Warburg Pincus and Sequoia

Capillary Technologies, an India-based startup that helps e-commerce businesses manage their marketing and customer engagement, has pulled in $20 million in fresh funding from existing investors Warburg Pincus and Sequoia.

The company said it plans to use the capital to develop its products and R&D, including a new focus on the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) space where it works with brands directly on marketing and e-commerce. Nearly two-thirds of the money will go towards developing artificial intelligence (AI) technology, it added.

Capillary Technologies offers a range of Saas-based services targeted at large retailers that include consumer behavior tracking, engagement, mobile commerce and loyalty programs. The startup said it has worked with over 25,000 stores, including 300 “marquee brands” such as KFC, Walmart and Samsung inside India and beyond.

The company has 11 offices across India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, China and South Africa. With this new funding, it plans to open additional China-based offices in Guangzhou and Beijing. CEO and co-founder Aneesh Reddy confirmed in a statement that there are also plans to grow its presence in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where the startup has offices in the UAE, and Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively.

This new funding takes Capillary Technologies to just over $100 million raised from investors to date. Other backers include InnoVen Capital, Norwest Venture Partners, and American Express Ventures.

Featured Image: Nadalina/Shutterstock (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

Walmart launches a new home shopping site for furniture and home décor

Following a slowdown in e-commerce sales over the holidays, Walmart today is readying a new strategy to attract online shoppers with an increased focus on home goods. The retailer is now launching a redesigned Home shopping experience on the web which will better highlight home products, like furniture, accessories, and other decorative items.

The new site’s home page will feature curated collections across nine style categories, including modern, mid-century, traditional, glam, industrial, bohemian, farmhouse, transitional and Scandinavian. Unlike Walmart’s typical shopping experience, it will also use editorial-style imagery and will include design tips written by in-house staff.

The new initiative is part of Walmart’s reorganization of its Home group division, announced last year. This included two additional executive appointments, with Anthony Soohoo, previously the CEO at home furnishings brand Dot & Bo, becoming SVP and GM of the Home group across all U.S. e-commerce retail within, Hayneedle and, plus Scott Doughman as Hayneedle’s president.

“As the head of Home for Walmart U.S. eCommerce, and admittedly design-obsessed, I’m personally excited about the changes we’re making to help our customers shop the high-quality, on-trend and, of course, affordable home assortment we offer on,” said Soohoo, in a statement about the launch.

According to the retailer, shopping for home goods online has to take a different approach. While categories like groceries and consumables are more transactional in nature, the home goods category needs to more “inspirational.” That is, online shoppers want a site that’s more about browsing and getting ideas, rather than just the traditional “add to cart” experience.

Walmart doesn’t break out what portion of its sales are home goods, or how much of its overall assortment fits in this category. But it did say that it’s nearly doubled its assortment over the past year, aided by introductions of new furniture and home décor lines, like its IKEA-esque Scandinavian kids’ furniture, for example.

The new Home shopping site will also help showcase Walmart’s own private label and Walmart-exclusive brands, like  MainstaysBetter Homes and Gardens and Pioneer Woman. This is an area rival Amazon recently moved into as well, when it launched its first home furnishing lines in November. Target, too, is steadily expanding its home goods offerings, with brands like ThresholdProject 62Hearth & Hand with Magnolia, and as of just a couple of days ago, a new, eclectic brand called Opalhouse.

Walmart, meanwhile, will focus heavily on competing on price, with low-cost products, like sofas that start at $159, twin mattresses starting at $59, and rugs starting at $17. That means it will also be challenging other furniture retailers that promote affordability, like IKEA and Wayfair, for instance.

The new site will go live on across web and mobile as a slow rollout over the next few weeks. It also offers a preview of Walmart’s larger e-commerce site design, scheduled for later this year.

3D printing marketplace Shapeways names a new CEO

After months of searching, Shapeways announced today the appointment of Gregory Kress as CEO of the 3D printing marketplace. Kress, the former president and COO of online learning service Open Education, becomes the New York-based company’s second chief officer, replacing co-founder Peter Weijmarshausen, who stepped down in August to pursue other opportunities.

Shapeways has been something of a quiet success in the world of 3D printing, opting to provide the technology as an online service rather than attempting to sell users pricey desktop machines. As such, the company has weathered the hype storm that has found many startups crashing against the rocky shores of reality.

Like many others, we’ve compared the company to Etsy in the past — though Shapeways does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to actually bringing the product into existence. Essentially, the company buys those multi-hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars machines so you don’t have to, promising a much better print quality than you’ll get on your desktop MakerBot.

But Kress believes the company could be doing a heck of a lot more on that front with regards to making the technology more accessible to those who don’t understand things like CAD programs.

“Shapeways helps creators bring things to life,” Kress told TechCrunch earlier this week. “That’s always been our core mission. But I think, over time, Shapeways has always focused on a piece of that experience: taking a digital file and creating a 3D model of it. That’s a very small sliver of what the customer actually goes through.”

Along with hand holding through the product development process, Kress also sees a future in assisting on the business side of things. The company has already worked to team with incubators to prototype products on its machines and will look to play a larger role in helping on the sales side.

“We can help them to market it and develop and sustain a small business,” says Kress. “I see Shapeways shifting from delivering one niche of that customer experience to truly helping our creators from almost a platform perspective and allowing us to become a one-stop shop.”

Amazon expands its TechStars Alexa Accelerator to London, starts search for second cohort

Amazon continues to tap into the developer community to expand the ubiquity of its Alexa voice-based assistant, and it’s taking the strategy international.

Today the company opened applications for the Alexa Accelerator, the program for startups building solutions and services for voice-based assistants, which Amazon runs in conjunction with TechStars. Most notably, as part of this second edition, Amazon will now give those selected for the cohort the option of working in London, where TechStars opened its first branch outside of the US some years ago, alongside the existing Alexa Accelerator operation in Seattle.

“We hope our London cohort option will help engage even more founders in more places who are building new companies around voice,” the company notes in a blog post announcing the new. “These companies will be full participants in the Alexa Accelerator, receiving mentorship and guidance from local Amazon teams as they build their company towards the program’s Demo Day.”

Amazon says the deadline for applications is April 8, 2018. The 13-week program is scheduled to run July through September, with a Demo Day in Seattle in October 2018. It sounds like those residing in London will have to travel for that, but I’m double checking and will update.

Those who do participate get $120,000 in funding in return for six percent of equity. Previous participants have included startups that focus on hardware, such as a wearable to let kinds interact with Alexa; services to link up activity and data from automated voice bots; testing services; and games. At a time where we are seeing a huge proliferation of accelerators and incubators hitting the market, this gives those working specifically in voice services a pipeline to one of the companies that might be most strategic for their growth.

The decision to expand to London is an interesting and very logical one for Amazon for a couple of reasons.

For one, a large part of the R&D that went into Alexa was actually hatched in the UK, specifically out of Amazon’s acquisition of the Evi personal assistant in 2013 and subsequent development of a larger effort based out of Cambridge, UK (and now also Amazon’s swanky, big offices in London). This means that there is a large group of people who can work with the cohort and see what might be most relevant to their existing efforts, potentially hiring or acqui-hiring as well out of the process.

On top of that, Amazon is responding to interest in the program. Last year, it said that applications came from 50 countries. Amazon has been trying to meet that demand and interest from talent in other ways, too: it expanded its Alexa Fund in November last year with an extra $100 million that it would use to fund startups specifically focused on tapping the international opportunity for Alexa.

This is an important move for the company: Alexa to date is only available in three languages —  English, German and Japanese — but demand for the range of Echo devices and other Alexa-based services extends well beyond that (just ask my French in-laws). Amazon has often been very slow in rolling out some of its most successful services internationally — with the Kindle extension beyond the US being one of the more notable examples.

It needs to be careful to keep out of that trap with the Echo and to seize the moment. The devices have been a runaway success and dominates the market currently for smart speakers, but it is being met with a very strong effort from competitors like Google, which is working hard to meet international demand in markets where Amazon’s Echo and Alexa have yet to go.

In the lead-up to selecting the cohort, Amazon said that program leaders from the Alexa Fund and Techstars will be traveling to Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin, Tel Aviv, New York City, Boston, and Toronto for information sessions and to drum up more interest. You can apply and see the full list of info sessions here.

Nintendo accused of illegally denying refunds on pre-orders in Europe

Nintendo has been accused of breaking European law by not allowing consumers to obtain refunds on pre-ordered games.

The company been singled out as the worst offender of seven major digital video games platforms that were looked at by the Norwegian Consumer Council in this investigation. Though it only praises two platforms, Origin and Steam, for having what it describes as “adequate systems” for refunding purchased video games.

The Council has written to Nintendo setting out its concerns. In the letter it flags up a term on Nintendo’s eShop regarding its cancelation policy for digital purchases where it informs consumers that “all sales are final”, and warns them to check that their systems meet download requirements prior to purchase.

The Council argues that a pre-ordered game cannot qualify for an exemption to Europe’s Consumer Rights Directive for digital content because the supply of content has not yet begun. The Directive is applicable across EU and EEA countries (such as Norway).

In a press release about its action the Council writes: “[Nintendo] plainly states that all purchases are final. According to the right of withdrawal laid down in the consumer rights directive, such terms are illegal.”

“The video game industry uses incentives such as exclusive in-game content or other rewards in order to encourage consumers to pre-order games. However, pre-ordering could result in paying a lot of money for a product that turns out to be a disappointment. For most digital video game platforms, there are no possibilities to get your money back after the release date,” it adds.

At the time of writing Nintendo had not responded to a request for comment.

Lots of other video game platforms do not come out of the Council’s survey covered in glory, either. It published a report in December criticizing other players in the space, such as, Uplay, Playstation Store and Xbox Store, for a range of less-than-consumer-friendly routes for obtaining refunds — like requiring that buyers contact customer support.

But it’s reserving its fiercest criticism for Nintendo because the company offers no option for consumers to cancel a purchase of pre-ordered game.

The Council suggests games fans wait until they’re 100% sure they want to buy a game before locking themselves into a pre-order.

“Consumers often face complicated systems, where they have to fill out long forms or contact customer support in order to cancel their pre-orders,” it writes. “With these hurdles in mind, we discourage consumers from pre-ordering video games, unless they are 100 % sure that the game will live up to their expectations.”

Mixer, Microsoft’s Twitch competitor, adds game sales

Twitch has long since allowed its streamers to generate revenue from their channels through things like subscriptions, virtual tipping, and game sales. Today, Microsoft is adopting one of those features for its own game streaming service, Mixer, with today’s launch of “Direct Purchase.”

The addition will allow streamers to promote purchases – including game titles and other content – that are available for sale from the Microsoft Store. It can support things like base games, specific game editions, downloadable content, add-on packs, and more. All of these items can be purchased directly from the streamer’s Mixer channel itself, without having to exit the stream.

In total, there are over 5,000 games that will be made available through Direct Purchase, including Xbox, Windows 10, and Xbox Play Anywhere titles, in addition to downloadable content.

To use Direct Purchase, Mixer broadcasters will first have to activate the feature then select the content they want to promote.

When a viewer makes a purchase, the digital content will be automatically added to their Xbox or Windows 10 game library, for later download. No tokens or codes will be required to make that happen, Microsoft also notes.

Microsoft will pay streamers 5 percent for every purchase from their channel. This is the same percentage that Twitch pays out to its Partners and Affiliates, for comparison’s sake. But unlike Twitch, which makes the option to sell games available to both its top- and mid-sized streamers, Mixer is currently opening the feature to partners only. (Those requirements are here.)

The company had announced last month that Direct Purchase was coming, along with other monetization features like tipping. However, it’s just now rolling out in Preview mode today.

Over the next few days, the feature will begin to appear with some Mixer partners, and will finish rolling out across the platform over the next couple of months.