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Rollins & Robots: A Chat with Luum Lash CEO Nathan Harding

Published June 20, 2023
Published June 20, 2023
Luca Iaconelli via Unsplash

Not most inspirations for leadership styles are found in rock-star royalty, but as a believer in the MBJA—short for Management by Joking Around—management style, Luum Lash co-founder and CEO Nathan Harding likes to keep a sense of humor about him. “Henry Rollins said that David Lee Roth told him, ‘He who laughs, lasts.’ Start-ups are wonderful in some ways, but you don't know what's going to happen, constantly have new obstacles, and just have to keep going,” he states. “You’ve got to be able to laugh it off because it always happens that the thing you are really worried about actually comes easier than you think and there's something new you didn't even think of standing in your way. That's just the nature of what we do.”

Specifically speaking, the nature of what Luum Lash does is beauty-focused robotics technology. The company currently holds 31 global patents. Following a $700K crowdfunding campaign, in July 2022 the enterprise closed a $2.9 million seed funding round with Ulta Beauty, Foundation Capital, Artifact Ventures, Ascendant Venture, Handshake Ventures, SaxeCap, and XSeed Capital as investors, with the amount to go towards building its next-generation pilot program with the top-five leading US cosmetics brands. Luum Lash’s next crowdfunding campaign could raise up to $4.29 million.

Despite the visible results for both customers and businesses from Luum Lash’s robotics, the road there was not easy—not just because the team had to pivot the business from an initial concept of a multi-unit retail business owning and operating stand-alone salons. When it came to raising funding, while the company occupies an interesting intersection on the Venn diagram of beauty and technology, which makes it an attractive pitch, the amount needed for a robotics-driven enterprise versus a product-only brand are vastly different.

“Beauty investors can write a $3 million check to get the brand all the way to substantial revenue. We had to get bigger checks and go to tech investors. They're really hard to pitch to because, for one thing, there's a crisis in hardware tech investing right now. Everybody has moved upstream to the growth area and is concentrating on software, so it's really hard to get that money. In a hardware start-up, most of them use about $30 million before they have substantial revenue,” Harding explains.

Luum Lash’s full leadership team includes med spa entrepreneur Lynn Heublein, brand and product strategy leader Rachel Gold, venture capitalist Joanne Chen, robotics pioneer Kurt Amundson, and business management expert Robert Siegel. The development team also works alongside an eye-care advisory board from the worlds of ophthalmology and dermatology to ensure optimal consumer safety. “When we started this, we looked at the patent database, there was nothing. I looked for every US patent that had the word ‘eyelash’ in the abstract. There were 142, which is just crazy. It’s astounding how little the two worlds [of beauty and robotics] have mixed, and it's an opportunity,” Harding notes.

With the eyelash extension market expected to reach $2.31 billion by 2028 according to Verified Market Research, the demand is booming. For the technicians providing them, this means huge business; however, the repetitive motions can cause physical aches and pains, and for clients not comfortable with prolonged physical contact, the close proximity with a technician over an hour or longer can feel slightly invasive. Furthermore, with the average cost of a full set hovering around $100, it’s not an accessible luxury to all. Luum Lash estimates the average consumer spends $1,200 annually on the service.

Here is where Luum Lash offers benefits all around. While the initial technology investment isn’t cheap—the cost to lease the robot is $125,000 and Luum Lash pockets 30% of service fees—that amount levels out due to increased productivity, with the machine being three times faster than a technician, completing the entire job in 25 minutes versus up to 90 minutes when done by hand. There is also a reduced cost for the client ($51 for a full set and $24 for refills). Luum Lash estimates that one robot creates $3 million in revenue for a business.

And even though some might fear that robotics will replace human services entirely, Luum Lash’s technology will help the technician who would otherwise be working tirelessly to catch up to demand the possibility to sit back, manage, and ultimately make more money than before by allowing them to take on triple the clients and have appointments be processed 200% faster. This efficiency will result in more pleased clients, and therefore increased traffic to the salon in question.

Whether thinking of the adorable Wall-E rolling across movie screens or discussions about post-apocalyptic scenarios where machines defeat man, everybody has got an opinion on robots. A 2022 McKinsey study of 3,073 consumers found that 32% trust products and services relying on AI more versus 36% trusting them the same amount as more analog counterparts, and 28% trusting them less. Thankfully, the beauty industry’s discussions have been more about technological transformation and less about doomsday scenarios.

“The beauty salon has had such little increase in productivity over the years. It's a one-to-one kind of service, and that means that those jobs can only make so much. We think it’s time for a change.”
By Nathan Harding, co-founder + CEO, Luum Lash

Coty employs eight Universal Robots to pick and pack its powder products at its Maryland facilities, saving the company an estimated $500 million annually. Unilever has three machines working alongside its R&D experts at the Materials Innovation Factory in Liverpool to create Dove haircare, Hourglass lipsticks, and TRESemmé shampoo. XWELL and Clockwork collaborated on an AI-powered express manicure station at JFK Terminal 4 in New York City for travelers needing a polish refresh. However, across the board, the crossover has yet to reach widespread adoption.

Harding’s passion for the evergreen potential of robotic innovation has substantial roots. “I was just always a gadget kid, always fixing or building something,” he enthuses. His professional journey began in 1989 building robots at Carnegie Mellon's Field Robotics Center. In the early 2000s, as co-founder of Ekso Bionics, he was part of the design team that pioneered ExoHiker and ExoClimber technology, designed to carry up to 150 pounds of weight during long walking missions, but later applied to helping paraplegics walk again, among other medtech causes.

As for how he made the leap from laborious hikes to lash extensions, Harding recalls: “I was looking for something with a much easier value proposition. The exoskeleton was amazing, physical therapists and the patients love it, but it's very difficult to sell to the hospital CFO. When I found out what an eyelash extension was, I couldn't believe the size of the industry. Everything I found out about it just made me want to learn more, and it is a new challenge to learn a completely different industry.”

Given the precision and safety necessities for an eyelash extension service, working on the robotics has been a six-year process. “First, we made a rough prototype that ran on a table about as big as a desk which just put some lash extensions onto mannequins. We made a 15-minute demo video that got us the next round of funding. Then it was about doing it on people, which is a whole different level because you have to make everything safe. Fortunately, through the brilliance of my co-founder, Kurt [Amundson], we thought of putting everything on magnets—that was a big help,” Harding recounts. From there on came some corner-flare extension experiments and more ensuing funding.

Luum Lash’s robotics use plastic wands with soft tips to apply the extensions. One robot arm searches for the isolated lashes and then instructs the other to join it to place the extension. In the case of these wands touching anything other than the client’s lashes, the wands would immediately disengage. The machine works by adjusting to the client’s unique proportions and measurements. AI is used for image processing and recognizing patterns and images to help build the machine’s neural networks. Thanks to its machine-learning mechanisms, performance is improved with every service. Lash artists are still present throughout the procedure, prepping the client’s lashes, leading them through the application process, and evaluating the final product post-application.

In its Oakland, CA, headquarters, the company offers VIP preview appointments for a growing waitlist of clients. For the debut of the machine, three styles ranging in length and thickness will be offered, from more natural to dramatic styles. Luum Lash is also in the process of partnering with a nationwide beauty retailer and already counts Benefit Cosmetics as a customer.

“The reception has been way better than I expected because when we started this, we had a lot of concern about how intimidating the technology could feel because it's a big machine. As it turned out, the customers loved it, because it's so much less invasive,” he remarks. While there may be initial consumer hesitation to letting a machine operate so closely to their face, 95% of Luum Lash clients said they felt “extremely safe” during the procedure. With the recent increased investment comes the opportunity to build an even more compact and efficient model.

“The beauty salon has had such little increase in productivity over the years. It's a one-to-one kind of service, and that means that those jobs can only make so much. We think it’s time for a change,” Harding states. “Everybody has been worried about the loss of jobs, but it doesn't happen in this particular business. There’s a shortage of labor, of appointments. We can make it into a job that people can do for a much longer period of their life because it's not going to be so physically demanding, and more productive so they can get a bigger piece of the pie, too.”

For the future, further potential franchising and international expansion opportunities await. Eyebrows, hair removal, and semi-permanent makeup could be other application avenues for Luum Lash’s hardware. Looks like the unconventional business mantras courtesy of Rollins & Roth, paired with the company’s cross-industry team of experts, and an unwavering dedication to get it right—no matter the hours, extensive programming, or strategy pivots—have proved to be the mother(board) of robotic invention.


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