Business & Real Estate

Los Altos-based startup eyes digital makeup color-matching

Alicia Castro/Town Crier
Kokko Inc. Makeup Director Meli Pennington, standing, tests different shades of foundation on Los Altos resident Karen Melchior.

Meli Pennington knows cosmetics.

She has painted faces for the pages of Vogue and Glamour, the stages of Marc Jacobs and Victoria’s Secret, and the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Carrie Underwood. The New York City-based professional blends and applies makeup with an artist’s touch, and one Los Altos startup is seeking to bring her expertise to customers’ fingertips.

“We want our app to be as good as Meli,” said Los Altos resident Nina Bhatti, founder, CEO and chief technical officer of Kokko Inc. “We’re trying to replicate a professional’s perfect knowledge of the products.”

Kokko is building a mobile app that, based on a woman’s skin tone, recommends her ideal color foundation. Each user takes a selfie with Kokko’s skin-color-matching chart and receives a list of foundations from varying brands and price points.

“Women feel they need a safe place to go for across-brand recommendations,” Bhatti said, adding that the department store salespeople often market their brands and magazines to advertisers.

The service will be free to customers, and partnering cosmetic companies will receive a portion of the online purchases. Bhatti said she hopes to license the technology to other beauty brands to enhance their products.

“I’ve been told by beauty execs that this is the holy grail of beauty,” she added. “This combines technology with beauty in a way that is really accessible.”

Local assessments

The company last week completed a cosmetics and skin tone study at the Marriott Residence Inn in Los Altos. Kokko’s photographer snapped an image of each participant with a Kokko ColorChart – and ensured robust reference data by including point-and-shoot and DSLR shots as well as a smartphone selfies.

“We’re wanting to validate the usability,” said Scott Trappe, Los Altos resident and Kokko’s co-founder and vice president of product. “By using different lighting and cameras, we’re drawing from all situations.”

Next, two makeup artists independently applied sample swatches of some 250 shades of foundation. Bhatti said most people matched with at least three shades. Getting that perfect match is essential, she added.

“Especially in Silicon Valley, I think people want to look like themselves – just the best version of themselves,” she said.

Test marketing

Los Altos resident Karen Melchior put her skin tone to the test Thursday morning.

“I don’t usually wear makeup because I have a hard time figuring out what works,” she said. “But I thought it could be helpful to get some expert opinions.”

Participants like Melchior walked away with product recommendations at a variety of price points. In turn, Kokko added participants’ skin tones and product matches to an amassing online database.

The results from Los Altos – nearly 200 testers – will add to more than 150 assessments completed on women in New York.

“Our goal is to get a complete representation so we don’t miss anyone,” Bhatti said.

Eventually, the company hopes to include different beauty products for inspirational looks on models who match women’s age and skin tone.

“Right now, we’re focused on complexion products,” she said. “You’ve got to start with the base and then work your way up.”

She called color matching the “last frontier” of the Internet.

“It’s the hardest thing – and the big obstacle to buying online,” she said. “People want to do these things online.”

While the Kokko team completed the assessments in Los Altos, makeup artists and data analysts teased back and forth. Pennington pointed to a metrics board marked with shades of foundation – the visual representation of in-process algorithms.

“Our technology combines math and imaging with artists’ capability,” Bhatti said. “It’s an expert in your pocket.”

The first round of studies has closed, but the company is seeking testers for its beauty app beta program.

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