The inverse journey

July 07, 2020

The inverse journey

In May 2011, the concept for inverse was born, then known as Black-ice. Carolina was at home recovering from her last op and caught Tyra Banks on her talk-show advising the audience that there was a real benefit in treating hair with icy cold water. She claimed it removed frizz and fly-away hair leaving it shiny and bouncy.

Any girl with curly hair will do anything to get her curls sitting beautifully, so braving the cold wasn’t such a stretch – after all she always finished in the shower with a final cold rinse.

That day I got home from the salon and noticed her hair sitting in a way it had never done before. She asked me if I liked it. Her curls were full of life, shiny and defined. I asked what she had done differently and she replied ice water. Wow! The effect was stunning.

Immediately I wondered how I reproduce this result in the salon but without the discomfort of freezing cold water; delivering the therapy in an ambient environment quickly and effectively. How could I do this? There had to be a better way and it dawned on me.

Here was an opportunity to bring something new and exciting into an industry that had become stale with a lack of innovation. To develop something that made hair better rather than taking it to within an inch of its life. To develop a way of treating hair, without the requirement for chemical based products. The challenge would be overcoming using freezing water on clients.

Over the course of the next few weeks I slowly realised here was an opportunity to develop a truly natural product/device that could scale globally and provide an alternative to what is currently on offer.

First thing was to get online and see if there was anything that already existed. Interestingly there were hundreds of websites supporting the idea that cold rinses were of benefit to human hair. In fact, the method had been around for hundreds of years and was actively been promoted by natural hair care and beauty sites. I searched for months as I began to progress the idea, but to my relief there was nothing.

How could something so obvious have been overlooked for so long? After all this is one of the oldest industries in the world! Surely somebody must have noticed the same thing I had. The searching continued as did developing the idea. Next thing was to get all the ideas out of my head and write a business plan.

I began to wonder how this device would look. In my mind, it would look a lot like a hot tong. If 2 plates either side of the tress of hair was the best way to straighten hair and deliver the heat, then 2 plates either side of the tress must be the most efficient way to deliver cold also. In addition, people would understand how to use it if it looked like something they were familiar with. Little did I realise that the form factor I had chosen would become one of the biggest challenges we would face in trying to communicate the benefits of ice therapy.

Next was the name and names are never easy - particularly when there is nothing like it in the world for reference. I settled on Black-Ice quickly as it had a certain feel to it and who knew whether that name would be the technologies final identity.

Next step was to find a design company that could turn this vision into a reality and a patent attorney that could protect it. I spent a week researching design companies and examples of their work. There was half a dozen or so but really only 2 that made the grade. One local and one in the South Island. I contacted both companies, both produced beautiful work but one seemed more enthusiastic than the other so they got the job. In July 2011, I flew down South and met with the whole team - they were on board immediately and could see the enormous potential the technology had.

Now I needed to pay for the development (well as much as I could before I needed to raise serious money), the patent attorney and every other unforeseeable cost I knew was coming up. The first finance raise was a personal loan from the bank and as we went through stages of development the loan quickly dwindled away. Next an unsecured finance company loan, then 2 credit cards, then extending the limits of the credit cards. As those limits were reached, I dipped into family and gleaned as much as they were prepared to lend me.

Initially I wanted the device to be powered so to provide the same convenience a set of straighteners did - plug in and go. Later this would prove to be the biggest challenge of the project - making something cold using electricity in a small hand held device.

A friend of mine who knew about the project called me to let me know a work colleague of his knew of a technology that had the ability to cool in an incredible amount of time using electricity, Peltier units or TEC's (thermal electric cooling units). These little guys had the ability to drag energy from one side of the little panel to the other depending on which way the current ran through the TEC. The design team were advised and this formed the basis of the original Black Ice prototypes, both the hand held and the desk top version.


 

Meanwhile back in Tauranga, I had found a local patent specialist and began the mind-bending task of coming to terms with what was required to successfully file. This was a critical part of the project and a process that would last 6 years and is still ongoing.

In addition, I contacted as many govt. departments as possible looking for grants and any form of financial assistance to help keep the project alive. Sadly, they weren't forthcoming; the responses would range from you haven't done enough work or the project wasn’t as far ahead as it needed to be or in other cases, I'd done too much therefore didn’t meet the criteria for assistance. I found this incredibly frustrating and eventually gave up reaching out for help from these departments that, in my view, were established to help people with innovative ideas, not find reasons not to help.

The months went by and slowly progress was being made on both the patent and prototypes. I continued to hair dress full time and work on Black Ice (Inverse) in the evenings often till early in the morning. One Sunday in the salon I had a client and friend mention to me there was a Start-up weekend happening this weekend where groups of people got together to brain storm ideas for new businesses and at the end a winner would be announced and receive funding for the venture. Dan invited me along so I went. After work I headed on down to the event in time to catch the end and was approached by the Bill of Enterprise angels, a local investment group that would meet monthly to have businesses pitched to savvy investors. If they were successful, the business would receive capital. Bill was intrigued with Black Ice and saw potential with his investment group.

By now 2 years had gone by and I registered ‘Roholm Ltd' with the company’s office in July 2013. At the same time work on getting investment ready and fulfilling all the necessary requirements had begun and I was invited to showcase my business to potential investors. Showcasing was simply an opportunity to gauge interest and having gained sufficient interest, I was invited back the following month to pitch for investment. I brought my product designer up from the South Island and we pitched. We had 20 minutes and there was significant, what followed was a meeting with those that indicated to be held the following Monday. 

Most turned up and we struck a deal. A board of directors was formed and the decision was made to try and validate the claims I had made by way of researching the science of sub-zero temperatures and human fibre. After weeks of thoroughly researching the effects of ice and human hair, we were amazed to find almost no literature whatsoever on this subject.

This was a very strange thing. Hairdressing is one of the oldest trades/industries in the world and volumes of science had been produced on the structure of hair and its associated appendages, chemicals and heat but apparently, nothing on sub-zero temperatures. Here's an opportunity to produce world first science. Very exciting and lots of unknown - we knew there was a benefit but what if we couldn’t measure it?

New Zealand is well known for its clean green image, cascading mountain peaks and sheep, lots of them, around 30 million. Interestingly hair and wool are almost identical in structure and composition. AgResearch, world leader's in natural fibres and textiles were the obvious partner and were contracted to conduct the science. The study was framed up by our research company and submitted. By Christmas that year we had the results and to our delight we proved there was in fact a benefit in treating hair with sub-zero temperatures.

Having confirmed the benefits of sub-zero temperatures with rock solid science, work began again on completing the development of my original prototypes. The board made the decision to bring the development up to the Bay of Plenty and every effort was made to make the handheld (sculpt) device fully functional. Unfortunately, we couldn’t dissipate the heat fast enough and the device would slowly rise in temperature rendering it ineffective. In addition, other work had been done on the second concept (desk top) that would passively cool a handheld tong. The desk top version would provide more mass than could be squeezed into a hand-held version thus providing more efficient cooling and heat extraction capabilities. Sadly, the configuration of the technology wasn't optimum and we couldn’t displace the heat fast enough either which meant we needed to go back to the drawing board and redesign this technology entirely.

Three years had now passed and work on redevelopment was moving forward slowly. Specialist scientists were consulted regarding thermal conductivity and complicated mathematical equations were developed to understand what amount of energy needed to be removed in order to reduce the temperature of the fibre to where the magic happens, which materials were suitable for construction and formulations that would maintain a consistent temperature for long enough.

Early drawings and designs were looking incredible now the challenge was turning these concepts into fully functioning prototype's that A) worked, and B) could be manufactured. Fantastic designs are one thing but being able to manufacture is another thing entirely. With over 40 design iterations, we landed on something close to what we now know as inverse today. 


 

Salon trials began here in New Zealand and at both Robanda and Pro-Rituals Salon in San Diego, U.S.A. All of them were a smashing success. At this time, we engaged with GHD and were invited to present the technology. GHD wanted to understand whether inverse provided a cosmetic benefit or if it there was more to it and if so, did it have the potential to increase the tensile strength of hair. For them, this was would determine if we really had something.

Again, AgResearch were approached and a 30-day user trial was organized with selected women. Hair types varied which included colored, heat damaged, mature, fine and curly.  Approximately 50 hair samples were taken from areas all over their heads, bagged and put aside to be sent to the lab for testing. The girls were all given an Inverse, ice mist and instructions for use over the next month. 30 days later we met with the girls again and recollected another 50 samples from each of the candidates.

All participants experienced a range of effects and changes to their hair which included:

  • Reduced frizz
  • Smoother silkier softer and more luscious hair
  • Increased curl definition
  • Healthier stronger and hydrated hair
  • More manageable hair
  • Enhanced natural movement
  • Improved color retention by up to a factor of 2
  • Reduction in shampoo and conditioning products

AgResearch measured the tensile strength and discovered on average, natural hair gained 8% in strength and up to 20% for heat damaged hair. We had a technology that outperformed the best hair treatment and conditioners on the market -and all with the power of ice.

After a few months GHD concluded they couldn’t tell the story, Heat bad - cold good (among other things) -  Why? Because heat was their core business and to for them to say heat was bad was like the cigarette companies saying smoking is bad for you. They couldn’t say it.

Media in New Zealand were hot on our tracks and near the end of 2015 we were approached by a national TV channel and a segment on inverse was broadcast. We had so much interest nationally and internationally that we needed to get a website up as soon as possible and field the huge number of requests for distribution internationally. 

Just before December 2015 we had the first batch of inverse produced. I was still hairdressing at this stage and the salon I was in would be the first salon in the world to sell Inverse. It was quite a proud moment to see them being unpacked and placed on display for sale and with having a clientele of over 300 that had been following me on this journey for what is now 5 years, they were selling like hot cakes, often 2 or 3 at a time. It was fantastic and terrifying all at the same time - we could measure the benefits in a laboratory and we had success in the user trials but these were actual paying customers - what if the user experience didn’t equal the benefits the science indicated?

And then came relief! Within a few weeks, I had clients specifically coming back to the salon to show me their hair. Comments like "my hair has never felt like this" to "I want to invest in the company" were common place and it just kept coming, one happy customer after another. 

We won awards, a gold pin for innovation at Best Design Awards, a Good Design award from Australia, finalists in Total Beauty Global Awards in 2 categories and a couple of others.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soon we were exporting to all over the world and as awareness of inverse grew and the company began to grow, we hired our very first full-time employee, Jen, for customer service, shipping and a million other things. That same year Alex Gomez for Digital Marketing and Sam Marshall became CEO for inverse hair in early 2017. Shortly thereafter Alex Dallas joined the ranks as CFO and Krissi Mills as our Brand Manager. 

These are such an incredibly talented and dedicated group of people, its difficult not to be inspired, to feel proud and honored that they chose inverse.

Its hard, it really is - taking something from your head and popping it into a woman's bathroom, there's so much you don't know and that's a good thing, its how it should be because if you knew what you were actually in for, you wouldn't do it.

But for me? There's real satisfaction watching inverse grow, making its way slowly to the mainstream and transforming women's hair like no other conditioning product can, providing an alternative to toxic chemicals, assisting thousands of individuals to help reduce their carbon foot-print by using less product and producing less waste. I really think its time to nurture our natural beauty, not distort it and our responsibility to teach the next generation to do the same. Welcome to the new ice age.

David Roe

Founder - Roholm, inverse.

 

 



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