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L’Oreal sued over hair protection knockoff

Start-up firm Olaplex charges theft of its chemistry intellectual property

by Marc S. Reisch
December 27, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 1

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Credit: Olaplex
Olaplex’s Pressly (left) in his garage with Hawker. The two scientists discovered a new way to protect hair from the damaging effects of bleaching.
Credit: Olaplex
Olaplex’s Pressly (left) in his garage with Hawker. The two scientists discovered a new way to protect hair from the damaging effects of bleaching.

Celebrities Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence went blonde using it, and now L’Oreal is charged with stealing it: the formula for Olaplex’s Bond Multiplier, a product that protects hair during bleaching and color treatments.

The bad blood emerged late last year in a suit filed in federal court for the Central District of California. In it, start-up firm Olaplex charged L’Oreal with violating a patent covering hair protection ingredients discovered by a University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), chemist and a former student.

Olaplex is seeking an injunction against L’Oreal and unspecified damages. In response, L’Oreal says “we strongly oppose the merit of these claims and the validity of the patent, and L’Oreal will defend this position vigorously.”

The original active ingredient the two scientists discovered was bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate, a molecule with maleate ions on either end. According to Olaplex, it works by keeping bleaching and coloring agents from breaking disulfide bonds in the hair.

However, the lawsuit charges L’Oreal with violating a patent issued to the two scientists for an alternative hair protector: maleic acid. The two patented the second ingredient as a way to protect Olaplex against a competitor that might try to substitute a less-expensive ingredient for the dimaleate.

New hair treatments such as Bond Multiplier and three ­products from L’Oreal—Professionnel Smartbond, Redken pH-Bonder, and ­Matrix Bond Ultim8—are a boon to consumers who “want to be able to change their color often yet suffer none of the damaging side effects frequent coloring usually entails, such as breakage or dryness,” says product development consultant Ameann DeJohn. “Up until recently, there just hasn’t been anything like this available at all.”

According to the Olaplex suit, polymer chemists Craig J. Hawker and Eric Pressly developed the chemistry for Bond Multiplier in Pressly’s garage. Hawker is a ­professor in UCSB’s department of chemistry and biochemistry and winner of the 2013 ACS Award in Polymer Chemistry. ACS is the publisher of C&EN. Pressly, who currently works for Olaplex, got his Ph.D. in materials science from UCSB and was a member of Hawker’s research group.

Olaplex introduced Bond Multiplier to stylists in early 2014. Later that year, a L’Oreal-owned firm started to distribute it. Sales were so strong that L’Oreal tried, unsuccessfully, in early 2015 to hire Hawker and Pressly. It then offered to buy Olaplex, the suit alleges.

By May, talks had advanced and L’Oreal had signed a confidentiality agreement giving it access to Olaplex’s proprietary information. But by September negotiations fell apart. Shortly thereafter, the suit charges, L’Oreal created three “knock offs that it hoped would mimic Olaplex’s success.”

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