Nibbling at the Nutricosmetics Competition

Skin-care products you can eat are relatively new to U.S. consumers, but the French and the Japanese have been gobbling them up for years. When François Vix, a former marketing executive for L'OrÉal's (OREP) Lancôme division and Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) Neutrogena line, found out about promising new scientific research in the so-called nutricosmetics field, he decided to make a new line of ingestible products and market them intensively in his native France.

But could Vix's GliSODin Skin Nutrients compete against established beauty drinks such as Inneov, a product marketed via a joint venture of NestlÉ (NESN) and L'OrÉal? Inneov was already widely available in pharmacies and other retail outlets and enjoyed a strong following among French consumers. So Vix, who started his business in 2006, decided to turn to doctors for help, even though French rules of professional conduct essentially prevent physicians from selling cosmetic products directly to patients. Vix recently spoke to BusinessWeek's Rebecca Reisner about breaking into the life-sciences game, competing with a giant, revving up salespeople to sell a new product.

What advice do you have for anyone venturing into the beauty/pharmaceutical business?

Life-sciences projects are long-term projects, so you have to be patient. You're working in a very strict regulatory environment. It's extremely time-consuming and money-consuming. You have to deliver the proof. We've been working on GliSODin Skin Nutrients for seven years. Also, you should think in terms of having a strong business in the future—not in suddenly being profitable. We could have turned profitable earlier, but we chose to first build a strong foundation of science and then leverage that science. We're in a leveraging phase.

What's a good strategy for competing with a giant—in your case, with L'OrÉal?

Make the product fundamentally different. We distinguished ourselves by having a proprietary chemical compound called GliSODin that was discovered by two French immunologists. Another good strategy is to go after a completely different market sector. L'OrÉal has a very large presence in the retail market, so we decided to go after the medical market for cosmetics, which is only about 8% to 10% of the nutricosmetics market in France. Our strategy is to double up our awareness with dermatologists and natural medicine practitioners.

How can you avail yourself of the "medical market" if French doctors can't sell products?

I've made use of the huge number of dermatologists I made connections with in France from working at Neutrogena. We've visited 1,500 dermatologists in France and asked them to recommend our product to their patients. Then the patients can go out and buy the products [over the counter] at pharmacies.

How do you hire and then motivate sales reps to sell a new product when the competition can pay more—and has better-known products?

Make your reps feel they are taking part in a new adventure. We had presentations for them where top-level researchers taught them about our products. And if you're paying below the average salary, make it clear that there are other advantages. We knew some people would enjoy working in a smaller, less bureaucratic environment, so we played up that advantage.

Has your plan worked?

In France, we took in about 1 million euros in 2008. We expect to be profitable by 2010.

Any plans to sell your products in the U.S.?

Yes. We just recently introduced our products in the U.S. People can buy them via dermatologists and plastic surgeons. They complement certain types of medical procedures done by these types of specialists. We are also selling products via "medi-spas" like Exhale.

How much do they cost?

In France, a month's supply is 30 to 40 euros. In the U.S., the formulas have a stronger dose of GliSODin, and the cost is $80 to $150.