By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COLERAIN TOWNSHIP - Don Bissett watches the spots on a small computer screen, a magnification of human skin cells in a culture dish below. He's looking for ways to reduce pigment spots on the skin.
With his bookish glasses and unassuming manner, working from a cluttered office that seems a bit too small, Bissett could be a college professor starting research on his first book.
Don Bissett at work in a lab at the Miami Valley Laboratories.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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But Bissett is a research fellow at Procter & Gamble Co., the $40 billion maker of Tide, Bounty and Olay. Along with hundreds of other P&G researchers, he is the first step in getting those products out of the laboratory and onto store shelves.
His goal is simple: "Find something that works."
Before his current assignment, Bissett spent almost a decade working on anti-wrinkle technology, first trying to prevent wrinkles and then trying to reverse them. That bore fruit early this month when P&G's Olay Regenerist hit store shelves, promising women they could turn back the clock and regenerate skin while smoothing away wrinkles.
The catalyst was "amino-peptide complex," a P&G invention gleaned from a peptide, or small chains of the body's amino acids.
Bissett's lab and others like it are the P&G that nobody sees, far from the glitzy television commercials that reach billions of consumers all over the globe. If those commercials are P&G's public face, then the innovation that researchers start in the lab is the "lifeblood" of the company, executives say.
Without the new research, P&G would be left with the same products, powerhouses in industries that are growing slowly, if at all. Developing new products, along with new versions of prominent brand names such as Olay and Pampers, is the only way to make sure P&G continues to grow.
In the past five years, those researchers are working faster and are more connected to P&G's marketing machine. And with competitors such as Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Kimberly-Clark Corp. pressing every day, there is even more pressure to get products from the lab to the store shelf, where they can start earning profits.
P&G employs about 1,500 Ph.D.s in its research unit, more than elite universities Harvard, MIT and the University of California at Berkeley combined. It spends $1.6 billion a year on research, compared with more than $3.7 billion a year on advertising.
But in the last several years, P&G has started to look outside more for its innovation.
About one-quarter of its technologies now come from other companies, either licensed or bought by P&G. The goal is to get that to half, said Gil Cloyd, P&G's chief technology officer and the executive overseeing R&D.
There are plenty of examples. P&G licensed the technology in the new Swiffer Duster from a Japanese company. But the science behind Crest Whitestrips was created in P&G labs.
In the Internet age, the move to outside technologies can be more pronounced, Cloyd said. He called it a "virtual R&D capability."
"It's inherently more efficient when someone can bring you a technology that meets the need you have," he said. "And now through the Internet, someone that I've never met can become aware of what I would like and give me the solution."
That means P&G might not spend more on research - both R&D budgets and patents acquired peaked in 1999 and 2000, during the heyday of innovation-happy CEO Durk Jager. But it also means P&G will not stop innovating, Cloyd said.
P&G has pushed most of its in-house research from a corporate unit to its various business units. That includes the skin-care division, where Bissett handles "upstream" experiments, or those expected to yield results over a period of several years.
After Miami Valley, the next step for most skin-care products is P&G's Sharon Woods Technical Center in Blue Ash, where researchers work on more immediate concerns, such as color, texture and fragrance.
P&G operates similar labs all over the world. While Bissett works in the skin-care unit, his counterparts are doing the same thing in laundry, diapers and pharmaceuticals, looking for the next breakthrough product.
"Once we prove we really have something, a whole bunch of other things start happening," said Larry Robinson, a senior scientist at Sharon Woods. "I think this is our biggest one ever."
If research is at the front end of the product-development spectrum, marketing is at the back end. There, P&G's marketing types are now salivating about marketing Olay Regenerist. They say it's a step beyond the wildly popular Olay Total Effects, which hit the market in 2000 with promises of fighting the "seven signs of aging."
Regenerist not only does that, it actually regenerates the skin, smoothing and in some cases eliminating the wrinkles, said Lauren Thaman Hodges, associate director of skin and hair science.
"The Total Effects consumer wants to stop aging," she said. "This consumer actually wants to turn back the clock."
But there are limits to what science can do. Companies like P&G have found for years that female consumers are willing to try different products to make themselves look better. That means not only does the product have to work, but also that advertising and packaging have to lure the consumer to try it.
That can be the tough part, because other companies are doing similar research and making similar claims. In skin care, they're looking to develop products with enough science to be a potential replacement for treatment from a dermatologist. Some have called them "cosmeceuticals."
For example, competitor Johnson & Johnson's Neutrogena has licensed a copper peptide technology from ProCyte Corp. in Redmond, Wash., and is selling it as Neutrogena Visibly Firm.
ProCyte also uses the technology in its Neova products.
"I guess they care about the science if it works," said Jack Clifford, ProCyte's chairman. "Consumers over the last several years have become more and more sophisticated about these products."
Procyte worked for more than five years on the technology before licensing it to J&J. Clifford said the copper peptide technology "helps the body remember what it's supposed to do."
"We want women to feel and look younger," he said. "We feel very good about this technology. It appears easy, but there's a lot of know-how involved."
Tom Vierhile, executive editor of new-product tracker Productscan online, said the blizzard of technology claims could hurt Olay Regenerist.
"It's very difficult for the consumer to wade through these claims," he said. "I can't tell you how many times I've read 'revolutionary' for these things. This category has kind of been hope in a bottle."
In 2002, there were 1,379 new skin-care products on the market, and there have been at least 1,000 introductions every year since 1999, Vierhile said.
To cut through that clutter, P&G is counting on what it says is superior science, plus the Olay brand name.
"It's a very powerful promise to women," said Gina Drosos, vice president of global skin care. "It really does mean your skin will look noticeably better and noticeably younger."
Drosos remembers when Total Effects hit the market in 2000, and they started thinking about the next generation of Olay products, focusing on the "amino-peptide complex" work emanating from Don Bissett and Miami Valley.
Even at that point, a product team had started to shape Regenerist at Sharon Woods.
"A good three years ago, I began to get the sense that we were onto something," Drosos said.
Does it work?
Bissett worked with the peptide complex for several years before reaching that level of confidence.
In the early 1990s, a study from the National Institutes of Health showed the way, identifying a "pentapeptide," or chain of five amino acids known as KTTKS, that could actually stimulate proteins like collagen and elastin, which repair wounded skin.
Previous peptides were useful only on open wounds, since they couldn't pass through the top layer of the skin. Companies including ProCyte were researching the copper peptide technology, aiming at the same target audience.
The new formula provided some hope. But it took several years to get a stable sample of the material, from the French company Sederma, making it yet another example of the external research that P&G is trying to increase.
It took even longer to create a formula with the ability to pass through the skin. By attaching palmitic acid to the KTTKS pentapeptide, Sederma found it would work on unwounded skin, making it useful for P&G as a cosmetic product.
"At that point, we say the stuff has activity," Bissett said. "It either works or it doesn't."
To P&G researchers, and the marketing executives waiting for the new technology, that was the big moment. They knew that many of the alpha-hydroxy acids or retinoid treatments irritated the skin, wounding it to stimulate new skin growth.
But Sederma's technology appeared to promote the natural healing of the skin while still smoothing the wrinkles that consumers wanted to disappear. At Miami Valley, P&G added vitamins and minerals to the pentapeptide, making the substance that would form the basis for Regenerist.
And in true P&G fashion, they gave it a fancy name: Amino-peptide complex.
But they only had cells under a microscope. P&G needed an actual product, with a smell and texture, to offer to consumers. So in 1999 and 2000, Bissett handed off the product to Robinson and other researchers at Sharon Woods. At that point, a "brand team" of functions including marketing, R&D and sales already had been formed for Regenerist.
With Robinson as the lead researcher, the brand team's job became more specific: Find a color, a texture, a fragrance that consumers would like.
"They come on pretty early," he said of the brand team. "They'll say, 'We want a cream, it needs to be fragrant,' or 'It needs to be a peach color.' "
For Regenerist, the marketers wanted choices. They also wanted something different to set Regenerist apart from both Total Effects and competitors. After "hundreds of formulations," R&D produced a cream, a liquid and a serum, the same combination sitting on store shelves now.
At the same time, the Olay marketing people and skin-care executives were on their search for the next generation of Olay. The target consumer was a bit older than those using Total Effects, and wanted bigger benefits.
Michael Kuremsky, marketing director for North American skin care, dubbed them "age-fighters." He said the research and the marketing were on parallel paths.
"I think this is real progress at Procter," he said. "Really early on, we're marrying the consumer beauty knowledge with the science. It's so much better than we would've done four or five years ago."
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