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Podcast: Hair and There with SOTRO Innovations

Manufacturers work in many different spaces, creating solutions for any number of challenges. The reason behind the development of a product is often the most interesting part of the story. Personal frustration with the lack of available solutions can be the inspiration for new and creative solutions. So is the story of SOTRO in the world of home hair care products.

In this episode of NYS Manufacturing Now, Steve sits down with Stephanie Louis to discuss how she got started, how their products work, along with their rollout and future plans for the company.

Listen to the Podcast

Transcript:

Steve Melito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito. Today we’re talking to Stephanie Louis, Chief Executive and Operating Officer for SOTRO Innovations Incorporated in Brooklyn, New York. SOTRO builds tech- enabled products to make it easier and faster to style and grow healthier, thicker, and longer hair, and they’re about to launch an environmentally sustainable hair steamer that facilitates aromatherapy and more. Stephanie Lewis, welcome to the podcast.

Stephanie Louis: Oh, well thanks for having me, Steve. Super excited to get in it.

Steve Melito: Oh, it’s great to have you here. So hey, let’s start at the top. Why did you decide to start SOTRO and build out a line of hair care tools?

Stephanie Louis: One of the things that’s really hard when you’ve got super curly hair or hair that just requires a little bit more management is that it’s really hard to find good tools out there that can help you do it easier. You’re often having to go to the salon and pay a lot of money or don’t do it because it’s just a lot of work. So what I wanted to do was make it easier for people who want to manage their hair on their own to do it in a really relaxing way in their homes, with their feet up and really make hair care feel like self- care. And then there’s the other part of it is oftentimes the tools that are for at home use, they’re really bulky, really hard to take with you, really hard to move around. So I wanted to create something that looked appealing and looked like something that you would want in your home, but something that could be very easy for you to take around where you needed to take it. So that’s how SOTRO was born essentially, because I actually own a hair salon in Brooklyn. We serve every type of person with every type of hair texture, and once the pandemic hit, I got a bunch of calls from our clients and they were all like, “What do I do?” And so I remember that I had this idea of creating a professional hair care tool line at home and I sort of dusted it off in the old ideal bin and was like, “Well I think this is the time to do it, can’t do anything else.” So this is kind of how we got started.

Steve Melito: That’s an awesome story.

Stephanie Louis: Well thank you.

Steve Melito: So your website is getsotro.com, and I checked it out, you’ve got several products on it already. They’re all collapsible hair steamers. Now our listeners can’t see me or you, but I’m a middle- aged bald guy. I’ve never used a product like this myself. How does it work, Stephanie?

Stephanie Louis: Oh, well for all bald guys of all ages, if you’ve got people in your life who have ever given you their bad hair care stories, this is definitely for them. So we still need all of the bald guys to be behind us too, but it’s-

Steve Melito: You got it.

Stephanie Louis: Essentially, I kind of liken the importance of a hair steamer or how it works to imagining sort of like a dry twig. So if you’ve got a dry twig, and if you’ve seen dry twigs, they’re really easy to break. You just can snap and then they’re broken. But if you soak that dry twig in water and then you try to break it, it’s a little harder to do that, and that’s kind of how hair works. So most hair loss, as long as it’s not genetic, it’s kind of due to just having dry hair, un-moisturized, un-hydrated hair. And so what the steamer does is it releases the right amount of moisture to the hair so that it kind of stays in this sort of malleable, softened position and is less prone to have split ends or less prone to sort of just break just because it’s too dry, like husky even.
So the thing about hair steamers is they’ve usually been relegated to salon spaces because they’re these huge bulky machines that are like… they’re massive and nobody ideally can sort of have those sorts of machines in their homes. And the ones that are for at home use are either… I mean I know this word is pretty subjective but super ugly. You don’t want to even look at them or have them anywhere near you, and then on top of that they’re just… they don’t work as efficiently and you can’t really sit under them comfortably. So we thought that the best way to kick off any healthy hair routine is to make sure your hair is properly hydrated and moisturized. So the launch tool that we have, the first one that we’re coming out with, is the steamer so that we can help encourage healthy hair habits before we release other hair care tools that do more.

Steve Melito: That makes sense. There’s some science behind this for sure. Now your current products are both functional and attractive, and it sounds like you knew the attractiveness was going to be an important part of this. It looks like they incorporate some different parts and materials. In general terms, can you tell us about what those components are like, what it’s made of?

Stephanie Louis: So the steamer has a few components in there. One of them obviously being a heating tool and an ultrasonic mister piece and a lot of other components that have aromatherapy integration easily or have a removable helmet so that you can wash this and not have it be stuck with grime and all that sort of stuff. So there’s quite a few pieces on it that the traditional steamers don’t have or components that traditional steamers don’t have to make it easier to collapse, easier to travel with, easier to clean, easier to disinfect. So we’ve really thought about making something both design friendly and functional.

Steve Melito: Beautiful. And you’re currently working on a retail ready version of the steamer.

Stephanie Louis: You got it.

Steve Melito: What are your plans for manufacturing and assembly? Are you going to do it all in house or maybe outsource some of the work?

Stephanie Louis: Right now, since we’re sort of finalizing that retail ready version, we’ve got a few (inaudible) ideas about where we want to manufacture, what pieces we think we can cost effectively and safely use New York manufacturing ecosystem to do, but right now it’s looking, at least for the bulk of production, it probably it’s going to be overseas, likely Vietnam or Mexico, and assembly, especially if we do move forward with production in Mexico, is something that we’re looking to do here in New York state. So right now that’s sort of like what the plans look for the manufacturing and production end.

Steve Melito: You got us. On behalf of FuzeHub, if you ever want to have a conversation about New York state manufacturers that can help you, let us know because we do that too.

Stephanie Louis: Yeah. I’ve already got introduced to the team and that resolve and you guys have already been so incredibly helpful with all of those pieces already. So I can’t wait to see what more you help with.

Steve Melito: Awesome. Glad to hear it. So let’s talk about SOTRA the company some more. How many people work there and what’s an average workday like for you?

Stephanie Louis: Definitely we’re very small team. We’re just starting and about four of us work there now, two of us are full- time, so really micro team here, and the days are really exciting because we know we’re building something that’s definitely going to take the industry by storm, the hair industry, that is. It’s something that’s really needed, that a lot of people have not sort of put their minds to making easily facilitated. There are a lot of long hours, a lot of thinking through how to solve problems effectively, getting feedback from potential customers and getting ideas of how to make this universal for people with all types of hair textures. Our real goal here is to create a tool that makes it easier and more fun to take care of your hair and not make it feel like a task. So a lot of our days are going through the feedback that we get from a lot of our partners, affiliates, collaborators, clients, and seeing what ways we can make this more effective. So a lot of thinking, a lot of writing, a lot of long nights, a lot of doing, but it’s all worth it.

Steve Melito: Good. It’s a lot of work to be an entrepreneur but also very rewarding.

Stephanie Louis: Indeed.

Steve Melito: So let’s talk about the next version of your product. It’s going to be environmentally sustainable. What does that mean?

Stephanie Louis: It means basically, at least on our end at this early stage, that we’re thinking about ways so that people can be more environmentally conscious of how they sort of waste and use products. So I’ll give you an example. One of the things a steamer uses in order to do the same thing is water, for obvious reasons, and the models that exist on the market, once you put the water in the tank, you kind of have to throw the water out, very few reuse it. So what we’ve done is we’ve created a hose connection to our water tank that takes the condensation that comes from that steaming process and recycles it into the tank, so there’s no water wasted and you can reuse it. We’re reducing plastic parts of our steamer by about 40%, especially in these redesigns for our retail ready version.

We’re encouraging a lot of reuse and recycle. We have washable helmets as opposed to the one single use plastic disposable ones that exist. So we know that, at least at this early stage, creating a fully environmentally sustainable product will be hard because those materials will cost a little bit more, but as we grow, as we get bigger and better and more efficient, what we’re looking for is to actually create product buyback program so that as we’re developing new products, old products can be reused, re- shifted, broken down and sort of re- put into a new model so that we really do limit the waste that we have.

I know one of my major ethical concerns as I was building this product line was like, “Am I going to be okay with building yet another item, another consumable good that kind of can get wasted and thrown away?” And I think from the word “go,” we have collected ourselves with… our industrial designer is New York based, Leadoff studio, and our mechanical engineer, DC Creators, is also another New York based studio, and they too create very environmentally sustainable products. So that was really important for us to find the kind of designers and engineers that would look at this problem the same way that we did. So we’re taking baby steps now, however, what we want to do is already encourage in the mind of our potential consumer, “Hey, these are the ways that you can use this in a sustainable way that don’t feel onerous or really hard for you to do. They’re natural environmental sustainable practices that you can use with ours.”

Steve Melito: Sounds like a great strategy. Very sound.

Stephanie Louis: Awesome.

Steve Melito: So another value proposition of your next generation product is that it will facilitate aromatherapy. What is aromatherapy and is it really that important? Tell me more.

Stephanie Louis: It’s so important, Steve. And it’s not NextGen, it’s actually now. So aromatherapy, there are many uses and applications for it. It can make your mood better, it can sort of really help mitigate anxiety, and in the world of hair care it actually, especially specific essential oils, can help solve or mitigate some hair issues as well. And so one of the things in those early days when I was trying to think about, “How do I make the steamer even better than your average steamer,” is I know that being able to integrate this olfactory experience while you’re doing hair care can make it something enjoyable. Again, hair care, I’m a little envious of everyone who’s bald in this way because don’t got to deal with this. But it can take up a lot of your time. It can take up… I mean wash day alone can be hours the curlier your hair is.

And so a lot of people really just don’t look forward at all to having to go through the rigamarole, and being able to add very safely your favorite essential oil to make this experience a little bit more soothing or find the kind of essential oils that can help deal with dry scalp or make your hair feel a little bit more smoother and thicker are all the ways that we have taken the steam experience, which is already really transformative for hair outcomes, to the next level by being able to also integrate aromatherapy into sort of how you meet your hair care goals. So yeah, we really wanted this to be a spa-like experience in your home, and if you have not been introduced to aromatherapy, your next visit to your local Bed, Bath and Body Works, or even TJ Max, you can pick up these diffusers that have these four essential oils attached. And I mean it really just changed your mood almost instantly. So that was something that we wanted to be sure we integrate in our hair care line.

Steve Melito: You learn something new every day. I love it. Hey, one last question for you. So last fall, SOTRA innovations was awarded $50,000 at FuzeHub’s commercialization competition.

Stephanie Louis: Woo hoo.

Steve Melito: How do you plan to use that money?

Stephanie Louis: We are already in it right now and it’s already been transformative in helping us accelerate our launch goals. Right now, before FuzeHub, we kind of were stuck in that limbo where you know what the next steps you have to do to make your product launch but you run out of money and this kind of is like stymied. And so winning that FuzeHub prize almost overnight helped us get to be able to define what our retail ready steamer would cost, would look like.

I’m sort of finalizing that new prototype and with this prize winnings, we literally can start and our manufacturing end within months as opposed to having to wait a year. So that to me is like… this was a really game changing experience. I think the FuzeHub winnings certainly helped us get to the place where now we can actually offer a date to our customers as to when to expect the steamer and build upon a lot of the feedback that we got to make it even more efficient and even more design friendly. So this has just been a total dream and we just can’t wait to get it out there.

Steve Melito: That is awesome. Stephanie Louis, thank you so much for being on New York State Manufacturing Now.

Stephanie Louis: Thank you so much Steve for having us, and thank you for giving us an opportunity to share SOTRO with all of your listeners.

Steve Melito: You got it. Happy to do so. So we’ve been talking to Stephanie from SOTRO, the Chief Executive and Operating Officer. They’re based in Brooklyn, New York. And if you’re an entrepreneur and you’ve been listening, you’d probably like to learn more about the Commercialization Competition Award that SOTRO just won. More to the point, you’re probably wondering if you could win one yourself. It’s going to be a little while until the 2023 Commercialization Competition, but it’s never too early to start planning. And so that’s why I’m inviting you to visit www.fuzehub.com and once you get there, look for the funding menu at the top of your screen, then find the Commercialization Competition item on that menu. You can read all about it and you’ll even find information about the next round of manufacturing grants, which are expected to open in January 2023. Hey, that’s this month. So if you’re not already on our mailing list, look for the big green subscribe button. It’s at the top right of the FuzeHub menu bar. So on behalf of FuzeHub of New York State Manufacturing Now, this is Steve Melito signing off.

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