Want Your Nails Done? Let a Robot Do It.

This article is part of our new series, Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are transforming our lives.

Omri Moran was on time for a first date, but the young woman, inexplicably, was late. She finally arrived, but skirted the question of her tardiness, saying “Never mind, you wouldn’t get it,” Mr. Moran recalled.

Not easily deterred, Mr. Moran, then the head of a geo-tracking start-up, persisted and discovered the reason: His date had ruined, and unsuccessfully tried to remedy, the new manicure she had gotten in anticipation of their meeting.

At the time of the date in 2016, he in fact didn’t get it, but the moment also provided an epiphany of sorts. “I’m one of those people when they see things that are bad, I just start thinking of solutions,” Mr. Moran said. “And I just wondered why it couldn’t be automated. And that’s kind of how we got rolling.”

He envisioned a robotic approach to manicures and began working on his idea that year, which morphed into the company Nimble. The concept, which two other start-ups are separately working on, essentially seeks to offer a simple way to provide foolproof nail polish. The companies, Clockwork and Coral, in addition to Mr. Moran’s Nimble, have developed distinct technologies and different business models to offer customers a quick color change.

But don’t give up your regular appointment just yet. While all three companies have secured substantial outside financing, the devices are still being tested and altered before their full market debuts. And none of the three are offering a full salon-type manicure with shaping and buffing. Still, they could ultimately upend the growing nail care market.

As a market sector, manicures are a goal worth pursuing. Estimates peg the nail care market at close to $10 billion, and it could reach as high as $11.6 billion by 2027. While the size of the market for color alone has not been teased out, investors find it enticing. As Julie Bornstein, the founder of the shopping app the Yes, who has invested in Clockwork, said, the idea resonated because manicures could be time consuming: “I personally don’t like spending 40 minutes going to the nail salon.”

The technology incorporates some hardware — such as a robotic arm in some instances — to paint the nails, with software that relies on machine learning to distinguish a fingernail from the surrounding skin. Each company uses a different approach, yet essentially relies on the scanning of thousands of nail shapes to create a database. Cameras within the devices take photos of the nails of the individual user, a process repeated each time a manicure is done even on the same person. During the development, all three have tried to minimize the number of moving parts and rely more on software, because moving parts can break down over time.

Clockwork is the first to hit the market, although in a limited way. Last Friday, the company opened in a storefront space in the Marina District of San Francisco, essentially a pop-up location expected to be open for at least six months. Clients will pay $7.99 to test the device, which is slightly bigger than a microwave. The soft opening follows a 2019 test run in their office of a prior iteration with employees of Dropbox, where the Clockwork founders Renuka Apte and Aaron Feldstein first met. (At the time, the two companies were located blocks away from each other.)

The pop-up is the culmination of four years of work. Ms. Apte and Mr. Feldstein had initially started their company in 2017, Ms. Apte said, sifting through roughly 70 ideas before settling on what they called “minicures.”

Their tabletop device, destined for stores, offices and apartment complexes, incorporates a mix of computer vision and artificial intelligence to paint nails. Rather than use a robotic arm, their machine incorporates what’s known as a gantry, an older technology that relies on multiaxis movements to apply polish.

They chose the corporate name of Clockwork, which is a play on words addressing the penchant for regular manicures as well as the technical intricacy of a clock. The two had worked without pay until late 2019, when they secured $3.2 million in their first round of funding.

Coral, another company trying to upend the salon industry, obtained $4.3 million in venture funding around the same time. But Bradley Leong, the company’s chief executive and co-founder, said that because they could not get the device’s price as low as they had hoped in its current iteration, they were making it semirobotic to decrease the cost.

Nimble has incorporated so-called computer vision to work with artificial intelligence and a robotic arm to offer simple, 10-minute manicures in a device also close to the size of a toaster. To build brand awareness, the company, which started in Tel Aviv but is now headquartered in Brooklyn, recently ran a Kickstarter campaign and has secured $10 million in seed financing as well.

As with any robotics, there is the inevitable question of whether jobs will be replaced by the devices. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019 there were 155,300 jobs; average pay was $27,870 per year or $13.40 per hour (before tips). Without any disruption, a growth rate of 19 percent is expected.

None of the futuristic machines shape nails, so that part of salon service will not be disrupted. Ms. Apte said she did not anticipate any job losses at salons, because her device would function as an extra service. Mr. Leong also said that he did not expect his company’s device would put people out of work because it didn’t substitute for a full manicure.

The three companies have different business models. Clockwork wants to maintain ownership, with its devices available for a quick change of color in offices, apartment buildings or retail stores for about $10, Ms. Apte said. Nimble’s product is geared for home use, and the company plans to sell directly to consumers and in retail outlets, Mr. Moran said, with an intended price of $399. (Those who invested through Kickstarter were eligible for a pre-order price of $249). Coral is also pursuing consumers, but its model is in flux, Mr. Leong said, as it adjusts the device to keep prices below $100.

The process is quick. Nimble, Mr. Moran said, will polish and dry nails within the 10 minutes, using its proprietary formula. Ms. Apte acknowledged that while Clockwork’s manicure might take under 10 minutes, drying time is additional.

While all the founders said their devices were safe, they were not required to undergo the type of arduous review that, say, certain medical devices would, according to Tricia Kaufman, a health care and life sciences lawyer and partner at the Stinson law firm in Minneapolis.

Mr. Feldstein, the Clockwork co-founder, said that their device has multiple safety features, including a plastic-tipped cartridge that won’t pierce a finger. It will not be connected to the internet, so the hacking threat — with polish running amok — is curtailed. Ultimately, the consumer is the last defense because a hand can easily be pulled out.

The founders all seem to be contemplating brand extensions. None of the companies, for example, have yet to offer pedicures.

But one way to expand their reach seems clear. While women traditionally have gotten manicures, men comprise a largely untapped market that may be receptive to the automation. According to Ms. Apte of Clockwork, “We hear that they would rather go get it done by a robot then to sit in a nail salon.”

As for Mr. Moran, that first date was worth waiting for. Dar Moran is now his wife. And, he said, “she was customer No. 1.”

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