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Pure Imagination Pure Imagination

Pure Imagination

by Emily Wallace, Amanda Hess
June 2, 2012

David Edwards was several glasses of wine deep when he floated the idea to a couple of friends. It was the kind of absurd statement that materializes between drinking buddies at a certain level of inebriation, the kind of idea that gets swatted down as soon as it reaches the open air. The kind of idea that makes you realize how out of it you are.

“What if you could breathe food?” Edwards asked.

These were not ordinary drinking buddies. Edwards is a Harvard professor of biomedical engineering who had made millions developing a new aerosol technology that allows diabetics to take insulin by breathing—no needle required. His friends: Thierry Marx, a double-Michelin-starred French chef, and Jerome Bibette, a chemist and physicist who had charted new ground in the scientific understanding of colloids. It was the summer of 2007. The three were lunching in a Carthusian-monastery-turned-resort just outside Bordeaux where Marx worked as head chef.

Marx “sort of shook his head,” Edwards says. Then: “He told me it was a good idea.”

Edwards gets a lot of ideas. He catalogs the most promising ones on his personal website, davidideas.com, where they are listed in the order that he releases them

to the world. So far there are 29. Such as idea 10: “a way of making plants more intelligent.” Or idea 18: “a new way of exploring museums.” Or idea 23: “a new kind of bottle using the biological cell as inspiration.” Some of these ideas appear to be philosophical questions. When he writes a book about one of his ideas, he counts that as an “idea” too.

Back in the converted monastery, the three friends had gathered to discuss another idea of Edwards’s that was set to launch in mere months: an educational, commercial, and cultural framework for incubating more way-out-there ideas that don’t immediately solve any problems, make any money, or even make much sense. It’s idea 9, Le Laboratoire: a place where ideas could be born, evolve, and be “exhibited” to the public for feedback.

Edwards was on the hunt for a spectacular notion to be exhibited at Le Lab. Enter idea 12: breathe food. It doesn’t seem within the realm of biological possibility, but that makes it a perfect fit for the theoretical zone in which Edwards works. “We’re suspending reality,” he explains. “I look back on it as an attempt to retrieve that bubble of creativity, that sandbox that I had as a child.”

Over the past half decade, Edwards has constructed an “idea funnel.” It begins in Cambridge, where he runs an educational program that manifests as engineering courses for Harvard undergraduates (idea 8: the Idea Translation Lab) and fellowships for Boston public high school students (idea 17: the ArtScience Prize). They are encouraged to engage with the absurd, so the resulting ideas seem straight out of the pages of SkyMall 2050. Ideas like “argument resolution hats”—feuding parties strap them on and wait for the devices to calculate a compromise. Or the “dream player,” a device that captures the activity of your sleeping brain so that “you could watch your dreams, a kind of fascinating morning television!” This semester, a group of young women are researching the possibility of “sending odors around the world.”

The students are learning real-world stuff like intellectual property law and team communication. Most of their ideas never mature into a marketable product—many can’t even identify a market where such a thing could possibly be sold. But any concrete outcomes are beside the point. Edwards believes this kind of exploration has the potential to locate “surprising, impossible-to-foresee approaches” to solving global problems.

“Plenty of people are thinking in very short-term incremental ways,” says Dr. Beth Altringer, a psychologist who specializes in human innovation and lectures alongside Edwards in a Harvard engineering class called “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter.” Usually, constraints on time and money push ideas out of the “exploratory phase” and straight into testing and peer review before they have a chance to reach their full potential. Real-world institutions rein in the idea, push it through existing frameworks, find a way to convert it into cash as quickly as possible. The idea gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Edwards’s method “anchors students in a pretty far-out place,” Altringer says. Students decide whether to continue to pursue an idea by answering the question, “Are you excited about this?”

After class, some students—those who snag the ArtScience Prize or outside educational grants or a personal invitation from Edwards—head to Paris, where their ideas marinate further in Le Lab’s office and gallery space. There, Edwards commandeers his laptop from a giant geodesic beanbag in a space he calls the “LaboBrain.” He and his students work with guest artists, designers, and chefs to chart their ideas on “a kind of cave formed by a giant white board made of fiberglass.” When an idea has matured, Edwards throws a gallery opening where it is celebrated as art and the public is invited to consider it. The press tags along. Edwards takes the opportunity to explain “how science would benefit art and art science by freeing ideas to dance.”

When Le Lab opened to the public in 2007, early exhibits featured “a giant neuron of bubble gum,” “strange filters containing living plants,” and later, “aerosolized chocolate”—Edwards’s first take on the idea of breathing food. Visitors were befuddled. “Few journalists could say even what Le Laboratoire was,” Edwards writes in his 2008 book The Lab. “They searched for words. Le Laboratoire seemed out of touch, perhaps elitist.”

While Edwards is preoccupied with blue-sky ideas, the students in his cultural exhibition program have come up with some compelling real-world concepts—a soccer ball that converts kids’ kicks into energy, a way to light South Africa using dirt, a water bottle that expands and contracts based on how much liquid it holds (idea 22: the Pumpkin— several of Edwards’s listed ideas were initially conceived by someone else in Le Lab).

Practical applications are a happy side effect, though, not Edwards’s end goal. “Fundamentally, bringing ideas to an audience is an effort to understand oneself,” he says. “This is not ‘How do I make money?’ It isn’t even ‘How do I change the world?’ It’s ‘Who am I?’”

And who is David Edwards? In a photo on his site, he appears seated at a table in front of a kind of culinary bong. His mass of wavy inventor hair is glossy brown, his stubble silver, his spectacles round, lips turned down, eyes smiling. A drinking glass with a gray fog curling out of it is tipped delicately between three fingers in his right hand. Edwards, who is 51, has been called a Willy Wonka, a mad scientist, a Nutty Professor. He has the eccentricity of these characters, coupled with the institutional support of Harvard and his own deep pockets. Like them, he’s found a way to pursue his most outlandish ideas.

Outside the realm of fiction, “idea men” run the gamut from practical entrepreneurs to out-there imagineers. Steve Jobs took the mouse out of Xerox PARC and put it into the hands of everyday people—a brilliant packager. Ron Popeil convinced late-night TV viewers that mundane household activities could be accomplished faster—a brilliant pitchman. Sir James Dyson applied the theory of the sawmill cyclone to the vacuum cleaner—a brilliant inventor, but confined to the sad world of carpet cleaning.

Perhaps the closest analog to Edwards is Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. Kamen began with a big idea to revolutionize the way we move through the world. In the end, though, Kamen only revolutionized the way security guards move through mall parking lots. Edwards doesn’t want to see any of his ideas shrink to this size, even if it means those ideas stay in the realm of the fantastical. But Edwards, like Kamen, is working in the real world, where results and revenues matter. At some point, all idea men—even Harvard- connected millionaires—are expected to actually make something.

* * *

A few decades ago, Edwards’s thinking was anchored firmly in the scientific. He completed his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1987, taught at Penn State and MIT, and fell into a traditional academic trajectory (idea 1 and idea 2 are both textbooks). Breathable insulin was not Edwards’s idea—the concept was first floated by German researchers in 1924—but he did figure out how to make it real. In 1997, he hit upon idea 3: a method for inhaling insulin particles like you would out of an asthma inhaler. It was quickly followed by idea 4: Build a company around that method.

Within a year, he’d sold that company, Advanced Inhalation Research, to biotech firm Alkermes, which partnered with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly to bring the drug to market. Edwards had landed in the middle of a big pharma power grab. Eli Lilly owned the traditional insulin market, and when it got wind that its competitor Pfizer had started developing an inhalable version, Lilly needed Edwards’s technology to defend its turf. Edwards sold his company for a cool $114 million, personally netting more than $20 million for a year of work. The week he signed the sale papers, he bought pair after pair of shoes. He was made president of an Alkermes subsidiary. He spent his summers in France, working on his novel.

But diabetics still weren’t breathing their medicine. Pfizer decided that inhalable insulin was too expensive to market to consumers. And with the insulin market still safely cornered, Eli Lilly dropped the idea, too. Edwards found himself disillusioned by the impossibility of bringing about innovation that didn’t guarantee billion-dollar profits. Psychologically, he says, “it was a really weird time.”

Eager to rejoin academia, Edwards accepted a position at Harvard in 2002. He had found financial success taking someone else’s idea and turning it into a reality. Now, he was determined to incubate his own ideas. Within five years, he had taken his insulin money, built Le Lab, and set about discovering how to breathe food—something that had never been done before.

He put his students to work grinding up carrots and peppers and chocolate into inhalable units and “playing around with breathing through a straw.” They coughed. They gagged. They ended up with a lipstick-sized tube that contained 300 milligrams of fine cocoa powder, ground small enough to inhale into your mouth, too big to breathe into your lungs, and with a safety to prevent the powder from going straight to the back of the throat. They called it Le Whif.

Le Whif fell somewhere between the lofty idea of “breathing food” and the pedestrian reality of huffing cocoa powder from a dinky plastic tube. When it hit the world in 2008, it left testers coughing, but amused. Some initial consumers told Edwards, “You are so far away from having anything that anyone would ever do.” Others said, “I love the Whif because it’s so useless.”

The purpose of Le Whif, according to Edwards, was to keep people dreaming about the idea, not to really bring it to life. He says it’s about “finding a public that gets it.” But no one wants to pay to just think about breathing food. Edwards’s method for coming up with ideas with little commercial value was “burning through cash at an alarming rate.” Ideas needed to be free to dance, sure, but he needed to find a way to get people to pay for the show.

What he really needed was Tom Hadfield, an all-grown-up British tech whiz kid who sold a soccer website at 17, made six figures, launched an educational website, sold that too, then enrolled in Harvard University and approached Edwards about the prospect of selling his big ideas. “David is a creative genius,” says Hadfield, now 29. “He has the ability to step out five or ten years and imagine a different future—when packaging is edible, nutrition is breathable, or when people are kind of ... spraying vodka on their food, or whatever.”

In 2009, Hadfield and Edwards hit upon idea 26: Create a company called Breathable Foods to market the idea of inhaling instead of chewing. Edwards became chairman and Hadfield CEO. The following year, they mounted their attempt to sell Le Whif to a wide audience. Hadfield stood in front of a crowd at a Dublin TEDx conference and projected a painting of cavepeople spearing a one-horned mammal onto the wall. Its title: “30,000 B.C.: Large Game.” The presentation paced quickly through the human culinary evolution: two meals per day (1200 A.D.); three meals per day (1850 A.D.); several small meals (2000s). It ended with modern-day humans sticking inhalers into their mouths.

“Eating has become more and more ephemeral,” Hadfield told the crowd. “Could it be that eating patterns are moving toward their logical conclusion: aerosol cuisine?” A title card appeared: “ARE YOU WHIF EXPERIENCED?” Hadfield invited the crowd to take a puff. “I see some people laughing, some people coughing, some people look confused, but that’s ok,” he said. “I’m finding it’s like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it.”

The press ate it up. Breathable food was perfect for Daily Mail headlines: “Now there’s food you don't eat but INHALE.” Le Whif hit the pages of Popular Science and Cosmopolitan. For a while, the media attention allowed the product to float further in the public imagination. But “What if?” was not a sufficiently compelling pitch to drive Le Whif to commercial viability.

Edwards took it hard. Personally, he was learning more about himself than ever. But practically, he was losing sleep over the funnel’s finances. “You grow older and you recognize that somebody has to pay for food on the table,” Edwards says, “and idea development is costly.”

* * *

There may not be any room in the marketplace for plain old ideas, but there is a real market for things that people don’t need. Edwards, Hadfield, and the 20-some employees of Breathable Foods have found a new place for their technology on shelves next to trendy non-FDA-approved party supplements like hangover patches that pump B12 into your bloodstream, or daily multivitamins designed for heavy drinkers.

“The idea was to deliver the impact of an energy drink—caffeine and daily doses of three vitamin Bs—without calories, and with the convenience and portability of Le Whif.” Idea 29: the AeroShot.

The AeroShot costs $2.99 and is styled in neon green, flavored with Stevia, and promises to deliver the pickup of a large cup of coffee in a few puffs of powder. “I typically start my day with an espresso, but if I have an espresso in the afternoon, I don’t sleep at night,” Edwards told me. “With AeroShot, I can take a puff and put it in my pocket and take another puff later.”

This time, Edwards didn’t linger in the world of the theoretical—no intellectual incubation, no gallery opening. Last fall, Breathable Foods released the AeroShot straight to market. Two Boston venture capital firms have invested $8.5 million in the project. Royalties from AeroShot’s sales will filter back into Le Lab’s educational outreach and cultural exhibition.

AeroShot reached its 2012 sales goals within months of its release. Edwards heard feedback like, “Finally, a Harvard professor does something useful.” Or at least something usable. YouTube is littered with videos of people trying it—a dude in a long braided ponytail who huffs AeroShot before a run; a shirtless Australian guy tracking his beard growth while talking up AeroShot; a woman in a clubbing top making revolted faces after taking her first shot. A YouTube user named fatcop402 documents his whiff experience. “Oh, that was gross,” he says after rushing to the bathroom to vomit. “No more AeroShot.”

As it turns out, the FDA draws a firm line between things you eat and things you breathe. “Your labeling is false and misleading,” the FDA wrote in a warning shot to Breathable Foods this fall. “The functioning of the epiglottis in the throat keeps the processes of inhalation and ingestion mutually exclusive.”

Edwards says that Breathable Foods is “moving away from the breathing language” and toward an idea of “a platform for delivering nutrients and food and drink for ingestion.” The company’s name has been changed to AeroDesigns. Edwards calls the shift a natural evolution.

The AeroShot doesn’t look much like the idea he had at Thierry Marx’s restaurant. It is smaller, not so beautiful. But all dreams transform when they hit the wall of reality. The process has been a learning opportunity, Edwards says, one that he’ll apply to idea 30 and idea 31 and onward. The idea funnel has already churned out the concept for the team’s next product, a collaboration with world-renowned designer Philippe Starck. Idea: “Accent life with a magic wand.” Do it by spraying microparticles of alcohol into your mouth to get just a little bit drunk.

Edwards envisions that someday a form of his breathable pharmaceutical technology could be used to alleviate iron deficiencies in developing countries, where swallowing harsh iron pills can cause gastrointestinal problems. It’s going back to his roots a little bit. “There are some real humanitarian platforms that interest us,” Edwards says. Right now, though, they’re just ideas.