Biomedical engineer David Edwards, 50, has been called a lot of things -- Mad Scientist, Willy Wonka, Nutty Professor -- because he’s the brains behind any number of whimsical items such as edible bottles, smokable whiskey and plant-based air filters. The nicknames are understandable, but Edwards isn’t some Emmett Lathrop Brown or Julius Kelp, toiling around with Bunsen burners in a dank laboratory. As founder/owner, he and CEO Tom Hadfield, 29, are entrepreneurs hoping to deliver a major jolt to sleepy Americans with the AeroShot, a small tube of breathable caffeine.
“For me, this is a billion-dollar opportunity,” Hadfield says. “We are revolutionizing the delivery system of nutrients, vitamins and supplements.”
While teaching in the applied math and engineering school at Harvard University, Edwards developed breathable insulin, and then formed Advanced Inhalation Research (AIR) around the product in the late 1990s. He spent a couple of years at AIR, but it sold relatively quickly and he returned to Cambridge. Edwards felt he’d learned a lot outside of Harvard Yard, and he wanted to bridge the gap between art, science and entrepreneurship in a practical, try-anything type of setting. In 2007, he moved to his wife’s hometown of Paris and created ArtScience Labs. Soon after, the home to "cultural experimentation" introduced Le Whif, a breathable chocolate that captured the imagination of Charlie Bucket lovers everywhere. Other breathable products such as vitamins and coffee soon followed.
Le Whif became a cult foodie hit, and garnered a ton of press, but it was a niche type of thing and Edwards never expected it be a big hit. However, they sold 400,000 last year with no marketing, proving to Edwards that there’s a marketplace for breathable products. "When buses of Japanese tourists started pulling up in front of the lab to try Le Whif, it became clear that there is interest in the technology," Edwards says. "We want a sustainable business, so AeroShot was an obvious next step."
The idea of taking the ArtScience from an artistic experiment to the mass market grew out of the classroom. In 2007, Edwards worked with Hadfield, a student in his Idea Translation program class, "How to Create Things and Have Them Matter," to create a business plan to take the breathable concept to the next level. By the time Hadfield was in his 20s, he’d started and sold two successful businesses. In 1995, at age 12, the Brighton, England, native created Soccernet.com, a fan's site covering the footie world that Hadfield says became the second most popular website in Europe after Yahoo in 1996-97. (Contrary to reports, however, he sold it to a British newspaper company for a small fee before it was sold to ESPN for $40 million.) In 1999, he and his father launched Schoolsnet.com, an education website inspired by his mother’s inability to find teaching resources online, which was sold in 2003. Both sites are alive and well.
Hadfield enrolled at Harvard to study innovation, feeling it was an ideal spot for connecting with people who, he says, "want to change the world by starting companies." Hadfield also envisioned his future endeavors going forward in America, which he finds to be more open to entrepreneurship. "It's not just a cliche," he says. "The conversation in the States is all about 'what can be done,' whereas in England, it’s 'why it can’t be done.'"
Once Edwards and Hadfield partnered up, they were able to raise $8.5 million in funds from two Boston-area venture capital firms, Flagship Ventures and Polaris Venture Partners, to bring AeroShot to market. After a soft viral campaign last fall, the product officially launched in January. The first markets are (take a wild guess) college campuses in Boston and New York City, where a captive audience of young people who burn the candle at both ends studying and/or participating in other nocturnal activities will then tell everyone they’ve ever bumped into about it through social media.
As for the product itself, AeroShot delivers 100 mg of caffeine, roughly the same as a large cup of coffee. The first iteration is lime-flavored to mask caffeine’s natural bitterness (raspberry will be out at some point in 2012), and users more or less huff the amount of powder they want right out of the tube. It works quickly and contains no calories, although Edwards sees the AeroShot more as a pick-me-up than the primary source of caffeine. “I have to have espresso in the morning, but I never have coffee in the afternoon or I’m up all night, so a small puff of AeroShot is perfect,” he says.
In its short lifespan, AeroShot has been controversial. New York Senator Charles Schumer compared it to the infamous Four Loko, while the FDA sent the company a warning letter regarding the wording on its packaging. Hadfield didn’t want to comment specifically on Schumer’s charges, other than to say the product is not intended for anyone under 18 or to be mixed with alcohol.
Time will tell if an over-caffeinated nation will be receptive to a new receptacle. And at under $3, it might seem like a stretch that the AeroShot is Hadfield’s “billion-dollar idea,” except that those two-ounce bottles known as 5-Hour Energy went from zero to $1 billion in eight short years.
Whatever the case, Edwards and Hadfield will be onto the next thing, no matter how crazy it might sound. "A big secret to successful entrepreneurship is to ignore the risks around you by having friends and colleagues who agree to ignore those risks as well," Edwards says. "Through the experience, you create incredible bonds and do amazing things."
Does AeroShot work? Here are the findings in a highly-unscientific taste test by four New Yorkers who agreed to forgo their regular daily caffeine intake.
Nat K., social media strategist: "I wouldn’t say it’s an enjoyable experience, but it works if you need to wake up right now. At 6:45 a.m., I was focused and ready to clean the house. Here’s the bizarre thing: The second time, late in the afternoon, it was like chasing the dragon. The AeroShot didn’t have the same effect, and I missed how strong it hit me in the morning."
Amy S., speech therapist: "I need coffee first thing in the morning. Without it, my brain couldn’t figure out how to use the tube. I felt like it took the truly enjoyable experience of morning coffee and turned it into something weird."
Clay R., newspaper editor: "I failed in the morning because the instructions aren't clear. They show you put it up close to your mouth and breath, but because the stuff is just fine powder, not a mist of any sort, it doesn't pop out. I think you're supposed to more or less bite down on it and then breath at the same instant you compress the container. I tried again in the afternoon -- did it right this time. Definitely got a few good hits in, but the high was minimal, very subtle. What stuck with me was the flavor, an intense chemical citrus. It was like inhaling sugar straws."
Patrick S., freelance writer: "The first time, I didn’t realize which end to suck on. The second time, it worked fast and gave me a solid caffeine buzz. I wasn’t crazy about the lime flavoring -- tasted like chewing Gatorade gum while drinking a latte."