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2013 AUDACIOUS COMPANIES

Chewing and Swallowing Are So Yesterday
 

Harvard University professor David Edwards is making caffeine, vitamins, and food you ingest in a powdery blast.

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AeroShot Energy is an air-based shot of powdered caffeine. It comes in small plastic tubes with bright caps. Pull the cap open, insert the opening in your mouth, and suck. A hundred milligrams of your favorite stimulant, plus vitamin B, enters your mouth in a fruity, powdery puff and dissolves on your tongue. Each tube contains enough caffeine for three to five draws, so you can consume it all at once or over time. The shots contain zero calories and keep you out of the bathroom line at Starbucks. 

AeroShot, which was awarded a gratifyingly broad patent in July, is the first product from David Edwards's AeroDesigns, a 32-employee venture-funded start-up based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hot on the heels of caffeine, consumers will experience air-based food (chocolate shots are available through AeroDesigns’ website) and--eventually--air-based pharmaceuticals. "We can, with this process, deliver all the essential vitamins, the taste sensations,” says Edwards. “It’s a whole new way of putting active ingredients in the mouth without pills and a whole new way of eating, which is still kind of blue-sky."

AeroShot debuted in October 2011 at Le Laboratoire, the Paris-based hub of a network of innovation sandboxes created by Edwards, an inventor, writer, and Harvard University professor. Here, Edwards orchestrates mash-ups of art and design with science and technology. The goal is to generate ideas that are educational first (students and others working in the lab learn from them), cultural second (the public imagination is piqued as word spreads) and commercial third (consumers are able to buy real products). The other Le Laboratoire brainchild to reach stage three is edible food packaging called Wikicells. Imagine devouring yogurt or cheese or a martini by popping something that looks like a bath bead into your mouth.

Edwards characterizes inventions like AeroShot and Wikicells as "aspirational design." Disruptive change, he explains, “does not generally come about by an analysis of what’s not working, but rather by moving off into a real greenfield space and asking what if? It's learning to ask certain types of questions without being too utilitarian. If I actually could breathe food--nobody’s ever done that--that should be really important. So not saying, gosh, low calorie, fast-action. More kind of a dream space.”

That said, utility was paramount for AeroShot’s progenitor: inhalable insulin. In 1996 Edwards, then an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published an article in the journal Science explaining how the holy grail of diabetes research might be achieved. When an investor at Polaris Ventures approached him about turning his idea into a product, Edwards agreed to leave academia and launch a startup. (As proof of concept, he persuaded his wife’s gynecologist to let him come into the lab and try inhaling estrogen. He overdosed.)  In 1999, Edwards sold the start-up, called Advanced Inhalation Research, to a public company, then stayed on for two years to run it. The sale has funded some of Edwards’ subsequent work. (Polaris is an investor in AeroDesign, as is Flagship Ventures.) 

Inhalable insulin remains a dream unrealized, for cost reasons, among others. But more pedestrian substances--for example, vitamins, minerals, and sleep aids--present fewer problems. Edwards is talking to several pharmaceutical companies about transforming such products into finely atomized powders and delivering them through his devices. As for air-delivered foods, Edwards envisions a new snack line ("imagine vending machines!") and high-end experiences ("things you don’t need a lot of but you pay a lot to get them, like fois gras or caviar.") As the company prepares to market chocolate it is also developing air-delivered pizza, which may come packaged with a bruschetta-stuffed capsule to provide a titch more substance. "It will be this great pizza experience but with no calories, and I don’t have to feel greasy," Edwards says.

Meanwhile, AeroDesigns is already available in about 20,000 stores, including the CVS, Circle K, and Tedeschi chains. Athletes seem to like it, as do college students heading into study marathons. "We have New York City Ballet dancers who appreciate the advantage of going onstage with nothing on their stomachs," Edwards says. The company expects to sell a million units a month by year’s end and is shooting for profitability in 2014. "Red Bull has greater than a billion in sales, and they did that pretty quickly," says Edwards. "There’s no reason why this product could not outsell Five Hour Energy or Red Bull." 

IMAGE: Breathable Foods/Splash/Newscom
Last updated: Apr 18, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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