When I wrote earlier this week about a new probiotic supplement called Sweet Peach engineered to make women's vaginas smell like fruit, the response across the internet was understandable outrage: Who the hell were the guys behind this and what right did they have to decide how women's bodies ought to smell?
But the true story of Sweet Peach is outrageous in a different way. It turns out that the "startup dudes" who introduced it to the world at the DEMO tech conference, biotech entrepreneurs Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome, are not its creators, and the way they characterized it was highly misleading.
The sole founder and CEO of Sweet Peach Probiotics is a 20-year-old woman named Audrey Hutchinson. A former college student at Bard, where she studied on a full-ride Distinguished Scientist scholarship, she describes herself as an "ultrafeminist" who dropped out to pursue her vision of helping women manage their reproductive health without the need for doctors or clinics. "I don't think women should have vaginas that smell like peaches or anything like that," she says.
As Heinz and Gome's remarks pinged around the Web on Wednesday and Thursday, receiving critical coverage on Valleywag, Salon, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, Business Insider, and a host of other sites, Hutchinson was literally nauseated. (She says she vomited, twice.)
Heinz, who owns 10 percent of the equity in her company, hadn't told her he planned to unveil plans for Sweet Peach in a highly public forum. If he had, she would have asked him not to, since she still considered it to be in stealth mode. "I wasn't ready to publicize my company at all, so now I have a lot of questions being asked and a lot of really terrible things being said about my company," she says.
And Heinz, the CEO of a DNA printing startup called Cambrian Genomics, certainly hadn't warned her that he would be co-presenting the project with Gome. The Israeli entrepreneur has no involvement whatsoever in Sweet Peach; he and Heinz are partners in a different probiotics launch, Petomics, which is developing a product to make dog and cat feces smell like bananas. "If I'd known Austen was going in to discuss these two different startups in his talk, I definitely would have advised him against it," Hutchinson says.
For his part, Heinz acknowledges that he screwed up. He says he wrote Sweet Peach into his presentation only the day before, after being told that he'd have 10 minutes to present rather than three minutes, as he'd been planning on. Not mentioning Hutchinson as the founder or including a photo of her among his slides was a mistake, he says.
Gome, who had come to the Bay Area from Israel in preparation for the launch of Petomics, was only supposed to be demoing his own product, "but since we were on the topic of the microbiome, I think he got excited," Heinz says. "He's a microbiologist and he likes to talk about possibilities." Despite having no personal involvement with Hutchinson's company, Gome spoke about it in the first person, telling me, "We're going to launch a crowdfunding campaign for Sweet Peach."
It was Gome who introduced the critical misperception about Sweet Peach, after I specifically asked him whether the supplement was designed simply to eliminate unwanted odors, or whether it was meant to introduce desirable new ones, like the scent of peach. He insisted it was the latter, likening the new scent to a marker dye that let the user know the product was working. "Instead of color, this is a scent or a flavor. But it's way cool that it smells good," he said. It's not the first time Gome has expounded on this topic. Earlier this year, he told Motherboard he was working on technology that would allow a woman to "hack into her microbiome and make her vagina smell like roses and taste like Diet Coke."
For the record, that's not how Sweet Peach will work. According to Hutchinson, a user will take a sample of her vaginal microbiome and send it in for analysis. After determining the makeup of her microbiome--in effect, taking a census of the microorganisms that reside in her vagina--the company will supply a personalized regimen of probiotic supplements designed to promote optimal health. By making sure desirable microbes flourish in their proper balance, the supplements will help ensure that bad ones, like the ones that cause yeast infections, can't get a toehold.
The name alludes not to any quality of the product but to the way peaches have been used as a symbol of the vagina in literature for hundreds of years.
"I'm obviously sort of appalled that it's been misconstrued like this because it was never the point of my company," she says. "I don't want to apologize for [Austen], but at the same time I want to apologize to every woman in the world who's heard about this and wants my head on a stake."
Heinz believes Hutchinson doesn't have to worry. It's his own head he's worried about.
"This mischaracterization is going to be great for Sweet Peach," he says, predicting that the uproar will only stoke interest in the crowdfunding campaign when it gets under way in a few days. "Typically in the press, philosophical controversy can be useful when you're selling a product. So it's great for Audrey, but for me, I did lose a lot of money today."
That's because controversy is not so useful in courting investors. While Cambrian Genomics just raised $10 million in seed funding, it was on the verge of securing an even large amount--until the company's name started appearing in articles about misogyny in the tech industry.
"Some of my investors pulled out, which sucks," Heinz says. "The implication is that Cambrian is a sexist organization that thinks women's vaginas smell bad.
"I just got off the phone with my lawyer and he said, 'Austen, I would not invest in your company right now.' Basically he said you look like Bill Cosby right now. But that's why you raise $10 million, because shit happens."