Breaking down the walls between art and science, a trans-Atlantic Ph.D. is whimsically challenging the way we think about eating and imbibing.
The people standing in the February cold on the quaint cobblestoned Parisian street were not waiting in line for a band or a celebrity, but instead wanted to try Le Whaf, an innovation from Dr. David Edwards, an inventor and biomedical engineer. Inside Edwards’s crowded Le Laboratoire, a huge art and science space near the Louvre, ubiquitous white vapor seemed to be pouring out of oddly shaped glass carafes perched on top of shining silver basins.
The patrons — with bewildered and amused looks on their faces — walked from table to table to “sip” from smoke-filled glasses through a special truncated straw. On the menu: immaterial sushi and duck l’orange.
Edwards had invited four renowned chefs to see what they could create by what he calls “whaffing” food in this 2012 presentation. Whaffing utilizes ultrasound technology to create pressure waves that produce a vapor interspersed with droplets. One chef, Ben Shewry of Attica in Australia, lined up the carafes, as Edwards put it, like “four brothers in a row.” The first contained rice water, the second soya sauce, the third ginger sauce and the fourth Japanese vinegar. When taken in correct succession, a person had the sensation of a bite of sushi. Another chef, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Italy, covered the top of the glass with his hand before giving it to a patron, ensuring that the duck l’orange whaf did not escape.
Before whaffing food, Edwards and his collaborator, the food designer Marc Bretillot, launched an earlier exhibition, “Clouds of Flavor,” using the same vaporization method for liquors such as cognac — delivering 1/1000th of a shot in a cloud.
During the art-meets-science revelry, the chefs spoke about their scientific culinary musings while Edwards served as master of ceremonies. A scientist who has also made best-dressed lists, he wore a sienna-colored jacket over a dark purple shirt populated with tiny red and white flowers, jeans and black shoes. Chic spectacles framed his brown eyes, and he has long, dark wavy hair and a five o’clock shadow that is flecked with gray and white. Soft-spoken and urbane, Edwards, fifty-three, divides his time between Paris, where he lives with his wife Aurelie and their three sons, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he teaches at Harvard University.
Le Whaf is just one of Edwards’ many innovations. There’s also Le Whif, a calorie-free chocolate, and its caffeine sister, AeroShot. (In the United States, both have been rebranded and are part of the expanding AeroLife product line.) There’s also Le Wahh, a spray that gives the impression of intoxication for an instant, which Edwards created with French designer Philippe Starck. Now, there is WikiPearl, a biodegradable shell that encases food without using plastic.
Edwards is using science, art, and a dash of whimsy to create food and drink products that aren’t encumbered by a liquid or solid physicality.
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Not so long ago, molecular gastronomy swept the world of fine dining with its use of science and liquid nitrogen, best exemplified by Catalan chef Ferran Adria’s elBulli. Adria perfected what he called “culinary foam,” which eschews eggs and cream for “air” that is siphoned through a nitrous oxide cartridge. ElBulli was considered one of the best, most influential restaurants in the world for many years before it shuttered its doors in 2011. Since then, haute cuisine has moved in the direction of foraging, cooking with ingredients that chefs find in their backyard or a nearby farm or park. Rene Redzepi’s Noma, which has a menu built around foraged ingredients, has been named “Best Restaurant” in the prestigious “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards” for the fourth time in the past five years — a list previously topped by elBulli five times.
Yet Edwards believes molecular gastronomy is much more than a passing trend, and he is bringing his products not to elite restaurants, but to the commercial market. His first foray into using science to bend food’s rules was Le Whif, which came in a light pastel canister that a person could pull or draw on the end, much like you suck on a straw, to get powder into the mouth that is then swallowed: the taste of chocolate, but without any calories.
But Le Whif debuted at Le Laboratoire to somewhat mixed reviews. “It was kind of funny,” Edwards said in one of many interviews. “Everyone was coughing the first time because it wasn’t well-designed.” He compared it to the first time someone takes a drag of cigarette: they don’t want to let on their inability to inhale. But it had potential. “If we did this better there might be something there,” he said. It took several iterations to improve the design of Le Whif — for instance, making sure the chocolate particles would not fall out of the canister — before the 2009 Paris launch.
Edwards used the same type of delivery system to create a product that was introduced as AeroShot, a calorie-free caffeine and B vitamin powder. One neon yellow and black canister contained six puffs with as much caffeine as one cup of java. With the proliferation of coffee shops and the emergence of Red Bull energy drink as the beverage du jour, moving into this crowded — but lucrative — U.S. sector (energy drink sales reached $11.8 billion in 2013) seemed like a good move. After Edwards and his former student Tom Hadfield incorporated Breathable Foods in England, they were ready to debut the products in the United States. “We were taken aback both times by the media attention,” said Hadfield, then CEO of the company. But not all of the attention was positive. New York Senator Charles Schumer petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to review AeroShot, according to a press release that framed it as a “party enhancer.” Schumer’s characterization of AeroShot as something that would help young people party longer, not study harder, grabbed headlines and the product made the media rounds. Ellen DeGeneres quipped on her eponymous show, “Congratulations America, we are now too lazy to sip.”
After the FDA reviewed the product and its website, the agency sent a warning letter to Breathable Foods that stated AeroShot was “misbranded … in that the labeling was false and misleading.” The regulatory body also raised questions about whether the product was being marketed to a young — under eighteen — demographic. At the Breathable Foods office near MIT, Edwards gathered his staff and addressed the letter. “Moments of greatness are moments of crisis,” he said. They gave the FDA studies in order to prove the products’ safety, addressing concerns that the particles would miss the mouth and somehow get into the lungs. At the end of the canisters is a closed circle with small tiny holes that dot the edge. These holes ensure that the particles get into the mouth and then are swallowed. “Breathable” is no longer used to describe the products or the company, now known as AeroDesigns, Inc.
The line of “air-based smart nutrition system” that contains “zero calories, liquids, sugar or pills,” according to Aerolife.com, has expanded. There is an AeroLife Sleep to fall asleep faster, an AeroLife Sport with caffeine and electrolytes, and AeroLife Energy, with caffeine and B vitamins.
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Edwards was always a dreamer. He grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan watching reruns of Batman. The youngest of three children with two older sisters in a middle-class family, Edwards was good at math, intrigued by the theater and in love with the written word. “I happened to not like school and I never took it that seriously,” he said. He wrote his first book in fifth grade and gave it to his teacher to read. He waited two weeks before he asked her what she thought. She hadn’t read it and her young son had smashed an ice cream cone on the cover. He was disappointed then, but sometimes uses the image of an ice cream cone to begin some of his lectures. Edwards says that the ice cream cone was a reminder to “curate” his dreams.
He made his fortune back in the nineties, studying and ultimately changing one aerosol’s structure. After earning his doctorate in chemical engineering, writing two science textbooks called Macrotransport Processes and Interfacial Transport Processes and Rheology, and a stint teaching in Israel, he started working at Dr. Robert Langer’s lab at MIT in 1994. Langer is a legend in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical world; a man who has helped his students start companies and co-founded numerous ones himself. His open-windowed office at MIT has two walls filled from top to bottom with accolades. By the time Edwards joined the lab, Langer had founded several successful biotechnology companies, Accusphere and Enzytech, which used microspheres — the smallest particle at that time — to deliver medicine. “I realized at the time that a lot of people were thinking about aerosols,” Langer said during an interview at his MIT office, and that it was a “potentially exciting area.” Traditional methods of getting medicine particles to the lungs were inefficient and the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer had been working on creating inhalable insulin, compelling other companies to feel as though they had to play catch up.
Edwards started working on the particles used for inhaling medicine and improving their efficacy. Before working in Langer’s Lab, Edwards had lived and breathed theory, writing applied math books that dealt with Einstein’s theories of how objects moved along surfaces. He had also written a paper analyzing how particles move about the lungs. Most scientists at the time were focused on the size of the particle. If too large, the particles would settle in the back of one’s throat. “But the problem is when they’re tiny, it’s like wet sand, they stick together,” said Langer. Edwards instead focused on the density and began modeling aerosol particles.
He then wrote a National Institute of Health grant, based on his belief that big particles that weighed less and were porous could be breathed in and reach the lungs in a more efficient way. “The NIH came back and said it was really a bad idea and why would you fill particles with air if you wanted to deliver drugs?” said Edwards. “And so with that encouragement I ended up at Penn State.” Although he and his wife moved to Pennsylvania for a job as an associate professor, Edwards continued to communicate with Langer’s Lab, and the NIH rejection did not stop Edwards from thinking about the problem or his porous particle idea.
A visiting scientist at the lab sent Edwards a photograph from a post-doctorate student who was trying to encapsulate DNA. The photo showed a particle that looked as if it was blown apart with holes everywhere. This picture inspired Edwards’ thought about creating a porous particle that was larger in size but weighed less. “He calculated, well, if he makes them highly porous, aerodynamically they float differently. And they won’t settle in the back of your throat,” said Langer. If magnified, the porous particle that Edwards modeled would look like a whiffle ball and the medicine would seep out of its holes and into the lung. This was revolutionary. “This is kind of like the first time someone really changed the aerosol design,” said Langer. In 1997, Langer and Edwards wrote “Large Porous Particles for Pulmonary Drug Delivery” for Science. The groundbreaking article grabbed the attention of pharmaceutical companies who were eager to even the inhalable insulin playing field — Pfizer was spending a lot of money and leading the pack.
The collaboration continued. On Langer’s side, his students worked on creating polymer particles, and at Penn State, Edwards tested the polymers on animals. “What was clear was that from a practical point of view we needed to go beyond the polymers,” said Edwards. He needed a more commercially viable way of manufacturing and started thinking about how the food industry used spray-drying to make dried milk. One day he wandered into a warehouse-like building, which was part of Penn State’s food science labs, and used the big dry sprayer where they produced dried milk to make his porous particle — this time out of a type of sugar.
Through Langer’s connections, there had been offers to start a company. But Edwards was nervous about making the leap from academia to the entrepreneurial world. He had always been skeptical of intellectual property and making money from science. More importantly, he first had to be sure that his porous particles worked. He went to an unlikely venue to test his hypothesis: his wife’s gynecologist’s office. After he dried estrogen particles, he put them in an inhaler and then breathed. The nurses checked to see how much estrogen was in his bloodstream. “It was so off the charts,” he said with a laugh.
This gave Edwards the confidence to move forward. He left his job at Penn State and he and his family moved back to Boston. Terry McGuire, a venture capitalist who had co-founded Polaris Ventures, agreed to invest $250,000, according to a Harvard Business School study. In 1997, McGuire, Langer and Edwards founded Advanced Inhalation Research, or AIR.
Finding the right people to work with was also a challenge. Edwards eventually brought in three scientists that he had known when he had worked in Langer’s Lab. Things started moving very fast, and a company called Alkermes eventually dished out over $100 million to purchase AIR in 1999.
“I was too innocent to understand what happened,” Edwards said of the sale. “It was an amazing thing.”
Edwards, a man who used to sleep in his office, was now rich.
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After AIR was sold, Edwards and his wife Aurelie founded the Cloud Foundation in 1999. They wanted to engage underprivileged teenagers in Boston in the arts and fund projects in rap, poetry, theater and dance. The foundation has also sponsored students from Boston to go to Paris and meet teenagers from the banlieue, the outskirts of the French capital. The teens, Edwards said, realize they have a lot more in common then they thought. The Cloud Foundation also runs the ArtScience prize, which awards $100,000 to a Boston high school student in an art and design competition.
“Artscience” is a term Edwards coined in his book Artscience: Creativity in the post-Google Generation, writing: “Even more interesting to me is what happens when the aesthetic and scientific methods combine. How does this happen? There may be aesthetic aims that require application or understanding of the scientific method…Or there may be scientific aims that require application or understanding of the aesthetic method…Either way, the fused methods that results, at once aesthetic and scientific — intuitive and deductive, sensual and analytical, comfortable with uncertainty and able to frame a problem, embracing nature in its complexity and able to simplify to nature in its essence — is what I call artscience.”
Removing the wall between art and science is no easy task, and engaging the general populace in the topic is what spurred him to start thinking about food, a universal subject. He also started to articulate his vision via writing. For many years, Edwards — who gets by on five hours of sleep — has had the habit of writing in the morning before his day begins. Under the nom de plume Seguier, he has collaborated on two graphic novels: Niche and Whiff.
His ideas of melding art and science have culminated in Le Laboratoire. Edwards started teaching at Harvard in 2001 and became a faculty member in 2002. In 2005, he took a sabbatical from Harvard and looked for a space in Paris to house his dream project. Finding a building in the heart of Paris, near the Louvre, was not easy. After World War II, the French government declared that buildings there must retain their original function. Thus, if the building houses a restaurant, then it must always be a restaurant. Edwards found out that the building he had his eyes on had once housed a printing press. He convinced the government that there was going to be printing of sorts at Le Laboratoire. It worked, but they didn’t get their permit to operate until opening day. After weathering a tough few years following the financial storm, when funding money dried up, the artscience exhibition space is now doing well, and The Laboratory at Harvard, will open later this year.
The FoodLab at Le Laboratoire still conducts molecular cuisine experiments. One of its latest innovations to launch is called WikiFoods. Inspired by grapes and their outer shell and shape, Edwards and his team thought of a way to engulf any food or drink with a natural particle skin — like a banana or orange peel — that is held together with ions. Orange juice would no longer need a carton — a WikiPearl outer shell that could be pierced easily with a straw would enclose it.
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It is a familiar scene every day in Silicon Valley: young people pitching a new tech idea to a venture capitalist. But on a hot day in the spring of 2012, the pitching was done in a large Harvard classroom with white walls and a barn-like ceiling. Nervous twittering hovered in the air. In Edwards’ “Idea Translation” class, which he taught that year with Dr. Beth Altringer, students are pushed to see an idea through from conception to completion. There are not a lot of parameters; Edwards provided a seed idea and then the students had to create a product or service from it. The class theme for spring 2012 was “virtual worlds.”
On the dry erase board, the group project names, such as Evosphere and Think^3, were listed in the order they would present. First up was Lift, a group that wanted to start an app that would enable a person to send “small gifts – ‘lifts,’ instantly and spontaneously across distance,” according to their executive summary. The venture capitalist offered feedback and it was on to the next hopefuls. The last group was one that called itself Sonoma. The four young women wanted to figure out a way to send fragrances via a device. For instance, when shopping for a perfume and you want a friend or partner’s opinion, press a button and a smell is sent. It would “allow users to experience scent at their convenience and in transit, an experience impossible with candles, incense or perfume,” according to their mission statement.
The investor seemed impressed with the possibilities. Afterwards, Edwards spent time with the group talking quietly about what steps and experiments were necessary to make this innovation viable. The students listened and took notes while Edwards drew diagrams and wrote equations on one of the freestanding smaller dry erase board.
Rachel Field, a student of that class, worked with Edwards for two years to turn that idea into the oPhone, which will allow users to send scents via devices and will be on the market next year. The oPhone, which is the hardware that emits the scent, works in conjunction with the oSnap, an iPhone application that people can use to tag a photograph with over 300,000 unique scents, according to a press release from Vapor Communications, the company behind the oPhone.
The first transmitted scent message of chocolate and champagne was sent from Paris and received by the American Natural History Museum in New York this past June, as reported by Ariel Bogle in Slate. Impossibility into reality: an Edwards’ specialty.
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Dusica Sue Malesevic’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Nautilus and other publications.
Ellen Lindner is a New York City based cartoonist and illustrator. Her new graphic novel, a mystery entitled The Black Feather Falls, appears every Wednesday on activatecomix.com.