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BY DON BOROUGHS
FEATURE: 'QUANTS' TAKE THE HEAT

CHOCOLATE DREAMS

Harvard entrepreneurs offer Parisians a new way to indulge.


It's exactly 3,437 miles from Harvard Yard to the gourmet counter at Galeries Lafayette, the famous French department store. That's also the distance covered by one of the most bizarre concepts in 21st-century food: a chocolate inhaler.

An idea honed in an engineering science course, Le Whif, as it is called, delivers a mouthful of flavor - dark chocolate, chocolate raspberry, or mint chocolate - with virtually no calories. From its Gallic niche, the breathable treat is poised to leap to Davos, Switzerland, then to a chocolate fair in Germany, and soon, into the American mass market, where it will gain a new flavor: coffee. "This has moved from a fun, funny idea to a major commercial opportunity," enthuses David Edwards, the biomedical engineering professor who inspired his students' creation. Indeed, Le Whif's progress offers a case study in student entrepreneurship, with lessons about inspiration, innovation, and education.

The journey began in the autumn of 2007 in a Harvard course entitled ES-147: Idea Translation: Effecting Change Through the Arts and Sciences. The first day of class showed that this would not be an ordinary engineering course. For one thing, only a few engineering aspirants were counted among the 30 taking the course. Art majors were teaming up with chemists and engineers with economics students.

Edwards's primary assignment required groups of students to come up with a plan to turn an idea into a commercial or philanthropic reality. "There were no tests," recalls Jonathan Kamler, a recent graduate who was working for Edwards. "It came down to you and your group."

As is his practice, the professor "seeded" the class with ideas, and groups formed around those concepts. Larissa Zhou, a physics student, along with economics major Travis May and art student Trevor Martin, were drawn to the vague, odd idea of "food aerosols." Kamler, who joined the group, says the professor's ideas provided "something to start with, a guiding principle."

"It doesn't constrain creativity; it probably initiates it," the 24-year-old says.

"RUN WITH IT"


Yet groups had the freedom to stray far from their original concepts. One ES-147 group began with the challenge of lighting London's 2012 Olympics and ended up with a proposal to light rural African villages using microbial fuel cells. The students won a $200,000 World Bank prize for their plan. The system, known as Lebônê, is now in field trials in Namibia.

Zhou recalls spending most of the semester in unrestrained brainstorming sessions. "We were just told, 'The idea is inhalable food, run with it,'" she says. So the group visualized floating bubbles of flavor that people could catch with their mouths and even brain electrodes that allow taste to bypass the tongue entirely. "I have to give David credit for just letting us go wild, dream, imagine," she says.

To spur the groups' innovative thinking, ES-147 included weekly lectures by an assortment of high achievers who have crossed the boundaries between disciplines. The students heard from Jerome Bibette, a French colloid physicist who experiments with gourmet food, and Alex McDowell, a Hollywood production designer who blends art and technology to create the look of such films as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Bridging art and science has become a passion for Edwards, whose book ArtScience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation is a required text for the course. "The key to this process of creativity is the ability to dream and think wild thoughts and the ability to be deductive," he says - in other words, combining art and science. "They tend to be separated," he adds.

STOCK EXCHANGE BUILDING

Edwards admits that some of his colleagues consider his course "way too unstructured." But, he retorts: "The classic 19th-century model of the university - 'We're here to provide you the information you need to become the specialized person you need to be' - is no longer valid. There's a much bigger interest in experiential education."

It's not hard to imagine that a few engineers, on first meeting Edwards, might dismiss him as a flake. He sports flowing locks and cultivated stubble. In his spare time, he writes comic-book novels. He sketches his ideas on an undulating, elliptical whiteboard that dominates his office in Paris, where he spends half his time.

But Edwards is firmly grounded in hard science with research focused on drug delivery and aerosol science. A member of the National Academy of Engineering with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, he holds 14 patents, with more pending. Some of those inventions formed the core technology of a medical products company that sold for nearly $100 million.

Jonathan Kamler knew enough about those devices - inhalers for delivering insulin or vaccines - that as the semester marched on and the group was still searching for a viable project, he helped them devise systems for inhaling powdered food. Zhou, a chocoholic, saw the commercial potential of inhalable chocolate, and Le Whif was born. Edwards let the group members develop their ideas without interjecting his own preconceived notions. He observed: "By taking this idea seriously, they made it come alive... the students catalyzed this."

Edwards recalls that the first prototype was rather crude. On the "famous day" when the students gathered at his apartment to present their project, all were coughing and spluttering as they puffed finely ground chocolate from rolled paper tubes.

The refinements to convert those straws into a marketable product have provided a crash-course in engineering. "Getting around coughing has been a major challenge," says Kamler. Unlike the contents of medical inhalers, Le Whif's chocolate must not reach the lungs or even the back of the throat. So the inhaler now features a disk that diverts the air current away from the throat. Meanwhile, channels inside Le Whif create enough air turbulence from the user's sucking motion to aerosolize the chocolate. Though ES-147 stretches the traditional boundaries of engineering, "we all ended up doing some kind of engineering out of it," says Kamler.

At the end of each semester, students keen to launch their projects can apply to the Idea Translation Lab for support. Every summer, 25 to 30 ES-147 students spend eight days at Le Laboratoire, the incubator Edwards founded in Paris, refining business plans, preparing to exhibit their technology, and sometimes raising start-up capital.

Paris Debut


STOCK EXCHANGE BUILDINGLe Whif, however, was fast-tracked. Edwards had already scheduled an exhibition at Le Laboratoire on science and the culinary arts, only four months away. He wanted to unveil Le Whif there, not just as a display or prototype, but giving each of the hundreds of guests their own Le Whif to puff on.

"We were compressing nearly every timeline," says Kamler. When he told representatives of one plastics manufacturer that he needed Le Whif tubes in eight weeks, they replied that they needed that much time just to produce final drawings. "We didn't go with that manufacturer," he notes. In the process, Kamler says, "I learned a ton about how molds work and how plastics melt. You realize you can learn these things and learn enough that you can do something useful."

Kamler flew to Paris to lay the groundwork, while Zhou waited to fly the day the tubes were delivered, followed by Martin. In Paris, Zhou spent her days prowling chocolatiers for the perfect flavors and her nights grinding and sieving the chocolate into breathable powders. On the evening of the exhibition, Zhou, Martin, and Kamler were still working in a back room, frantically filling tubes with chocolate powder while the crème of the Paris art and food scene Whiffed.

Since Le Whif's debut, Martin and May have moved on. Zhou spent her most recent summer vacation working on the invention at Le Laboratoire, while Kamler has moved to Paris to join the staff of LaboGroup, which is developing the aerosol confection. Professionals from LaboGroup have taken over the design, marketing and manufacturing of the second-generation Le Whif. In the spring of 2009, the first lot of 25,000 Le Whifs sold out online in a few weeks. Now the tubes are rolling out across Europe through the Galeries Lafayette chain, while LaboGroup prepares for the American launch, due in March. The product has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Whether le Whif will prove to be a short-term novelty or an enduring delicacy is an open question. Among people who have tried it, opinions vary. Some say it's only slightly better than taking a small spoonful of sweetened cocoa, while, to others, the flavor experience is rich and lasting. Early purchasers have primarily been women, ages 18 to 40, and secondarily, young professionals, Edwards says. "Kids love Le Whif," he adds, though it's not obvious if parents will choose it over Twinkies. For its American debut, Le Whif will have more chocolate and a redesigned spill-proof inhaler with an easier opening.

The entrepreneurial urge came to Edwards rather late in life. Until 1998, when he co-founded Advanced Inhalation Research Inc., he had never left academia. "I was fearful of leaving," he recalls. "I even felt it was the devil's work to go into business." The experience profoundly broadened his perspective. "I realized something about my education had been missing," he says. Since returning to academia, Edwards has tried to fill some of those gaps by offering his own students "someone who believes in you and encourages you to take the risk."

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has cast a vote for Edwards and his somewhat unconventional ideas. Part of the new Northwest Science Building has been allocated to a stateside version of Le Laboratoire. The Idea Translation course has more than doubled its class size to accommodate demand and soon will be incorporated into the required freshman engineering design course.

Just as the turbulent interior of a mint Le Whif blends chocolate, sugar, and mint into a single cloud of flavor, Edwards's teaching uses engineering to stir up art, science, and business in the minds of students until the barriers between these disciplines dissolve in air. And Harvard chooses to inhale.

 

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.

 

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