David Edwards #65

Portrait by Kira Hower

Portrait by Kira Hower

Harvard Professor

Le Laboratoire Paris

Le Lab & Café 

ArtScience Cambridge

ArtScience Prize

There's a lot of interest today in the importance of sensorial delivery, particularly scent, but also taste and touch to our health. Not having those experiences in our digital existence, whether we want that digital existence or not, is hurting us and that's becoming clear in lots of different ways.

The Scent of a Cyborg

by Heidi Legg

David Edwards, after graduate studies at MIT, published a paper on the delivery of insulin by inhalation for treating diabetes without injections. It was published in 1997 and he founded a company in 1999. Eli Lilly & Co. then developed it as a new diabetes therapy in which patients inhale insulin product.

David now teaches at Harvard University and practices inside his labs in Paris and Cambridge. Today he is quickly becoming a leading thinker on scent integration into the digital experience, and his ArtScience Prize has been applied in schools and labs across the country. When one walks into his Café ArtScience in Kendall Square, it’s hard not to think you are tinkering in a Willy Wonka Factory.

I sat down with him to discuss what’s next in his culture lab and why he believes the balancing of the senses, in a digital age where sight and hearing are in overdrive, is imperative to our health and the next frontier.    

What's the biggest thing that you're working on?

Right now I am passionately involved with bringing scent into digital communications. It's a project that began in my class at Harvard and then it went through an exhibition at Le Laboratoire. It involves the ArtScience Prize where we'll bring out a whole new platform for scent communication. This project is emblematic of the kinds of practice we do here at Le Laboratoire that has a common DNA to all of our programs.

If you look at my life it can seem I'm all over the place but in reality, it's hard to go from an idea to a translated idea realization and not cross lots of different boundaries and be in lots of people’s backyards. Yet at the end of the day it's one idea: bringing scent into digital communications. It is an idea I'm really passionate about.

Where do you see it going in the next year? 

We've been holding off from a major commercial launch and only starting to talk to the media now. It will likely happen now in the winter of 2016. We see the beginning of a real revolution in communication and not only with our work in scent. The notion of bringing the sensorial into digital communications is really in the air.


It’s a combination of what consumers want and also what, for lack of a better word, the industry wants. And why? It’s because we live with five senses. That's how we experience the world. That's how we made it to this point in our evolution. Suddenly over the last thirty years we've taken this deep dive into a digital existence and as that has become more and more convincing and more and more immersive, it's become pretty problematic that there are only two of the five senses being engaged.

My sight and hearing are overwhelmed. Will this rebalance me or tax me further?

I think we're inviting a more human experience. There's a lot of interest today in the importance of sensorial delivery particularly scent but also taste and also touch to our health and not having those experiences in our digital existence whether we want that digital existence or not is hurting us and that's becoming clear in lots of different ways. 

Your ability to understand, communicate, market anything that has a sensorial value – whether it's wine or coffee or traveling across the ocean – without being able to put that sensorial experience into digital is very limited. There’s this real movement to make it happen.

Another potential with scent, as the problems with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and even Autism have all grown in the last years, is medical science and research related to how we detect these diseases and how we reverse them, if possible. And in that research has been a lot of focus on scent and your ability to detect these diseases by loss of scent. We are also exploring the ability to retard development or reverse these kinds of diseases through scent exercise. The data now is pretty overwhelming and so there's really a great interest.

If someone has Alzheimer’s, will scent help them remember things? 

Interestingly, we process scent signals in our brain precisely in the part of the brain where we process memory. Unlike any other sensory signal, it is the only sensory signal that goes direct to the brain. You don't cognitively analyze scent before you react to it. 

That's why you can smell bread and remember your grandmother and you don't even know why. Scent is deeply emotive and therefore very connected to memory. Once again, the hippocampus is the part of the brain where you process memory. That's where you process scent. What’s happening with Alzheimer’s, where that part of the brain is shrinking, is that you're losing your ability to smell in parallel with your loss of memory. It turns out that your loss of the ability to smell tends to be a great signal that you’re losing your ability to remember. 

There's quite a bit of clinical data, and more being gathered. One pretty amazing example is that of a comatose patient. The patient is able to react to this scent of his or her world even while he or she remains comatose. There are examples of research with Alzheimer’s patients, and the elderly in general, where they are brought back to the memories of their youth through scent. There's quite a big study that happened in Singapore with Givaudan, a big fragrance house, which is pretty exciting. There’s this profound effect of scent.

Is there data that shows which of our five senses is the strongest?

Let's agree that all five senses are important. Let's also agree that you and I and most humans are more guided by our vision and our hearing – to the extent that we have these senses - than by our sense of smell. Whereas a dog is much more sensitive to scent than we are, scent tends to be for humans more of a secondary signal. A little parenthetic you may have heard about: there are dogs in a clinic outside of Philadelphia where cancer victims can be brought in and the dogs can actually identify whether it’s cancer of the spleen or cancer of the lungs.

And why is this true? The speculation is that the microbiome that's in your stomach is producing a vapor that they're identifying. Little kids also have a really good sense of smell, and generally (but not always) as you get older you become less and less sensitive to scent. It is pretty clear that exercising your sense of smell within your bandwidth makes you sharper – similar to listening to music.

The last thing to say is that in general evolutionary terms, if you look at the Museum of Natural History, which is where we launched the oPlatform last summer, it's clear that probably a long time ago our ancestors had more of an ability to smell than we do today.

What is the ArtScience Prize you founded?

I didn't like school when I was a kid. I was never really able to get into my mind why I should know everything this person speaking to me knows, who maybe I don't aspire to be like. And even if I did have this aspiration, I'll never quite know what that person knows. This didn’t really inspire me.

How was your behavior in class?  

I was definitely underperforming and searching. It was relatively late in life that it dawned on me that what led to success for a life like mine, and maybe increasingly to others, given what's happened to the world, is not to memorize what somebody else knows. Rather, it is about being able to walk into the world as it is today, be sensitive, observe, and connect to that for which you and others feel passion.

What we need now coming out of school: people who listen, who empathize, and who care. With the ArtScience Prize, we were interested in inviting young people to dream and identify a passion, and then to realize dreams that matter to themselves, and also matter to others. We're underlining not that we do art and science, necessarily, but the process we're trying to encourage in these young minds is one that is neither purely artistic, nor is it purely scientific.

In other words, our creative process is not purely intuitive and imaginative where one is comfortable with uncertainty. Nor is it purely deductive and analytical and able to solve a problem, but it's a combination of those two processes. Unfortunately, because of the institutional and specialized nature of our world today, we tend to be guided by one camp or another. Often, students today are taught to be imaginative or analytical. And as you go on in education, it's hard to be encouraged to do both. However, if you look at any of us as we develop ideas, we have these moments where we don't know what to do next and need both. 

Let's take your example: You want to build a media company. You’re thinking, ‘it's working and I'm excited and I'm really having fun’ and at three o' clock this morning you wake up thinking, 'okay, I'm having fun but it's really far from the media empire I want to build [editor’s note: I like how he thinks big!] and I'm a certain age and I can't go on forever like this.' And, at some point, and maybe it’s right now, you don’t sleep.

This keeps you up. You get really frustrated and as you figure out what to do next, there are two things going on. One is intuitive, inductive, and imaginative where you are comfortable with uncertainty – you must be if you're calling yourself 'happy' while you're struggling at this! On the other hand you need to be analytical and deductive. And so creators, chefs, inventors, whoever you are… you have these moments you remember when you look back on your empire creation. You were in the dark and you figured it out, and that’s what we're encouraging in kids.

The ArtScience Prize encourages kids to dream and to pass through those moments with joy. It started in a class I teach at Harvard (“How To Create Things And Have Them Matter”) and now it's in lots of middle schools, high schools and all other kinds of environments in Boston. The class and the ArtScience Prize revolve around this notion of three phases to an idea development: an ideation or conception phase, a translation phase, and a realization phase.

This process is now becoming much more widely embraced and the national academies held in engineering and science invited me to create a national weekend at the end of the year. Carrie Fitzsimmons, Executive Director of the Cambridge Lab, the ArtScience Prize, and our lab is involved. Basically the creation of this national weekend is to help bring a hundred people together: artists, scientists, and designers in America with members of the academy through this translation phase. 

Where will it be held?

Irvine, California from November 11th to the 14th. What was really moving to me at this national level in establishing the research agenda of the United States, is that it's not a matter that clearly works in identifying the problems of today and finding solutions. It’s also a matter of a dream.  We’re in an era right now where dreaming is less in the air and yet a lot of big issues exist. It’s very exciting to see our process embraced.

When did you know you were onto something?

I think there were honestly moments every few months that saved us and there were moments in which we were more desperate than others. In general, the process has been a joy.

Now that doesn't pay the bills and I was very nervous. To be honest, in retrospect, 2008 was an important year. The markets crashed and, as we all know today, it was much more profound that we really even understood at the time. It made a big difference for us in terms of how investors and how corporate partners looked at what we were doing. Suddenly this new model for innovating had currency that it didn't have before. If you look at the companies that ultimately came out of Le Laboratoire in Paris, they all started after that and in 2009 to 2011, suddenly there were people willing to invest in the lab.

For a culture lab, at some point you must have things coming out that are indisputably of value and once you've done that, then people will continue to contribute. The question became: How will we get to this point of value creation that's indisputable? The success of our technologies that came out of Le Laboratoire in Paris allowed us to raise about $50 million, and those are increasingly now selling in stores and moving out into the commercial world.

Le Whaf was one of these successes?

Le Whaf was one of them. The two big platforms now are our oNotes communication platform and WikiFood, our new edible packaging, which is very exciting. There's a new brand launching, Incredible, this week and throughout next year. The other was opening our second lab here in Cambridge with the ArtScience restaurant.

The Café ArtScience was the first tangible non-Willy Wonka sort of experience that people could engage in. Here in America, here in Cambridge, here in Kendall Square, we have a moment where food and the future of food is finding a locus in the technology bastion of Cambridge. Suddenly, everything that I've been doing the last years has a real connection, and the resources that have come through partners and the public since have been the decisive thing for us.

 Did you have a mentor?

I had a few different eras. My first major mentor was an applied mathematician who died last year, Howard Brenner. I was in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology where I was kind of floundering, and he invited me to MIT, which was incredible. He saw what I was doing and he just totally took me under his wing. I was in my little world of applied math but I was super naive and so whatever it was he saw, he ended up inviting me here. I wrote a couple textbooks of applied math in the early phase of my career and he really taught me how to think.

Secondly, Bob Langer is a professor here at MIT who taught me that what goes on in your mind can really matter to the world. When I was with Howard, only four people could read what I did and that was okay with me. My parents had no clue what I did and I asked him, ‘what do I tell them I do?' and he told me 'tell them you do aesthetics.' That's true. It's aesthetics.

Bob is a major innovation presence in biotech here at MIT and in America, and he helped show me that my ideas could matter to more than four people and that was quite a transformational thing. I was a 'traditional scientist' moving from applied math to pharmaceuticals, and through the ignition of Bob I started this first company very quickly and suddenly I found myself at Harvard.

'Gosh, what happened to me and how did I end up here?' As I looked into it, it is the story of ArtScience. I realized that the inner world where I write fiction for my own consumption, which was a thing that I never really talked about, was profoundly relevant and I quickly moved out of the traditional science work.

Did you love the science?

I loved it but I loved it as a passing through. I'm not the kind of person who would focus on a single problem my whole life. That's not really who I am.

Where else will you have culture labs?

My observation is that we don't need to go to any special effort to make more creative labs. They're all over the place under different names but, to create an environment where the public can participate in the lab, that's the magic. Perhaps all of us don’t understand what's going on, and to have that curated is a big deal.

In a way, the Internet is that. The Internet is kind of a lab where creators and the public come and mix. How do you create environments that are Internet-like where people come in and it's free and there's no coercion? Everyone is welcome and it's more than an aquarium. We're not coming just to look at each other, but really to do something.

Are you a movement?

I'm, surely, not a movement but is there a movement going on here? I feel like there is, absolutely.

If I could put it this way, we are no longer in the era of the World's Fair and late 19th Century/early 20th Century where anything seemed possible. The world we've all woken up to in the last ten/fifteen years is a much more complex world. I don't think any of us really believe that any of us individually knows what to do. It's not like there's a president we can turn to, or a company we can turn to, or a technology we can turn to. It's much more complicated than that. That is surely both a source of neurosis and fear. At the same time, it's liberating. That’s what life is, right?

There is a recognition today that we need each other and we need to listen to each other and everybody matters in a way that wasn't so obvious when Napoleon was conquering Europe. And so from a creator point of view, and why I encourage all of us to participate in the creative life, what's liberating is that creation matters like never before.

We need dreams, we need everybody to dream, and we need to listen to everybody. I think that the movement is probably less related to any one person's contribution. And if we want to be hoping and dreaming twenty or thirty years from now, we really do need to do things differently.

What opinion do you want to change?

Prejudice – a fixed idea – is an infection. It's hard to change once you adopt a prejudiced viewpoint for how the world is right and how the world is wrong or how the world is structured.

In a world that changes less rapidly than ours, it was maybe tolerable and we could find neighborhoods where you could avoid having to confront your prejudices, but in a world that is evolving very rapidly, prejudice is a major obstacle to the kind of world that we're describing.

Where do you get your news?

Increasingly from my kids. It's amazing how informed they are. I tend to just pick it up. There's something that changed radically between 2002 – 2005, when suddenly the established news vectors bifurcated and became this very right/very left and you either listen to that or to this. If you went from one to the next, it's like two completely different worlds. The whole notion of a democratic source where you get many, many, many different opinions or a collective has been lost by virtue of this bifurcation.

But in watching my kids, they gather news in many different ways. The New York Times, Le Monde are two websites that I would eat every day.

What event are you looking forward to?

Our amazing exhibition with Mark Dion around the trouble with jellyfish. Last summer I was with Mark and this amazing marine biologist, Lisa Gershwin, and my fifteen Harvard students traveling to the south of France to go diving with jellyfish. In some miraculous way, this project has come off and it's a very honest, serious, artistic invitation to explore the future of our oceans, while whimsical to some degree. It's sort of powerful and I hope hopeful.

Does creation in France differ from creation in America?

To maybe be more specific in my answer, I don't think I could have started Le Laboratoire here. I think it really needed to have been born in Paris. The real benefit of the French perspective, when it comes to creation, is that ideas matter more in the French cultural context. So we could introduce plants that clean the air, or coffee or chocolate you breathe, and other much more abstract ideas in Paris. In fact, there was almost more interest by virtue of the fact that it was an ephemeral notion that seemed to be important in and of itself. For someone who's interested in creating and not for tomorrow – but the day after tomorrow, to have an environment where not only is judgment suspended but nobody's judging. It was really liberating. 

So, the end game product is a different temperament?


David Edwards will join TheEditorial.com live event at Google during HUBweek on October 8th to discuss Creating Something from Nothing.