Harvard University inventor David Edwards has been called a real-life Willy Wonka for creating futuristic food-related novelties, with a purpose. He developed Le Whif — an inhalable chocolate — and also a “scent message” device called the oPhone at his “culture lab” in Paris known as Le Laboratoire. Now the scientist is bringing his laboratory concept to Cambridge in his first U.S. outpost, and it includes an “innovation” bar and restaurant. Yes, it sounds pretty “out there,” but I'll do my best to explain the idea.
Edwards’ 13,000 square-foot “culture lab” is tucked away in the heart of Kendall Square’s “Innovation District” near MIT, where new gleaming glass and steel buildings serve as petri dishes for hi-tech start-ups and bio-tech giants like Genzyme. Edwards believes disruptive change — brought on in part by the highly intelligent, sometimes invasive devices we carry in our pockets — isn’t a choice for companies, museums and people anymore. He says for a lot of us the light-speed pace of technological evolution can be scary.
"Many of the questions that we face today — questions of innovation, of change — are not really questions that we can deal with in a classical science lab," he explained. “By opening the creative process up to the public it leads to a better understanding of how the world’s changing and why it’s actually thrilling that it is.”
Incubating and sharing the creative process, especially at the intersection art, science and commerce, is Edwards’ mission. He believes great things happen there. That’s why he’s been inviting scientists, designers, composers, sculptors, chefs and bartenders to collaborate on projects the public can engage with intimately by looking, touching, listening, tasting or smelling. And he wants visitors to his labs to comment on their experiences.
It’s like cultural research and development. Some of the results — including Le Whif, the inhalable chocolate developed in his Paris lab — can come off as whimsical.
“We’ve done a lot around 'air food' and other kinds of nutritional experiences that are without calories, that are all natural, that are portable and there’s no liquid and all kinds of benefits,” Edwards said. “That really wasn’t where we were at initially — we were just sort of exploring, well, would it be possible to deliver nutrition through the air?”
Perhaps it was a natural evolution for the scientist. Earlier in his career this biomedical engineer pioneered aerosol prescription drug delivery systems for patients with diseases like Parkinson’s. After selling his company (appropriately called AIR, or Advanced Inhalation Research) he went on to apply that technology to chocolate and other non-pharma edibles. Then came Le Whaf, a Sci Fi-looking machine that turns liquid into fluffy clouds of consumable g as.
Now one of them sits on the bar in the lab’s restaurant, Café ArtScience, which Edwards says is divided into zones.
“We have a really large bar, and at that bar you will be able to get a great drink,” he said. “But you will also be able to have your drink float in the air.”
It's also where the seemingly wackiest experiments are presented, according to bar manager Todd Maul. He's concocting inventive cocktails using Le Whaf's vapor as a garnish. Whoa. And you can pair your beverage with some of Edwards’ WikiFoods which are little spheres of cheese or yogurt wrapped in edible membrane packaging that resembles skin or crust. It's no wonder this professor/entrepreneur is compared to Roald Dahl's famous candy man.
“It’s hard to resist describing him as Harvard’s Willy Wonka,” Boston Globe technology columnist Scott Kirsner said, laughing. Kirsner's been following Edwards' trajectory and visited Le Laboratoire in Paris.
“People come in off the street and say, 'What exactly is this? Can I buy something here?’" Kirsner recalled. He thinks Edwards clearly takes delight in offering up ambiguity. But this tech-watcher also thinks Edwards’ new U.S. lab fills a void in a landscape filled with incubators and accelerators focused on creating the next Facebook or Twitter.
“If he’s creating a place where you can develop a new food product, or spawn some new non-profit or some cultural group, that’s a really interesting incubator to me,” Kirsner said, “because it’s not just saying, 'let’s just create new public companies that will be worth billions.' It’s saying, 'Let’s create healthier foods that maybe could be distributed without refrigeration in the developing world. And let’s do cultural innovation.'”
Some of the cultural innovations from the Paris lab have ended up in museum collections and on grocery store shelves. Gary Hirshberg, chairman and former CEO of the dairy company Stonyfield Farm contacted Edwards when he heard about WikiFood and they collaborated on products called WikiPearls.
Ultimately Edwards wants the ideas percolated in this new U.S. lab to change the way we look at global issues including waste, climate change, food insecurity, sustainability and health.
There's also the free exhibition space next to Cafe ArtScience where MIT Media Lab professor Tod Machover’s composition, “Vocal Vibrations” is exploring sound’s power to heal. He collaborated with his colleague Tenzin Priyadarshi, founder of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values as well as Alan Grodinsky, an expert on tissue and cartilage hoping to see if vocally produced vibrations can influence circulation and equilibrium.
Meditative music pours out of a audio speakers arranged in a circle (they call it “The Chapel"). Machover says it invites visitors to find and hold onto the note of D as the piece progresses. Then visitors are encouraged to move through a fabric tunnel to find a lounge chair, headphones, a microphone and a white, egg-shaped vibrating thing called The oRb. Machover hopes people will sing the D into the mic while holding the oRb in their hands. It channels the vibrations emanting from their vocal chords.
“The sense is, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m holding my voice in my hands,'” Machover explained.
As a composer who’s taken his own Robot opera, “Death and the Powers,” around the world, Machover is no stranger to futuristic experimentation.
“It’s exciting to have a place like Le Laboratoire where they’re willing to think about where different senses can take us and what happens if you combine them,” he said.
Which brings us to the sense of smell. At the bar customers can sniff a device called the oPhone that transmits “aroma messages.” Chef Patrick Campbell, who trained with James Beard Award-winning restaurateur Barbara Lynch at Boston's No. 9 Park is anti-gimmick when it comes to his classically-inspired cuisine (there will be no molecular gastronomy at Cafe ArtScience, he says). Even so, Campbell did collaborate with David Edwards to compose scents based on dishes from the innovation restaurant's menu.
“The idea of someone sending essentially my dish across the ocean instantaneously — and there’s three people in a Parisian coffee shop smelling my Cavatelli or whatever — is a very interesting concept,” he admitted, smiling.
Like a lot of the innovations in this new culture lab, the oPhone is a work-in-progress (it debuted this summer for a temporary trial — a transatlantic oNote transmission from the American Museum of Natural History in New York). For now the new Laboratoire in Cambridge is the only permanent oPhone “hot spot” in the U.S.