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Innovation Economy

Harvard dreamer works to link art, science, commerce

If you removed Willie Wonka from his chocolate factory, planted him on the Harvard campus, and gave him an ever-present five o’clock shadow, you’d be only part of the way to getting David Edwards. Edwards may be the most entrepreneurial member of the Harvard faculty, with start-ups developing drugs for cystic fibrosis, selling a novel kind of energy shot, and perfecting food packaging that you can eat. (Think grapes filled with gazpacho.)

He splits his time between Paris and Boston, and in 2007 opened up Le Laboratoire, a new kind of collaboration space and gallery in Paris that blends science, art, and commerce. A Cambridge version, The Lab Cambridge, is in the works for 2014.

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It can be hard to know whether to take Edwards seriously when he talks about using smartphones to send odors wirelessly, or designing an aromatic language that could be understood just as biologists understand the language of DNA. But Edwards was among the youngest people ever elected to the National Academy of Engineering, at 39. His first company, Advanced Inhalation Research, was acquired for $114 million, two years after it was founded.

“He’s perceived as the rock star at Harvard, and the kids who end up in his class are these nonconventional, learn-by-doing dreamers,” says Tom Hadfield, a former student who runs one of Edwards’s start-ups, AeroDesigns.

Terry McGuire, a venture capitalist who has put money into all four of Edwards’s companies, says, “David has this great fascination about how science and art interact. That’s really what drives him. Da Vinci is probably the best example that comes to mind of someone who pursued that sort of path.”

Edwards is a “professor of the practice” of biomedical engineering, a nontenured position for individuals who bring special expertise from industry. It enables him to teach just one course a year, for 16 students: “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter.” In it, students “generate, develop, and realize breakthrough ideas in the arts, sciences, and engineering,” according to the course description. At the end of the semester, Edwards helps arrange for students to continue working on their ideas in Paris, at Le Laboratoire, or in South Africa.

“I am pretty sure he is the only professor to have office hours on his boat at Union Wharf,” says Hugo Van Vuuren, a former teaching assistant of Edwards. “He’ll get these big thinkers from Harvard and then sail off. It’s a way to get students out of the Harvard bubble and away from their smartphones.”

Van Vuuren now runs the Experiment Fund, which provides early funding to businesses created by Harvard students or alumni; Edwards is the faculty adviser.

Edwards’s wife and children live in Paris for most of the year, spending summers in Boston, and he constantly bops back and forth between the two cities. He created Le Laboratoire in 2007 as an environment that would spark new sorts of collaborations across art, science, and commerce. Instead of the goal of academic inquiry being publication in a journal, here it is an exhibition, or perhaps a product to sell in the on-site store. A recent exhibition featured the world of David Michalek, who uses a high-resolution camera that films at 1,000 frames per second to capture dancers in motion, sans clothing.

Up next is an exhibit springing from Edwards’s class last year, featuring a device that can send odor messages over long distances. The team is working on various coffee-based aromas, as well as developing four “building block” smells, with input from a master perfumer, “that can be the four letters of a DNA-like odor language,” Edwards says. He sees commercial possibilities. “Today, we have global communication based on visual and auditory information, but what if you could add olfactory communication to that?” (Perhaps an IHOP ad on your Facebook page that smells like maple syrup?)

Edwards is the scientific founder of two companies developing new approaches to drug delivery, and of two working on consumer products. The biotech companies, not surprisingly, have yet to land a product on the market. Civitas Therapeutics in Chelsea is the latest incarnation of a company Edwards helped start in 1997, originally called Advanced Inhalation Research (its sale in 1999 made him a millionaire). Civitas is developing an inhaler that delivers an approved drug for Parkinson’s sufferers in a faster-acting, more convenient way than pills.

The other biotech, Pulmatrix, is conducting trials of an inhalable drug for children with cystic fibrosis.

Edwards also has his eye on “less regulated markets, where we can influence human health.” That has led him to start companies like WikiCell, which is developing edible and all-natural food packaging. “Nature gives us edible packages like an apple or a pear,” says McGuire, the venture capitalist. “David’s thought was, why can’t we create this with manmade products?”

The company raised $10 million last year from McGuire’s Waltham firm, Polaris Partners, and other investors.

WikiCell shares an office in Kendall Square with AeroDesigns, a company that makes an energy product called the AeroShot. Inside a lipstick-sized tube is a powdery mixture of caffeine and Vitamin B. When you put it in your mouth and inhale, the powder coats the inside of your cheeks and dissolves. The AeroShot product is already sold in about 20,000 retail locations, at a price of $2.99. (Last year, AeroDesigns had a brief dust-up with the Food and Drug Administration, which wanted to be sure that the powder wasn’t being inhaled into the lungs, which would put the product under its regulatory aegis.)

Edwards says AeroDesigns is also interested in using its device to deliver multivitamins. A higher-end product called AeroChef would allow you to savor the smell of coffee, and then eat the chocolate capsule that contained the powder.

Edwards acknowledges that his interests can sometimes come off as a bit nutty, especially to other members of the Harvard community. But he doesn’t get defensive about it, saying simply, “I love to create, and to be around people who are creating.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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