How Do You Sell a Product When You Can’t Really Say What It Does?

San Francisco startup Ploom has a high-tech spin on smoking tobacco (and certain other plants). It also has a huge marketing challenge.

From my article in the May, 2014, issue of Inc. Magazine

There are two big factors that favor Ploom’s James Monsees and his co-founder Adam Bowen in their quest to make tobacco cool again. One is that their devices let users pull from tobacco most of the nicotine and flavor of cigarettes in the form of vapor, without taking in the cigarette smoke–thus removing many of the health risks, according to some experts. And, as a major bonus, one of their devices has become the darling of the pot-smoking wojames-monsees-ploomrld, which is steadily converting to vapor even as that world swells with growing legitimacy.

But two big factors are also working against Ploom. One is predictable: fierce competition that’s likely to stiffen as both startups and tobacco giants invade the “e-cigarette” market–already worth nearly $2 billion a year and growing fast. The other is a bit less typical in the business world: Ploom can’t market on its strengths. That’s because making health claims and wooing drug users cause all sorts of problems for a company that’s trying to remain squeaky clean in the face of widespread disdain for, and the threat of regulation of, anything linked to tobacco.

That leaves Ploom with a burning problem: How do you expand a company when you can’t really talk about what your products are good for? Read more

America Is Burning: The Fight Against Wildfires

Wildfire2Years of climate change, drought, and reckless development have transformed nearly all of the American West into a giant tinderbox. Is there anything we can do to keep from going up in flames?

From my article in the Aug, 2014, issue of Men’s Journal

Traffic jams are a fact of life in Southern California. But few motorists have seen the likes of the one that stranded thousands of vehicles in May on Interstate 5 near San Marcos, about 35 miles north of San Diego. As vehicles idled, walls of flame arcing as high as 50 feet, and whipped by winds of up to 70 miles per hour, raced along an adjacent hillside, ripping through acres of parched trees and shrubs and blotting out the sky with roiling, glowing, thick smoke. And that wasn’t the only out-of-control blaze raging: At one point, San Diego County firefighters were grappling with nine separate wildfires – and six of those blazes were winning.

….Big, out-of-season fires are starting to look like the new normal. For as long back as there are records, California’s wildfire season hasn’t truly gotten under way until fall. But through most of 2013 and 2014, wildfires have been raging almost constantly, essentially leaving the state with a 12-month wildfire season.

And it’s not just California. In May, Arizona, Oklahoma, and even Alaska all were hit by large wildfires, months ahead of schedule. More blazes are occurring in fall and winter, as well. “In November, a fire in the Colorado Rockies burned across a snow-covered forest while firefighters watched, astounded,” says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, who studies wildfire. “That may be something no one has ever seen before.” Read more

The startups saving health care

3-mhealth_33254Obamacare is fueling a hot new industry that uses mobile technology to curb health care spending. Smart startups are already cashing in.

From my article in Inc. Magazine 

Three years ago, Sterling Lanier, a serial entrepreneur then running a successful market research firm, got a phone call from a medical researcher he knew at the University of California, San Francisco. The researcher wanted him to help with a pro bono project that involved gathering data on thousands of breast-cancer patients. The trick would be to find a good way to get patients to fill out tedious forms.

Nice guy that he is, Lanier agreed. The result, designed with a tech whiz named Boris Glants, was an iPad app that the two named Tonic. Tonic made it easy–almost fun–for patients to provide information about themselves and their health. Mission accomplished.

And that might have been that, except a few months later, Lanier got another call, this one from Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. It turned out the UCSF researcher had shown off Tonic at a health care conference and stirred up some interest. It wasn’t long before Lanier…read more.

Can processed food be healthy?

APMACNCHEESE1000-500x333Burger King makes a low-cal French fry. Processed food wants to compete on the health front. Can it?  Fake meat. Super soy. We’ll look.

From my September 2013 interview with NPR’s On Point 

We all know the mantra of healthy eating these days.  Lots of vegetables and fruit on the plate.  Not much meat.  Organic if you can.  And local is lovely.  We like to picture that armful of dinner ingredients fresh from the farmers market.

But what about all the people who don’t get close to that.  And maybe can’t afford it.  There’s a new buzz around processed food that’s being made and pitched as healthy.  Burger King’s low-cal fries.  Fake meat.  Seaweed chips.  Factory-engineered health goop.

This hour, On Point:  could processed food be re-engineered to save our health?  Or is that dreaming?…listen here (beginning at 15:20).

Foodie Heretic: Tackling the obesity health epidemic with -wait for it- fast food

From my interview with The Monthly TheMonthly-sub-too-much

For sure, an overreliance on fast food can lead to the fat farm, but what if it were less salty, fatty, sugary, and came in smaller portions? Science journalist David H. Freedman put forth this radical notion recently in his Atlantic cover story, “The Cure for Obesity.” Freedman argues that since fast (and processed) foods are what many of the mostly poor and obese can afford and prefer, it should be made healthier. Bring on the McDonald’s Egg White Delight. Of course, this challenges the conventional food wisdom espoused by Cal journalism professor Michael “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” Pollan, whom Freedman boldly calls out. Pollan and his followers, “Pollanites” as Freedman calls them, believe that no one should ever…read more.

FORGET THE VEGETABLES–JUNK FOOD COULD HELP FIGHT OBESITY

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Journalist David Freedman says engineering healthier versions of popular treats could finally help the poorest and most obese Americans lose weight.

From my December 2013 interview with smithsonianmag.com 

The 2004 release of Super Size Me—a documentary about Morgan Spurlock’s 24-pound weight gain and health decline during a month-long McDonald’s binge—and other books and exposés of the last decade, for that matter, have tarnished the reputation of fast food and other processed foods.

But what if the food Spurlock ate at the chain was healthier? What if, by eating food engineered to be lower-calorie, lower-fat versions of popular favorites, he lost weight in the course of 30 days rather than gain it?

Journalist David Freedman made this case—that fast food and processed food may actually help in the fight against obesity instead of hindering it—in an article this summer in The Atlantic. At a time when the loudest and clearest food message is to eat fresh, locally grown, organic foods, the piece prompted a range of reactions from scientists and fellow journalists in the food and health worlds…read more

The Truth about Genetically Modified Food

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Proponents of genetically modified crops say the technology is the only way to feed a warming, increasingly populous world. Critics say we tamper with nature at our peril. Who is right?

From my article in the September 2013 issue of Scientific American 

Robert Goldberg sags into his desk chair and gestures at the air. “Frankenstein monsters, things crawling out of the lab,” he says. “This the most depressing thing I’ve ever dealt with.”

Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is not battling psychosis. He is expressing despair at the relentless need to confront what he sees as bogus fears over the health risks of genetically modified (GM) crops. Particularly frustrating to him, he says, is that this debate should have ended…read more.

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