April 16, 2008
Minty, memory-boosting gum at Cool Product Expo 2008
The Think Gum table seemed out of place at this year's Cool Product Expo in the Arrillaga Alumni Center, and it wasn't just because the company founder's mother was there.
Surrounded by computer monitors and flat-screen TVs of all sizes from exhibitors in the gaming, alternative energy and computer industries, 24-year-old Matt Davidson was there to talk about his candy-coated, sugar-free gum that contains several herbal ingredients selected to increase mental focus and boost memory.
"It should be fun," the first-year graduate student in immunology at Stanford School of Medicine said as he watched the other exhibitors set up, hours before the Expo opened to the public. "And it sends a message: 'Oh, wow, there's still innovation to be had in Silicon Valley.'"
More than 500 attendees, approximately 40 percent of whom were from Stanford, signed in at the door, said Business School student Amanda Boaz, one of the event's organizers. The Expo was sponsored by the Graduate School of Business, Product Realization Network and School of Engineering.
Organized and run by students from the Business School's Product Design and Manufacturing Club, the Cool Product Expo offers recruited exhibitors free advertising to display their products. Boaz defined these "cool products" as "mainly innovative products that have not reached the market or were very recently put on the market."
"We tried to get a good mix from technology to commercial products and think that the display this year was really amazing," she said.
Among the products featured at the Expo were gaming devices like NeuroSky's headset, designed to control game movements by thought; TN Games' shooter vest, which lets videogame players feel the hit when their characters take a bullet; personal genomic information from Navigenics and 23andMe; and alternative energy vehicles like Tesla Motors' electric car and BMW's Hydrogen 7 sedan.
Think Gum is currently sold in several stores around the state, including a handful of locations on campus, and online. Davidson said the gum also might become available in Israel and England.
He pointed to a large bag of gum on the exhibitor table. "That's all that's left of the 100,000 pieces we ordered four months ago," he said. "I've got stores calling to ask when the next batch of gum is arriving." (Luckily, they arrived the day after the Expo.)
One of the campus vendors is MoonBean's Coffee, located between Green and Meyer libraries. Davidson said gum sales there are higher than anywhere else in the area; during finals week, students simply blew through the stock.
Davidson is not the first to capitalize on the popularity of memory-enhancing products; gingko biloba supplements have been on the market for some time now. A recent poll by the journal Nature found that 20 percent of the readers who responded had taken cognition-enhancing drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall and Provigil to improve focus, concentration or memory.
A gum chewer since childhood, Davidson said his product was inspired by a 2002 article from the journal Appetite. The study indicated that chewing gum when learning could improve memory. A second Appetite paper two years later indicated that participants who chewed gum while learning words remembered them best while again chewing gum. Davidson said the chewing helps set up a memory association pattern.
Other studies indicated that certain herbs could improve memory, and soon Davidson was experimenting with various combinations to develop a gum that was good for the brain.
According to the ingredient list, his gum has peppermint for awareness; rosemary to energize and improve memory; vinpocetine, derived from lesser periwinkle, to improve short-term memory; bacopa to speed cognitive processing; gingko biloba to enhance memory; and guarana for the caffeine and energy boost.
Davidson said he's had to explain how his scientific background can be reconciled with the herbal ingredients in his product. "People kind of have the mentality that pure chemicals are better than herbs," he said. "Herbs can be good because they have lots of things in them."
He listed the two questions that determine what herbs are used in the gum: "Is there scientific evidence to support the claim?" and "Does it taste good?"
Davidson acknowledged that balancing his schoolwork with running a company is difficult. At the moment, he's dividing his time between rotating through labs, taking classes and dealing with company issues, which currently takes up about 20 hours of his time each week.
"My grades have been pretty good so far," Davidson said. "Whether it's the gum or me or both, I don't know."
Davidson said his business plan is simple: "First, to become a profitable company and then to see what develops." Right now Davidson is the company staff, though he has several volunteer helpers in the form of friends and family. "It's really fun watching the process and how Matt has taken this from an idea and grown it into a very imaginative venture," said Davidson's mother, Idelle, who spent the entire day at the Expo to help her son.
In the meantime, Think Gum's warehouse is his bedroom in his parents' house. There's still a bed amidst the boxes of Think Gum and fly-fishing ties he made himself, Davidson said, so he still has a place to sleep when he's home.
Massie Santos Ballon is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.