- The cofounder and former chief marketing officer of Soylent has a new startup that makes nicotine gum, he told Business Insider.
- Called Lucy, the new company is a product of esteemed Silicon Valley startup hub Y Combinator and has $US5 million in venture funding from backers like Refactor Capital and Greycroft.
- Unlike existing nicotine gums, Lucy is sold online and operates on a subscription model, like Soylent. The founder claims it’s also significantly better tasting and easier to use than products like Nicorette.
Single cigarettes were the beginning of the end for David Renteln, the cofounder of Silicon Valley’s cult-favourite liquid food startup, Soylent.
Also called “looseys” because they’re sold illegally out of the package, the easy-to-buy, easier-to-forget cigarettes were Renteln’s favourite pick-me-up after a night out with friends, he told Business Insider. But one loose cigarette eventually led to several. Late nights at his then-booming startup only made things worse.
So roughly two years ago – shortly after leaving Soylent, where he’d spent half a decade as cofounder and chief marketing officer – Renteln went to work on a new startup. Called Lucy, the new company is aimed at giving people looking to quit smoking a better alternative to the terrible-tasting gums, embarrassing patches, and unattractive vape pens already on the market.
Like a range of e-commerce startups peddling toothbrushes and razors, as well as Soylent, Lucy’s gum is currently sold online on a subscription model. There’s one big difference: it’s addictive.
That’s bound to draw comparisons to Silicon Valley’s most infamous nicotine-delivery startup, Juul.
Juul, known for its flash-drive-like vapes, said its mission was to help adults switch from traditional cigarettes to less-harmful e-cigs. But the company, now slated to receive a $US12.8 billion investment from cigarette company Altria, came under fire for reports that it may have directly marketed its products to teens, including by way of social media. US health regulators and smoking experts said Juul and other vaping companies had essentially created another generation of people addicted to nicotine, even as they claimed to help adults quit smoking.
Renteln, for his part, rejects the comparison to Juul. He says Lucy is only intended to help people quit smoking, that he’ll avoid marketing to teens, and that his product doesn’t have the same sort of appeal to young people.
Founded by Renteln and two other former Soylent executives, Lucy is the product of a 6-month stint at esteemed Silicon Valley startup hub Y Combinator. Since graduating from the hub last year with $US150,000 in seed funds, the Lucy team has raised $US5 million in venture funding from backers including health-tech VC firm Refactor Capital and Greycroft, whose portfolio includes Axios and Venmo.
‘The alternative to people making poor decisions’
For Renteln, Lucy is deeply personal. The product solves the worst part about his cigarette habit, which was that it made him feel like “a victim of his own nature,” he told Business Insider.
After he realised he needed to quit, Renteln tried out several different kinds of smoking cessation tools and had some luck with nicotine gum. If you’re a smoker, those products can significantly boost your chances of quitting, according to the researchers behind a large and recently updated review of more than 130 studies published by the well-regarded medical nonprofit Cochrane.
Yet despite stocking up on nicotine gum at home, Renteln still found himself buying cigarettes whenever he’d go out late.
“We’d run out and people would go to a convenience store to get cigarettes and they’d have no other products,” Renteln said.
Renteln’s goal then became to get the stuff that helped him quit into the hands of more people like him – meaning he needed a product that was tastier and more widely available than existing nicotine replacement products.
That’s when he teamed up with two other former Soylent executives, John Coogan, another Soylent cofounder, and Samy Hamdouche, who’d worked as Soylent’s vice president of research, to work full-time on Lucy. Like other available nicotine gums, each piece of Lucy contains 4 milligrams of nicotine. And it’s sold in three flavours: cinnamon, mint, and fruit.
Although Lucy is only available online right now, Renteln said he aims for the product to be sold everywhere that cigarettes are available, “so we can be the alternative to people making poor decisions,” he said.
A tricky landscape for nicotine
Renteln has spent a lot of time thinking about nicotine, Juul, and what he wants his product to be. If there’s a positive lesson to be learned from Juul, it’s that there are less harmful ways of using the drug than inhaling burned smoke by way of a traditional cigarette, he said.
“The evolution of Juul has demonstrated that there’s going to be an evolution of nicotine consumption in general,” Renteln said.
And while vaping continues to appear significantly healthier than smoking, there are still risks linked with consuming high amounts of nicotine. Those risks are especially high among young people, whose brains are uniquely vulnerable to addiction.
To avoid making Lucy appealing to teens, then, Renteln said his company will not use younger models to advertise. In addition, Lucy will use what Renteln described as “conservative branding,” or in other words, not playing up the idea that Lucy is an attractive lifestyle product that should appeal to young people, he said. Lastly, the company will use age verification software (like Juul does currently) to ensure that anyone visiting the site is 21 years old or older.
Renteln added that while vaping can make for powerful optics – large plumes of exhaled Juul vapour went viral on teen’s Instagram and YouTube feeds – gum isn’t very visual.
“For better or worse we’ve seen the mistakes that Juul has made and we will learn from those mistakes,” Renteln said.
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