From Soylent to Lucy

How I Came to Start a Nicotine Company

David Renteln
Feb 12, 2019 · 10 min read

My Story

Like a lot of startup founders, I was a secret smoker. I really didn’t like that fact about myself. I obviously knew that it wasn’t good for me. I didn’t smoke every day, but when I was stressed or busy or feeling tired I would smoke.

It started off on the odd night out: after a few drinks, I’d simply request a few “loosies” from friends or strangers. The funny thing was I didn’t think of myself as a smoker. Overall, I thought I was pretty healthy. I exercised most days. I rarely bought my own packs.

I have to admit that when I was younger, those nights out really started to add up. I know many of my friends got into the same routine. Those couple of people in our social circle who smoked all day every day were the “real” smokers, we thought. In reality, of course, we were all smokers. Like my friends, I’d wake up the morning after another night out feeling uncomfortable — and guilty. The smell. The cough. The headache. For what?

Eventually, my wife sat me down and told me that I needed to take charge of this bad habit. I promised her I would never smoke again. Bold words that were easy to say but harder to stick to. I set about finding whatever I could to ensure that I kept my promise.

My first stop was “nicotine replacement therapies,” or NRTs, as they’re called in the industry. There on a shelf in the pharmacy was box after box of traditional nicotine gum, its clinical verbiage urging me to “quit,” as if I had a medical issue. That didn’t feel like my situation. Still, I had a lot to do that day, so I grabbed a box.

A bewildering array of pharmaceutical NRTs (source)

This was not a great call. The complicated printed directions instructed me to choose 2mg of nicotine per piece because I didn’t smoke cigarettes within 30 minutes of waking up. But with 2mg, I barely felt any effect at all. I moved on to the 4mg version and hoped for the best.

That night I went out with my friends, enjoyed my favorite drink, and got the urge to smoke. Pulling out the product, I struggled to pull a piece of 4mg gum from its sharp individual packaging. When I finally got it in my mouth, it tasted terrible, with a hard, chalky texture. It did deliver some nicotine, though, so I forced myself to endure the experience. But once I ran out, it was so much easier to pick up a pack of cigarettes than make an out-of-the-way trip to the pharmacy. I couldn’t re-up at the convenience stores stocked full of cigarette and smokeless tobacco brands. I couldn’t easily replenish my supply in bulk online. I was back to square one.

Traditional nicotine gum: terrible taste, terrible packaging.

Maybe if my friends were in the same boat, I thought, the process wouldn’t feel so bothersome. I tried including them in my gum plans. Unfortunately, their responses ranged from “I’ll just quit cold turkey one day” to “I don’t want to quit forever, so I shouldn’t use this.” Some friends complained they’d tried it before and the packaging was frustrating or even painful to open, or that the product just made them nauseous. Others doubted it actually worked. One even said, “I might as well just smoke cigarettes. At least I know I like those.”

I pointed out that nicotine gum avoided the huge health risks posed by cigarettes, but I realized my friends were mostly right to complain. Old-style nicotine gums were designed as medicines. They weren’t supposed to be pleasant to use — or even to taste! They were originally meant to be suffered through for 12 weeks and then ceased altogether, at which point the patient–I mean, customer–was done with nicotine forever. That just wasn’t a realistic use case for me or my friends. No wonder we were left looking for a better way.

That’s when I got together with my co-founders and decided to create an alternative path. John, a Soylent co-founder who served as Chief Technology Officer, shared my background in consumer goods, pairing it with deep experience in building out e-commerce platforms. Samy, a Biophysics and Biochemistry PhD from Caltech, served as head of research at Soylent, where he applied his background in Biotech to everything from formulation and clinical trial management to regulatory compliance and manufacturing. Thanks to our experience at Soylent, our team had extensive experience in formulating, manufacturing, and distributing new physical products.

Together, we opted to create a completely new product — one that leveraged innovations in food science for a better taste, better texture, and improved nicotine release. Our product would deliver a nicotine experience sufficiently close to the satisfaction traditional tobacco products to actually make smokers to switch. Soon, Lucy was born.

And the more we learned about the science of nicotine, the more we wanted to share.

The Science

Nicotine is a well known chemical stimulant. In one form or another, humans have consumed nicotine for thousands of years. Whether legal, restricted, or banned, people have taken nicotine to experience what it offers. Like any psychoactive substance, nicotine has benefits and drawbacks. Studies show nicotine can improve cognitive performance and hunger control, but it can also lead to dependence.

However, not all forms of nicotine consumption have the same likelihood of creating dependence. Studies have shown that dependence is relatively rare among people who use nicotine gum. One of the reasons nicotine gum doesn’t lead to dependence at as high a rate as smoking is because gum delivers nicotine more slowly. Inhalation delivers nicotine to the brain even faster than injection. Another reason for the difference is that nicotine gum lacks certain molecules, called monoamine oxidase inhibitors, that, in tobacco, reinforce and reward the brain for smoking cigarettes.

Dependence also varies by frequency of use and age. Heavy smokers and children, whose brains aren’t done developing, are particularly susceptible to dependency. Fully 95 percent of addicted smokers started smoking by age 21, creating a range of twisted incentives for large tobacco companies (and even some vape companies) to target young people any way they can.

Even though smoking is responsible for one in five deaths each year, nicotine isn’t the cause. As FDA Commissioner Gottlieb says, it’s the tobacco-based “delivery mechanism — not the nicotine itself — that is truly the issue at hand.” Nicotine, Gottlieb asserts, “is not directly responsible for the cancer, lung disease, and heart disease that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.” In fact, he adds, “when nicotine is delivered through a safe medical product…it’s been found so safe and effective the FDA doesn’t even require a prescription.” Most American consumers aren’t aware of this distinction. A 2011 study found that only a third of smokers knew that nicotine patches, gums and lozenges do not cause cancer. As Commissioner Gottlieb puts it, “one of the challenges we all have confront are those misperceptions about nicotine’s safety.” I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, there appears to be very little evidence that nicotine consumption by humans is harmful at all. A recent report from the Royal College of Physicians concluded that “nicotine alone in the doses used by smokers represents little if any hazard to the user.” While a small study in rodents suggests nicotine could indirectly contribute to the growth of preexisting tumors, it isn’t itself classified as a carcinogen (unlike alcohol). Nicotine isn’t associated with cardiovascular disease or cancer. While nicotine can have a range of side effects, many are caused by the method of ingestion, such as smoking. Meanwhile, many prescription drugs — including stop-smoking drugs — are associated with considerably more severe side effects, such as paranoia, panic, hallucination, hostility, and suicidal ideation.

In sum, decoupling nicotine from the tobacco plant, with its smoke and tar, allows smokers to still enjoy mood and performance benefits while minimizing negative health effects and the risk of dependence.

Our Mission

If it isn’t bad enough that smokers don’t realize the scientific facts about nicotine, most non-tobacco nicotine products are poorly designed and unappealing to use. The leading gum is sold like a pharmaceutical drug, with flavoring and packaging to match. Vapes provide a cumbersome, over-the-top experience — with use as tightly restricted as cigarette smoking itself, but more juvenile, conspicuous, and highly addictive. People want, and deserve, a better way.

Therefore, we want to deliver nicotine users a superior experience, and at the same time give them a way to transition out of feeling dependent. In a better society, people wouldn’t carry around the sensation that they’re stuck with an involuntary habit. Our mission isn’t to encourage nicotine use among people who haven’t started. Unlike certain vapes or other products, ours isn’t the sort coveted by underage users on social media. Our mission is to alleviate the harm related to tobacco — first and foremost, by switching people away from the most harmful products.

So, at Lucy, we take an evidence based view of nicotine. Nicotine’s pleasurable properties make it an inevitable part of modern society. Therefore, minimizing harm in all nicotine products is key, in addition to giving people products and strategies for cessation. We feel that, as 1,300 people are dying of tobacco related illnesses every day in the US, the most important and immediate step toward a better society is giving nicotine consumers products they enjoy using that will cause less harm.

Our first product is designed to appeal to smokers encourage them to switch. And, looking ahead, we hope to secure approval in the future as a clinically proven smoking cessation aid, while continuing to participate in the FDA’s public hearings around how NRTs are best regulated. Our goals are simple: because harm reduction is a better strategy around nicotine delivery than abstinence or prohibition, we want to help improve public health — and reduce its costs — through a superior pure nicotine product.

Making that advance was a natural next step for all three of us. So we founded Lucy.

And we got down to work.

The Opportunity

The premise was simple: a readily-accessible nicotine alternative that was as pleasurable to taste as it was easy to use. It would be cheaper than a cigarette but deliver a satisfyingly familiar sensation, every time.

We created Lucy to be a true alternative to smoking, vaping, and old-style gums. As our early customers attest, our first product has a flavor and texture superior to any other nicotine product on the market. Our formulation contains only pure nicotine, gum base, and familiar food-grade ingredients. Our packaging is straightforward, easy to use, and doesn’t look like something from the back of the medicine cabinet.

Again, in a world where smoking still kills 480,000 Americans — almost the population of Wyoming — every year and one in five Americans still use tobacco products (cigarettes plus smokeless tobacco), viable alternatives to encourage people to move away from legacy tobacco products are more important than ever.


I have not smoked a cigarette in over 3 years. This is something that I am really proud of. While I no longer smoke, or use tobacco products, I have continued to consume Lucy. In other words, in times of stress or temptation I simply choose to consume Lucy instead.

There have been periods where I have gone weeks without consuming nicotine of any kind. However, I have continued to return to it for what I feel to be the benefits: a low impact, short term boost of energy and focus without the anxiety, restlessness, and sleep disruption of caffeine.

I no longer regard my nicotine habit as something I need to solve with the urgency of escaping from a burning building. It has a place in my life for now more in line with my other habits, such as my caffeine or alcohol consumption. While I don’t recommend this use of nicotine necessarily, I feel it’s a lot better than where I was, and thus a lot better than returning to cigarettes.

The fact is that people use nicotine, despite the tremendous risks associated with tobacco use, because they enjoy it. My dream is to provide an alternative that will allow people to avoid these risks, either by assisting in their transition to a nicotine free lifestyle, or by at the very least mitigating the harm that has characterized its use throughout history.

If you know someone who you think would benefit from switching from traditional tobacco-based nicotine products to Lucy, we would be honored by your consideration.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +423,678 people.

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David Renteln

Written by

Cofounder and former CMO of Soylent. I write about marketing, entrepreneurship, food tech and whatever else I find interesting.

The Startup

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