Breathable Coffee and the Art of Invention

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BOSTON (TheStreet) — Five years ago, in a commencement speech at Stanford University, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs described a fateful decision to drop in on a calligraphy class at Reed College, shortly after dropping out as a full-time student.

"None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life," he said. "But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them."

Jobs' point, that art and science matter to each other in business and product development, is a notion integral to the ArtScience Labs — an international network of laboratories comprising the work of artists, scientists, students and designers. The group collectively performs some 50 experiments annually, all with the focus of merging artistic and scientific innovation.

Fostering such innovation is important during a time when many scientific professions leave little room for creativity or good old-fashioned dabbling. Specialized professions can lead to tunnel vision and lack of innovation, says David Edwards, a professor at Harvard University who founded the organization.

"A lot of us recognize that the spark and passion of innovation come from stumbling upon things you didn't expect to see and walking through doors you weren't supposed to walk through," he says. "That's increasingly hard in a specialized world. We're often required to have a level of expertise that in da Vinci's day was not needed."

The ArtScience Labs have brought two products to market. Le Whif is breathable food — a line of small tubes filled with tiny particles of coffee and chocolate designed to be inhaled. (Edwards is also working on "Le Whaf," clouds of particles that's inhaled through glass straws.) The Andrea is a home air purifier that incorporates a live plant. It's available for $199 on Amazon.

The Labs are tackling bigger issues too. When Edwards challenged students to develop an artistic and innovative way to illuminate the 2012 Olympics in London, their brainstorming session led to the decision that they'd rather figure out a way to light up sub-Saharan Africa. And that led to the formation of Lebone , a non-profit enterprise that's working on a means of turning soil into energy, way off the grid. The World Bank is funding the project.

"It's really through this network that a funnel of ideas can come through," says Carrie Fitzsimmons, international director of strategy for ArtScience Labs. "What we're really trying to create is a 21st century Bauhaus."

The labs also are trying to foster a sense of balanced art/science entrepreneurship among urban high school students in Boston. Last fall, the organization launched the 100K ArtScience Innovation Prize, a cross-disciplinary competition in which teams of students develop workable ideas on a given theme. The winners receive $100,000 with which to bring their ideas to fruition. This year's theme is "neuroinfomatics." Next year's contest, which will encompass a great geographic area, will focus on "the future of water."

"We need creative ideas to create a creative workforce," Fitzsimmons says.

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