TellSpec's recent PR offensive only highlights just how great a scam it really was

By James Robinson , written on October 20, 2014

From The News Desk

Update: Tellspec founder threatens to sue Pando unless we take down our (100% accurate) reporting on their (still not delivered) Indiegogo device

As Pando has coveredToronto-based TellSpec panhandled on Indiegogo to the tune of almost $400,000 last October, pretending that its small handheld food scanner, that could tell you the nutritional values of your food, was production-ready.

The 'real demonstration' in the video turned out to be for show. And TellSpec has since admitted that it actually couldn’t make the device.

But now, a year later and already two months late in delivering promised Indiegogo rewards to its 1,765 backers, TellSpec finally has a beta device to show off.

Moreover, the company is really desperate to try and wash the stench of scam of its breath.

It started with a 90-minute TED Global talk earlier in October by CEO Isabel Hoffman, but continued last week with a remarkable 3,800 word feature in Fast Company.

Hoffman, Tellspec’s CEO, has a knack for storytelling, leaning heavily on big rhetoric about the transformative potential of food scanning in health fields, talking about her daughter’s sickness as an inspiration for the company and her previous experiences making children’s education software and anti-aging creams.

Clearly wowed by this, Fast Company’s Sarah Kessler brings a capital I Important gravity to the story.

(Case in point, lines like this: “Hoffmann, who drinks a glass of goat milk every morning and gives employees affectionate nicknames like “whiz kid,” has barreled full-force across various industries and roles without hesitation.”)

The story doesn’t touch upon anything close to a hard question. The experts it consults are nakedly ambivalent about whether the technology is possible, but Kessler doesn't confront Hoffman with any of these concerns. (“It’s possibly possible,” one of the experts hedges.) It completely glosses over the crowdfunding element of TellSpec’s history, talking about the past year as if the company has been on a run of the mill R&D journey.

Meanwhile, Hoffman expresses no concern or ethical obligation toward her Indiegogo supporters. Outside funding is not addressed, except to acknowledge some early seed money. But then, if the company has spent the year since its Indiegogo fundraising campaign figuring the technology out, and according to the article has office space and employees with “PhDs in bio-analytical chemistry, applied mathematics, computer science, and educational psychology,” it is easy to intuit that its Indiegogo-cash has gone to simply keeping the company doors open.

And if it has spent its Indiegogo fundraising haul trying to get ready for production, when it claimed it was already ready to roll, and is now trying to rewrite Indiegogo out of its history, isn’t that the very definition of a fraud?

Despite its myriad journalistic oversights, if you parse through the paragraphs, the Fast Company story has some remarkable concessions about just how grave Tellspec’s dishonesty has been.

Kessler observes that Tellspec’s current beta unit is the size of a “guinea pig,” despite its initial promise to be a small handheld scanner that could fit on a keyring.

In TellSpec’s first Indiegogo video it showed off a production-ready model that was “working” in real time, complete with cheesy “boop” sounds. Dr. Stephen Watson and Isabel Hoffman, the company’s founders, told us that it was a prototype built from a larger spectrometer, adapted into a nanochip. The company had been working on this for nine months and was ready to move into production.

Except, as Pando wrote about, the working model was a lie and TellSpec had to add in a disclaimer on the video that what Watson and Hoffman were using wasn't real.

Now, as Hoffman tells Fast Company, when the Indiegogo campaign began she “didn’t quite know what she was getting into.” More crucially, according to the article, “Tellspec hadn’t begun building the device itself.” They'd even picked the wrong type of technology for which to theoretically build the device.

Co-founder Dr. Stephen Watson has left the company now and wouldn’t talk to Fast Company on the advice of his lawyers.

TellSpec’s Indiegogo supporters will receive a “relatively crude model” of TellSpec, at a currently unspecified time in 2015 (well past its promised August 2014 delivery). According to the article, it won’t be able to detect pesticides or small levels of nuts, a huge come down on what they had initially promised.

Hoffman and TellSpec are showing a knack for inventing new truths as they go, turning around and trying to claim that this was the plan all along.

Maybe our collective memories are so short now they’ll get away with it.

But we do know this for sure now: when TellSpec launched its Indiegogo campaign, the company didn’t know what it was doing, hadn’t begun working on a technology it had claimed to have finished, and one year later is promising to deliver something that won’t look, or work, like they promised, asking us to be impressed simply that they got here at all.

That’s not a scampaign. That’s just a scam.