Oct 20, 2015 · 8 minutes

Is there a full moon? Has someone put something in the water? I only ask because it appears to be “let’s threaten Pando with insane baseless lawsuits” season.

The latest threat comes from Isabel Hoffmann, the founder of a company called Tellspec. You’ve likely never heard of Tellspec, but if you have then it’s possible you remember James Robinson’s coverage, here on Pando, of their $386k Indiegogo campaign for a near-magical food ingredient scanner.

As James wrote last year, Tellspec’s claims to have produced a working handheld prototype of its scanner, using a keyring-sized “Raman spectrometer,” were met with skepticism or outright derision. Eventually, the company had to admit that their product demo video wasn’t actually real and that, in fact, they were still struggling to actually make their prototype work. The original product demo was made private on YouTube and replaced with one showing a device that looked vastly different from the one originally promised.

Despite Hoffman’s claims in the original pitch video that “[a]fter nine months of hard work we are ready to move to the production of TellSpec,” the company kept shifting its proposed release date back and back. As the company wrote in an Indiegogo update: delivering on their technical claims was “a more difficult thing to do than we thought at first.”   Finally, admitting defeat, Tellspec changed gear and decided that instead of building its own core technology, they would use tech already developed by Texas Instruments in the hope of actually producing a shippable product. That was last year.

Fast forward to the present day -- almost two years after the Indiegogo campaign ended -- and Tellspec still hasn’t shipped. An update on the company’s Indiegogo page two months ago announced a “firm delivery timeline set for end of September / early October this year.” In late September another update insisted Tellspec was “ getting ready to finalize the shipping of the beta prototypes” to testers and developers. Nothing at all about when regular backers might get their hands on the device.  Fortunately the fact that not a single Indiegogo backer, including testers and developers, appears to have received their Tellspec hasn’t stopped credulous tech reporters continuing to gush out headlines like “TellSpec Brings Big Data To Dinner” and “TellSpec's Food Scanner Knows What's in Your Nachos

Still, perhaps Tellspec is finally about to ship something, even if it isn’t what they originally promised their $386k worth of backers. And perhaps they’d rather the Internet forget their fake demo and change in tech and all the other broken promises, or the fact that backers have been waiting well over a year for a device that was supposed to be almost ready to ship in 2014.

That would certainly explain Hoffmann’s sudden demand that we take down Robinson’s reporting, and publish a retraction, or face a defamation suit.

Late last week, Hoffmann sent the following message, via LinkedIn, to Pando Media’s chairman, Andrew Anker. (Anker has no involvement whatsoever with Pando’s editorial output. He forwarded the message to me and, at my request, replied to Hoffmann asking her to direct future correspondence to me.)

From: Isabel Hoffmann

Date: October 14, 2015 at 5:01:00 PM PDT

To: Andrew Anker

Subject: Pando Daily Defamation and Retraction

Dear Andrew

Last year, Tellspec was victim of a persistent and consistent defamation attacks, with three articles written by James Robinson and published by Pando Daily. We have sent requests to the editor as well as the past writer to retract the defamation done both on Tellsepc [sic] and my person.

Social media and in particular RedIt [sic]  has several explanations that are not very ethical for this sudden attack on Tellspec, I encourage you to read them. After several failed attempts to contact the editor I have engaged a lawyer to start an action against Pando Daily.

I understand that you are now the chairman for Pando Daily and I wonder if you are aware of this. I would appreciate a call or an email so this can be resolved amicable [sic]  and without further delay. Tellspec has suffered financial losses due to these articles that claim we are a scam. Please advice [sic]  if we can talk before my lawyer contacts you and the editor.


(Typos all Hoffmann’s own)

Note that Hoffmann doesn’t actually mention what specifically she is disputing in Pando’s coverage (which amounted to two articles, not three.) She also claims to have made numerous attempts to contact “the editor.” I was the editor of Robinson’s reporting on Tellspec and this is the first I’ve heard of Hoffmann’s objections. As far as she can tell from searching her emails, Sarah hasn’t heard from her either.  

The line about “Redit” and “several explanations that are not very ethical for this sudden attack on Tellspec,”  is interesting too. Again Hoffman didn’t offer specifics, but a quick Google search reveals an absolutely insane thread where an apparent supporter of Tellspec, after originally posting a positive story about Tellspec on Reddit, then floats the idea that Robinson’s coverage is somehow linked to a vast conspiracy involving Vinod Khosla, “Panda” investor Marc “Andersoon” and a rival company called “Scio”. Perhaps it’ll make more sense to you than it does to me...

Now after some background research into why panda went after Tellspec so viciously is because one of their investors, Marc Andreessen would benefit from the bad PR against the competitor of Scio.

Why? Because of Vinod Khosla.

Vinod Khosla, a man well known for trying to restrict a public beach (for private pleasure), as well as the owner of khosla ventures is one of the major investors in Scio (Khosla's backing seems to have largely influenced Scio's booming investment.)

Marc Andreessen and Vinod Khosla are known to invest regularly together (such as Boku Inc), similarly to have a admiring relationship.

Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and creator of Netscape, told The Chronicle he considers Khosla one of his "venture capital heroes."

It would be beneficial for them both is Pandodaily (Andersoon's investment), bashed the Scio (Khosla's investment) competitor's (Tellspec) in order to increase profits for 1 product over the other.

In fact, Vinod Khosla is not, nor has he ever been, an investor in Pando. He is, however, an investor in Indiegogo, the company which hosted Tellspec’s crowdfunding campaign and which James Robinson blamed squarely for promoting Tellspec, along with various health hardware “scampaigns.” According to Crunchbase, Marc Andreessen doesn’t have any connection whatsoever to Scio or its parent company.

This past Thursday, I emailed Hoffmann to check that the LinkedIn message wasn’t a hoax. Between the typos (“RedIt”), the apparent reference to a conspiracy theory, and the fact that it seems to have taken Hoffmann twelve months to get around to complaining about our coverage, the note raises all kinds of red flags. It was interesting too that it came just hours after I wrote about Indiegogo’s embrace of another prototype-less product, Skarp.

Hoffmann responded to assure me that, yes, the message is for real. She really is planning to sue Pando if we don’t retract our reporting on Tellspec. I asked her -- not once but three times in three separate emails -- if she could let me know the specific facts she is disputing in our reporting on Tellspec but she refused. I asked her for the name of her lawyer: No reply. I asked her to confirm what she meant by “several explanations that are not very ethical for this sudden attack” : No reply.

Finally she responded, demanding a physical address to mail me a letter. After all, she “simply cannot deliver any letter by email”:

Paul, We simply cannot deliver any letter via email. Can you send me an address please? If you choose to continue to insist on not giving me your address I will have not choice but to escalate the process and request that our lawyer to send the letter to your lawyer.
Thank you

Given the legal threat, I suggested she should mail her letter directly to our attorney, the tremendous Roger Myers at Bryan Cave.

Instead, a few hours later Myers received a phone call from Hoffmann, reiterating her legal threat but again offering no specifics. She did however mention that her attorney is based in the UK.

As far as I can tell, Tellspec has operations in California, Arizona and Toronto. It’s not clear why she would be filing a suit from the UK unless perhaps she is intending to try to use the country’s notoriously aggressive libel laws.

Hopefully it goes without saying that Tellspec is very welcome to sue us in San Francisco, London, Timbuktu or on Mars. We stand firmly behind our coverage of Tellspec and, as is our policy in these situations, will aggressively defend -- in any court that actually has lawful jurisdiction over Pando -- against any attempt to silence our reporting.

We’ll see if Hoffmann makes good on any of her threats -- and we’ll publish anything else she sends, right here on Pando.

Meanwhile, judging by all their frustrated Indiegogo comments, Tellspec’s army of disappointed backers would probably prefer the company to use its money (that is, their money) to actually ship a damn product.

Update: The story just got much crazier