Nov 16, 2015 · 16 minutes

If you’ve been following the continuing adventures of Tellspec – the crowdfunded company that claimed, back in 2013, to have invented a miraculous food ingredient scanner – the latest news out of the company won’t surprise you one jot. 

After missing countless delivery deadlines -- and trying the patience of the nearly 2,000 backers who gave the company over $380k on Indiegogo two years ago -- Tellspec is now notifying beta testers of yet another delay.

This time they claim unspecified “problems” with the device’s battery and firmware. Unlike with previous delays,  however, this one doesn’t come with a revised delivery estimate. Instead, the company says “we will only be shipping after this gets resolved.”

I learned about this latest delay from Jason Kneen, who in November 2013 was “dumb enough” (his words) to pay Tellspec $420.00 to become a beta tester. According to Tellspec’s Indiegogo page, that would bring him the following benefits:

Be a beta tester! You'll test an early model scanner, and contribute to the development of TellSpec. We'll help you with the testing, and share the results with you. You'll also get a production model when it's ready and two years of unlimited analysis of your scans. Plus we will recognize you as a Beta Tester. We will send you progress updates and invitations to events. We only have an extremely limited number of beta testers. Includes limited warranty and EULA.

After paying his $420 via PayPal, Kneen received a message from Tellspec's “VP of Research & Insights”:

In April 2015 – a full year after that original delivery estimate – Kneen contacted Tellspec to check on the progress of his device. He received this response from CEO Isabel Hoffmann:

Hi Jason

My team just check and no your scanner has not been sent yet. As a beta tester what food would you be scanning? Do you know?

Thank you for your support,

Isabel

Hoffmann’s “my team just check [sic],” implied that there was a chance some devices had already been mailed to backers. But, as we now know, none had. 

A follow up email from Hoffmann said that the device would finally be shipped “around July [2015] time frame.”

It wasn't. But then three months ago Kneen received a note telling him that his device was about to ship…

Dear Jason,

Exciting news from Tellspec!

We're in the final stages of getting ready to ship testing units to those who contributed to our beta testing program. This means we will be delivering the early prototype of the Tellspec Food Sensor as well as a full smartphone application, so you can perform scans and collect data on the go. You will receive your package between September 1st and the end of October.

Exciting news indeed! Kneen waited and waited, as September and October both whooshed by, until a few days ago when he emailed Tellspec once again to tell them his device hadn’t arrived. Yesterday, he received a response, again from CEO Hoffmann…

Jason

We had to recall some of the beta units due to battery problems, and we are actively addressing the issue which actually involved a firmware upgrade. I am sorry, but we will only be shipping after this gets resolved. Thank you for your support, by the way what foods will you be scanning to help the database?

Isabel

As Kneen told Pando, “I still don't get them asking what foods I'm planning to scan, as if that has any relevance. I paid to be a beta tester – who cares what food I'm scanning? ”  

Quite.

This latest, apparently indefinite, delay is bad news for beta testers like Kneen, and even worse for the company’s 1700 regular backers who collectively pledged over $380k for Tellspec scanners. According to Tellspec’s own marketing material, beta devices were supposed to be shipped several months before the company’s regular backers get their devices. If the beta product isn’t shipping any time soon, other backers face a wait stretching well into 2016. Assuming of course they receive anything at all, ever.

Update: Several readers have pointed out that, apparently at the same time as Hoffmann was privately telling beta testers that shipping had been suspended, Tellspec added a new update to their Indiegogo comments page. That update didn't mention the suspension and, in fact, insisted that deliveries were continuing as normal. It did, however, shift the new expected delivery date of final units to Spring 2016... 

We are still delivering beta units and only after this is completed will we be able to have a more clear idea of the time frame of delivery for the final units. Those that have received beta units are giving us the necessary feedback for us to improve the final units. We are also raising further funds to bring the manufacturing price down by ordering a large quantity. We are doing our best at aiming at Spring 2016 for the delivery of the final units. Thank you for your support
Tellspec Team 

Sadly this is all par for the Tellspec course. If you’re coming to the story late, you can read our previous coverage of the company here, here, here and here.

What is genuinely surprising – shocking, even – is the just-plain-amazing response Pando  received yesterday afternoon when we asked Hoffmann for comment on this latest delay. In a 1100 word rant, reproduced in full below, Hoffmann didn’t actually answer the question, but instead went on a tirade against Pando, blaming us for her company's woes and even accusing us of being part of a plot by rivals to kill her company.  

Hoffmann opens her rant by insisting that, contrary to our reporting, her device really does work and can “parse ingredients and detect calories, fat, carbohydrates, proteins, glycemic index, insulinogenic load and fiber, as well as the presence or absence of gluten.” She points to various video demos as proof of that, including an episode of a Spanish television show on which she demonstrated the device “to 7,000,000 viewers.”

The key words there are “she demonstrated.” As we’ve written before, in every demo Hoffmann has ever cited for the TellSpec device, she is the one holding and operating the device and always with the same very basic food stuffs: bread, cheese, nuts.

After months of searching, I finally tracked down one reporter who appeared to have tested the device for himself:  Fast Company’s John Boitnott. Unfortunately, as I reported here, Boitnott wasn’t allowed to handle the Tellspec scanner either. “What Hoffmann showed me was a black box with wires… She showed me what it would do with a bagel, and some chips…” Boitnott told me. “It was clear the device was [already] familiar with these things.”

As of right now, there’s as much evidence of Isabel Hoffmann’s device working as advertised as there is of Uri Gellar bending spoons with his mind.

We’ve repeatedly asked Hoffmann and other Tellspec representatives to let us see one of the scanners for ourselves, but they have refused every time. Nor has the company been able to point to a single satisfied customer, or even a dissatisfied one.

But, according to Hoffmann, Tellspec’s real problem is not the lack of a working device, the huge production delays, or the continuing misleading statements to backers.

No! Hoffmann knows what’s really going on...

We suspect that Pando has a conflict of interest, that one of your investors is affiliated or has an interest in one of our competitors and that fuels your interest in trying to destroy our reputation.  Others have made similar allegations against Pando in the past.  We expect you to deny this. 

Well, yes, we will deny it, because it’s fucking insane, and insanely defamatory. But the claim is interesting for a couple of reasons (three if you consider “it’s fucking insane” as a reason.)

First, as Hoffmann and Pando readers know, our recent coverage of Tellspec began when Hoffmann sent us a note, completely out of the blue, threatening to sue us unless we deleted two articles about the company written by James Robinson over a year ago.

Hoffmann then insisted she hadn’t sent any of the legal threats, insinuating that the emails we received were fabricated and that the person who called our attorney claiming to be Isabel Hoffmann must have been an imposter impersonating her accent. Hoffmann declined to explain who might have done such a thing, or why.

And that's the second interesting thing: Hoffmann’s latest claims of an investor-led plot against Tellspec exactly match those made in the legal threats she absolutely denies having sent. It seems safe to say at this point that Isabel Hoffmann was not telling the truth when she claimed not to have sent them.

For the record, the only “competitor” of Tellspec I’m aware of is Consumer Physics’ Scio. According to Crunchbase, Pando has no – zero – investors in common with Consumer Physics.  

But Hoffmann isn’t done there. Next she provides a bullet point list of other claims about Pando and our reporting.

She describes our publication of her investor deck as “theft” (it isn’t) and claims we only obtained it by posing as investors (in fact, as I wrote here, the deck was available to anyone who registered on Crowdfunder.com). She also claims we “contacted Crowdfunder to urge them to expel us from the site” (no we didn’t -- our only communication with Crowdfunder was to request comment for our reporting), claims we “filed a baseless complaint with the FTC about [Tellspec]” (we haven’t filed any such complaint, baseless or otherwise)  and that we “contacted at least one of the conferences at which we are scheduled to speak, suggesting that they cancel our invitation” (again, completely false.)

Last on her list, Hoffmann fumes that “You have twitted publicly asking our employees to contact you.”

Actually, that one’s true. If you work at Tellspec, I’d love to hear from you: paul@pandodaily.com

Ms Hoffmann concludes by likening our coverage to “the British phone hacking scandal that resulted in criminal convictions of tabloid journalists.” (That would be the same phone hacking scandal exposed in Parliament by my dear friend, and former NSFWCORP contributor, Tom Watson MP.)

I’ve responded to Hoffmann’s letter asking her to share any supporting evidence she has for any of her claims, and once again inviting her to allow us to test the Tellspec device, or put us in touch with a single satisfied Tellspec backer. As of press time – 15 or so hours later – she hasn’t responded.

Here’s her letter in full:

Dear Paul:

I would like to respond to your allegations against TellSpec, Inc.:  

Pando has charged TellSpec with many offences, but your key charge is your claim that our scanner system does not work, which Pando refers to as the “bullshit scanner.”  This is false. Our scanner works. The current beta version is an unprecedented and highly useful technology.  The scanner system currently can parse ingredients and detect calories, fat, carbohydrates, proteins, glycemic index, insulinogenic load and fiber, as well as the presence or absence of gluten.

TellSpec has been at a number of conferences, including CES 2015, where backers and the public at large have seen our TellSpec beta prototypes work. We have made public appearances (TED, CES, Engadget show, TEDX and mHealth) as well as videos showing how the scanner, app and algorithms work. The scanner was shown live on Spanish television to 7,000,000 viewers.  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mug0ROeBhwA.  TellSpec continues to share videos of the prototypes at work during development.  Here is a video in which the scanner is demonstrated at the TEDx conference (starting around 9:30) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GJMAFUp6cs.  Here is another demonstration video with an interview by Dr Daniel Kraft at CES 2015.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOoXWnERqiQ.

We have stated that we will continue to make new additions of the detection engine  can detect additional substances, such as other allergens and chemicals.  And we have distinguished clearly between existing prototypes and future capabilities.  Your articles fail to note this clear distinction.  Tellspec shows on the investor deck that PandoDaily published without permission from Tellspec, a process that outlines what food detection will be addressed and will not be built until 2017. All Indiegogo backers have been given a 2 year unlimited subscription, and so all the nutritional detection planned will be accessible to the backers and no extra cost. Pando’s claim is based on the misunderstanding you have about what Tellspec is build; you have incorrectly understood that 1. The scanner is the technology that Tellspec offers (not so, Tellspec is a three part system) 2. The scanner does all the detection (not so the scanner is actually only a spectrometer which is not intelligent, the detection is done in the Tellspec’s servers which reside in the cloud) 3. The detection cannot grow over the months and years and get improved unless there is a new scanner (not so, since the software is in the cloud new updates can be delivered without the upgrade of the hardware). Tellspec has also explained in the campaign and in its updates that the nutritional detection and accuracy is improved with more and more scans and that delivering to initial backers will help this the growth of the data base of scans needed for the detection of many more nutritional components and better accuracy. In the video of the Indiegogo campaign the CEO says “...the more food scanned by people the larger the food bank,.... Each time you scan a food , the food information grows and improves food data and accuracy...a global food print of food data that can be grown exponentially”.

You have repeatedly attacked one of our videos as misleading because it showed a potential future model rather than our prototype at the time.  But your articles fail to note the unmistakable and prominent disclaimer displayed at the beginning of the video in big red letters, stating, “The device shown in this video is a 3-D model representing the future industrial design of the TellSpec scanner. It is not a working device, and we are using it solely for the purposes of demonstrating the TellSpec concept.”  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcNj1DknDpg.

While we have had some delays in getting the TellSpec scanner to this point, we have kept our backers informed of our progress, and for the most part they are highly pleased with our performance.  We have issued refunds to the small number of backers who requested them, but we believe our refund rate is at the low end for a crowdfunded company.   Of equal importance, we have built a product with extraordinary functionality with not only the funds from the Indiegogo perks but also from other sources of funding that well surpasses the money received by those perks.   While we have produced and provided a discrete number of our scanners to our backers, we have informed our backers that we need to raise additional funds to manufacture the majority of the scanners that have been ordered.

We understand that journalists are free to disagree with us or to dislike our product.  If CNET and Engadget write reviews of a product, whether positive or negative, they are entitled to express those opinions and indeed are performing a public service.  But Pando repeatedly accuses TellSpec of fraud and deception without ever having seen our product.

In fact, Pando goes beyond the realm of what journalists do.  You are not merely reporting, you are manufacturing news.  You are actively seeking to destroy our company:

o   You went to the Crowdfunder site, pretended to be potential investors, obtained our non-public, confidential information under false pretenses, then made and continue to make public our confidential information in its entirety.  That’s theft, not journalism.

o    You contacted Crowdfunder to urge them to expel us from the site.

o   You claim to have filed a baseless complaint with the FTC about us, despite your having conducted no direct evaluation or investigation of the scanner.

o   You contacted at least one of the conferences at which we are scheduled to speak, suggesting that they cancel our invitation by claiming that you did an investigation on Tellspec despite your having conducted no direct evaluation or investigation of the scanner.

o   You have twitted publicly asking our employees to contact you.

We suspect that Pando has a conflict of interest, that one of your investors is affiliated or has an interest in one of our competitors and that fuels your interest in trying to destroy our reputation.  Others have made similar allegations against Pando in the past.  We expect you to deny this.  Perhaps you are merely a scandal sheet that will say or do anything in order to maximize page views.  Either way, what you are doing is not journalism.  Your actions are reminiscent of the British phone hacking scandal that resulted in criminal convictions of tabloid journalists.

In short, you continue to make false and baseless claims about a product you have not even seen, and in so doing, you have ignored the conclusions of many others who have both seen and been impressed by the TellSpec scanner system. That is not a news investigation or any other kind of journalism, and I hope that your readers can see it for the meritless hatchet job that it is.

                                                                                                  Sincerely,

                                                                                                  Isabel Hoffman

                                                                                                  CEO, TellSpec, Inc.