I was half-an-hour late getting to Nicogel.
It was so difficult to find I almost gave up, eventually crossing a muddy yard and discovering a well-hidden door, the name of the company so small, you’d think they had something to hide.
Far from it. Nicogel turns out to be spectacular.
Take the following ingredients: the world’s first new tobacco product in 300 years, yet not a health-threat, a company which started only three years ago and is already worth more than Â£100m, sales in 42 countries, and an even more stupendous product on the starting block.
To start at the beginning.
The Nicogel offices are as unpromising inside as out; boss, founder and sole-owner John Walters is sitting in a very cramped office, but we go through to a tiny meeting room where an electric fire circa 1950s threatens to singe my skirt, which reminds me, one of the workers was outside having a fag when I arrived, obviously a case of cobblers shoes.
Dr Walters, 39, has never smoked, but he has absorbed plenty of nicotine and all the rest in the discovery and development of his product, an odourless gel that you rub into your hands instead of smoking a cigarette.
“Of course, I had to try it. I got pepped up by it, felt as if my vision sharpened, my heart rate increased, basically I felt high as a kite.” Wow, give me some.
As a non-smoker the gel seeping through the palms of his hands and into his blood stream had a much greater effect than it does on smokers, but the effect is enough to make them feel they have just smoked two or three.
Also, unlike nicotine gum and patches, Nicogel contains traces of 1,800 bio-actives in tobacco, only one of which is nicotine, and, according to Dr Walters, not enough in itself to stem a craving. Thus, he claims Nicogel as the first new tobacco product in 300 years.
The previous one, you may be interested to know, was the cigarette, developed by soldiers copying Turks they had seen rolling tobacco in paper and setting light to it. But the fag is still a relative newcomer itself, with the first tobacco products giving pleasure 6,000 years ago, and sometimes not – there used to be a tobacco enema.
Dr Walters, a Welshman who studied biochemistry at Oxford, started his first business a decade ago: “I’ve had five businesses,” he says, “all in new product development – an anti-inflammatory, appetite suppressant, stabilizing system for beverages, some of them are still confidential, all of them have now been sold.”
He was doing some work for a Japanese beer company that wanted a particular ingredient placed in an ale when he had the Eureka moment for Nicogel.
“It started with computer modeling. One night I was sitting up late with a glass of wine and I was suddenly struck by the similarity of this ingredient to nicotine, but nicotine is a bit unstable in liquid.
“I thought about shampoo and various other possibilities before reaching hand gel.” Imagine, you can now enjoy the pleasure of a cigarette without even striking a match, not upsetting your non-smoking companions or damaging anyone’s health.
Dr Walters admits the only drawback is the “hand to mouth” action of smoking, which can be as addictive as the weed itself, but I suppose you could always suck a pencil.
Nicogel is made from pure tobacco processed into a liquid and put into a cosmetic.
“More than eight out of 10 smokers who have tried it say they get cigarette satisfaction,” Dr John says.
It is worth noting that Nicogel is not quite the same as gum and patches because it is billed as “an alternative” to smoking, rather than an aid to giving up; even so, many people do quit: “In November I began rubbing Nicogel into may hands whenever anyone around me lit up. Within three weeks I was down to a couple of cigarettes a day and soon I quit completely,” says Andrew Wadsworth, a graphic designer.
Nicogel is also poised for its big moment, with 30,000 pubs and bars across the UK planning to install dispensing machines before next summer when smoking is banned in public places and private clubs.
It is already on sale worldwide, and was snapped up by Tesco at an early stage. A pot of gel costs Â£10, a pack of 10 sachets, Â£3, with each working for between two and four hours: “It works out at 20% of the cost of smoking,” the doctor says. “It can go everywhere a cigarette can’t go, and you can advertise it.”
Mighty WalMart in the US wants Nicogel in 36,000 of its stores by the end of March, and discussions are in progress with two of the world’s five top tobacco companies, which could mean an early sale for Dr John’s company.
But maybe not. Nicogel, hidden away in the Fens somewhere north of Ely, is already running three shifts to meet demand and will soon be moving into much larger premises, although equally unprepossessing. Here, the company will be working on Dietgel, a handrub that takes away your appetite.
Dr John says it is a “stop nibbling” product and he has already taken orders for 150 million units.
It is based on green tea, or the polycatechins (“pretty word, isn’t it?” Dr John says). “They switch off hunger signals and switch on the body’s ability to use its own reserves. It’s an incredibly beautiful way of stopping hunger without being excessive.”
Although lean and lithe himself – he likes jogging – he has tried Dietgel, too.
“I like running, but when I get home from a jog I will eat the door off the fridge, but I didn’t with the gel.”
Rubbing his hands all the way to the bank, the doctor is not unambitious when it comes to predicting the sales performance of Dietgel: “We will have to open a bank on the moon,” he says, “change the tide when we cash the cheque.”
He happened across the idea for Dietgel while leafing through old books, some published up to 200 years ago as he was researching an appetite suppressant for a soft drinks company.
But it has not all been straightforward, even though he funded everything from his own pocket and has no investors or co-directors to answer to: “We have had to fight off one of the biggest companies, making nicotine, who have tried everything to put us out of business.”
This is hardly surprising when you hear that the quit smoking market is worth $20 billion a year, and the tobacco market, $380 billion.Value of the diet industry worldwide is too great to work out, but Dr John’s staff at Nicogel US, his American subsidiary, reckon they will do $1 billion in the first year with Dietgel. The company, which initially test-marketed its first product on e-Bay, where it “sold and sold and sold”, then caught the eye of Tesco, is currently growing at 120% a month. It employs about 40 people, rarely all at one time, but will be needing more staff in the new year.
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Source: This article is from Cambridge Evening News