Silicon Valley has become a source of enormous wealth in this century, in both primary and secondary ways. High-tech innovators are getting rich off their big ideas, but that’s not all—investors in the area are also making huge gains simply by backing those tech companies. With some new technologies, though, the investment opportunities lead to difficult questions about the ethics of it all. For example, as The New York Times reported, venture capitalists have struggled with how to approach e-cigarette producer Juul and other nicotine-related startups.
Juul in particular has been an interesting case. The company has faced widespread criticism lately for marketing its products to teenagers. When Juul leadership set out this summer to raise $1 billion in funding, many in Silicon Valley shunned them, with some publicly slamming the company’s marketing strategy as “greedy” and “odious.”
“For something like Juul, there is an opportunity to make lots and lots of money,” said Jeremy Levine, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners. “But to what end?”
There’s a tricky dilemma for Silicon Valley funders to navigate when it comes to nicotine. They’ve lashed out against Juul, but at the same time, they’ve handed big wads of cash to startups like Lucy (a nicotine gum company) and Ro (a “cloud pharmacy” that also sells nicotine gum in an effort to help people quit smoking).
The question is largely one of messaging. Silicon Valley investors are often looking for “vice” products, but only if they can reposition them as products that ultimately help with health and wellness. For Lucy and Ro—and even for cannabis companies, in some cases—that gambit has worked. It’s tricky, though, and investors have had to pick their spots on a case-by-case basis.
Juul is looking to follow that same route. Rather than encourage consumers to smoke, the company is looking to help people transition away from the old combustible cigarettes and use healthier e-cigarettes instead. When Juul has been successful, that’s the message that’s worked, and it’s won them the good graces of big-name hedge funds and mutual funds like Fidelity Investments, Tao Capital, and Tiger Global.