treepex device environmentalism green sustainable deforestation treepex device environmentalism green sustainable deforestation The device supposedly turned dirty air into clean oxygen. (Photo: Treepex)

How 2 guys from Georgia pranked international media to save the planet

Their weird-looking device promised to turn dirty air into oxygen on your face. It was a groundbreaking invention. It just wasn't real.

With all the air pollution today, it’s no wonder that people are turning to tech for oxygen. That’s why this weird-looking device uses DNA from plants to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen on your face.

Thousands of people have signed up to try the device. Dozens of venture capitalists are clamoring to invest in it, and hundreds of stores are begging the makers to distribute it. It’s had hundreds of media mentions, including some with The Huffington Post, Vice and New Scientist.

There’s just one problem: it’s not real.

It all started in the country of Georgia, where two guys sat on mismatched chairs in a borrowed office space, trying to figure out how to save the world. After taking an entrepreneurship course at Israel’s Tel Aviv University, Bacho Khachidze and Lasha Kvantaliani started a business called Treepex to help people plant trees, but the press just wasn’t interested.

“Everyone knows we have to plant more trees, but nobody cares,” Khachidze told me later. So he and his partner grew determined to come up with a green idea that would gain worldwide attention. They enlisted the help of a creative agency and deliberated for days. Eventually, they realized that, if there’s one thing people pay attention to, it’s techy gadgets. Especially ones involving DNA.

Bacho Khachidze and Lasha Kvantaliani, cofounders of Treepex Bacho Khachidze and Lasha Kvantaliani, cofounders of Treepex, when I visited them in their new coworking space in New York. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

“Guys, are you ready?” asked Bibi Asatiabi, a creative director at one of their meetings in downtown Tbilisi. He flipped on the TV. “Let me introduce this.” He pulled up a digital 3D model he’d designed the day before. They all looked at the strange, respirator-like device meant to fit over a person’s nose and deliver clean air using DNA from tree cells. It was futuristic. It was ridiculous. It was perfect.

“Wow,” said Khachidze. “Let’s go for it.”

For many companies, developing a new product takes years. But when you don’t actually have to develop anything, the process moves much more quickly. Khachidze and Kvantaliani threw everything together in two months. They had almost no budget, but favors got them far. They had a designer build the useless device, made a professional-looking website and sent out a press release, gaining the attention of some media outlets in Georgia.

“The DNA of millions of leaves” has been “compressed into the brain of the device” read their press release, a scientific claim that, in retrospect, was pretty dubious.

Then they made a commercial. They had to shoot one scene in their supposed DNA lab. Unfortunately, they hadn’t heard of any DNA labs in all of Georgia. So they filmed in a hospital. In the video, you can see a scientist looking at nothing under a microscope; nobody had remembered to put oil on the plate.

They shot other scenes on the street. As they filmed, passersby would come over. “Oh hey, it’s Treepex!” shouted one young woman. Khachidze told me that just about everybody in the country heard about it.

Once they put the video out, they got even more attention. In a month, the Treepex device had gone viral. Companies had found ways to turn carbon dioxide into fuel, but no one had ever created a wearable device that turns it into oxygen before. Treepex went on to get about 600 media mentions and untold Facebook shares and tweets. One famous Georgian journalist, George Gabania, took a selfie while using it.

“Everyone who used Facebook in Georgia during these two or three weeks at least saw this commercial,” Giorgi Tsitlidze, a 22-year-old Georgian marketer not connected with Treepex, told me.

That's around when I found out about Treepex. Interested in exploring the business for an article, I reached out to Khachidze, but he told me I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement before he'd let me interview him. That was weird since, as a journalist, my whole purpose was to disclose things. Not wanting to get into legal complications, I didn’t sign it or write the story. (He later told me that he wanted me to sign it so he could let me in on the hoax.)

Still, there were some white whale publications the founders wanted to attract. Kvantaliani’s favorite publication was New Scientist, and he hoped they’d cover it. A few weeks into this bizarre campaign, Khachidze walked into the office.

“I have good news for you,” he said.

“I’m busy,” replied Kvantaliani, typing on his laptop.

“We got a New Scientist mention.”

“What?”

Indeed, New Scientist had covered Treepex's device. Five thousand people signed up to try it, and 20 were ready to invest. It was particularly popular in Indonesia, a country with an especially high levels of air pollution. The National Bureau of Asian Research found that 57.8 percent of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, suffered from air pollution-related disease.

After letting excitement build for a few more weeks, Treepex put out another video.

“It’s time to tell the harsh truth: We don’t need electronic devices creating fresh air for us to breathe,” said the video. It went on to explain that the device was not real; we need to plant more trees to clean the air, not new gadgets. I watched it, laughing. Finally. Someone had pranked me at work.

Once they knew the truth, people started getting upset. They’d been hoping the device could help them with a myriad of problems. I had to break the news to Tsitlidze the Georgian marketer myself.

"So it's not real?" he asked me.

"No."

"Oh," he said sadly. He'd been looking forward to using it. “Air pollution is a really big problem in Georgia,” he told me. “In town, there are almost no trees.”

Khachidze still gets emails every day from would-be distributors.

“We knew a lot of journalists criticized us, but we didn’t care,” Khachidze said. For them, the stunt wasn't just a hoax. It was a lie that revealed the truth.

The device had walked the line between absurd and inevitable. Thirty-two million acres of forest are lost each year, according to a 2010 United Nations report. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million people die a year from air pollution – that’s one in eight deaths around the world. And venture capitalists keep pouring money into new tech devices. It’s almost like we’ve been expecting something like this to come along.

“Is this what it’s come to?” my mom asked me when I told her about the device.

That’s the general vibe I got from most people I told about Treepex: People will never wear that thing ... will they?

“We showed them a future that will really be a reality,” Kvantaliani told me. “It’s not fake. It’s true, but not yet.”

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