There's Something In The Water

A Texas-based company is marketing a brand of bottled H20, called Evolv, that supposedly can ward off disease and boost your aerobic capacity. It’s fascinating case study of a notable trend—nutritional products that are being sold with a mix of miracle health claims and complex financial structures that promise easy riches. Our advice? Investor beware.

    Photo: Photo by Tom Schierlitz

I'M STANDING NEAR THE ENTRANCE TO A LARGE CONFERENCE ROOM inside a Hilton hotel in Del Mar, California, as Ron Sineni, an entrepreneur with a pitchman's energy, tells me how rich I'm going to get by selling a brand of bottled water called Evolv. I'm on hand—without identifying myself as a journalist—to hear the presentation given to current and potential "Evolvers," people who take a deep dive into the product by purchasing it and reselling it to others. Not long after this meeting, I'll make it clear to Evolv's management that I'm researching a magazine article, but first I want to take in a sales talk.

It's some talk: even before the presentation starts, Sineni is making Evolv sound too good to pass up. "What we have is incredible!" he tells me.

Sineni, 43, says Evolv is no ordinary water. It's manufactured by a Dallas, Texas–based company, EvolvHealth, whose owners infuse plain old H2O with a secret formula called Archaea Active, which supposedly can ward off cancer and heart disease while increasing oxygen uptake by red blood cells, boosting longevity and athletic performance all at once. It certainly sounds incredible—like a miracle tonic laced with EPO—and Sineni can't help saying "awesome" over and over as he describes it.

I explain that I'm not much of a salesman, just a guy who's down on his luck and looking to make some cash. Don't worry, Sineni says, half shouting now because somebody has amped things up in the conference room by blasting anthem rock. I'll need only two things to succeed: "belief" and "duplication." I have to believe that the water works, of course, but I also have to believe in the duplicative power of Evolv's complicated fiscal geometry, which is at the core of the entire enterprise.

As I'm already aware, Evolv is not sold in stores but person to person, by individuals like me, and I can make money in two ways. After paying a $49.95 membership fee, I can buy Evolv wholesale for $55 a case and then recruit other "customers" to buy it at a markup, for $65 per case. The real riches, however, lie in convincing others to sign up as independent sellers. These people will constitute what's known as my downline. When I have a downline established and I buy at least two cases a month, I can become a "managing executive" and, through an elaborate series of bonuses, earn payouts based on the quantity of cases ordered by me and my recruits. Evolv's higher-ups pocket the bulk of the profits, but I can make out handsomely, too.

From there, who knows? I can become an "executive director" if I buy four cases myself ($220) and assemble a series of downline members who purchase a total of, say, 500 ($27,500). All I have to do, Sineni says, is find lots of new sellers, creating "two Brians, six Brians, ten Brians." That will be easy, because I'll be getting in on the ground floor. The company launched in 2009, and at the time of this meeting—September 2010—the downlines are still in their early growth stages. Besides, Evolv will basically sell itself. Who wouldn't want health and endurance straight out of a bottle?

I TAKE MY SEAT in the room, and soon I'm joined by about 30 other people who possess what Sineni calls "business horsepower." Some have already signed on, some are just looking, and some appear to be Evolv boosters, here to help establish the company's credibility. One of them is Tamilee Webb, star of the Buns of Steel exercise videos from the eighties. Another is Dennis Newman, a 1994 U.S. national bodybuilding champ, who sometimes shares his story with Evolv prospects. He sits in front of me, turns around, shakes my hand, and gives me a bottle of the water. Newman says it protects him against cancer, a disease he knows a thing or two about, since he suffered from leukemia in the mid-nineties. Medical treatments put him in remission, and now, he says, Evolv is keeping him fit and cancer free.

"It helps a healthy inflammatory response in your body," he explains. "You have good inflammation and bad inflammation. Good inflammation is like when I was bodybuilding and you get inflamed muscles. And bad inflammation is all the disease and cancer and everything else. And the dehydration of oxygen in cells."

Somebody turns off the music, and a middle-aged man named Jim Lutes takes the stage. Lutes is an Evolv "master distributor," which places him near the top of the hier­archy. Speaking in a loud, rhythmic style, he says that, just by being here, we've shown that we have the necessary ingredients for success. "Entrepreneurs think differently!" he booms. "They see with vision, not with sight. They don't see the desert, they see Las Vegas. They see what is to come. They believe in other things.… An entrepreneur says, ‘What will it make me?' not ‘What will it cost me?' An entrepreneur loves to work, because it is the pursuit of a dream!"

Lutes has lived the dream, selling a different product in the mid-nineties using the same business model we're here to discuss. "I created an income, over 15 years ago, of $50,000 per month that came in [even] if I was in a coma," he says. "Came in if I was in Greece, which I was. Came in if I was in Brazil, which I was."

A video starts playing on a giant screen, and a woman's voice asks us how our lives are "going to evolve. What would your life look like if you could evolve the way you want?" Tens of thousands of people, she says, have found prosperity and health by selling and drinking Evolv's wondrous water.

Next, a handsome blond-haired man appears in the video, strolling around the grounds of what appears to be his private estate. The woman's voice identifies him as "Trey White, EvolvHealth chairman and mega-successful entrepreneur." White, 43, sits in a big chair and assures us that we can be just like him. "I am bringing my financial talents, and my team that manages my assets and my money, to the organization," he says, "to help our members not only make money but invest money."

Lutes shows us a few slides to help explain the concept of network marketing, the business model Evolv uses and another name for a system known as multilevel marketing (MLM). Over the years, economists and critics have warned against these financial arrangements, arguing that although they're legal in the United States, they're little more than elaborate pyramid schemes, likely to leave a raft of heartbroken optimists in their wake. Sineni mentioned this criticism to me earlier, dismissing it and calling Evolv not a pyramid but a "phenomenal structure." Now Lutes is explaining how it works.

"Two, four, six, eight, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024!" he says. "I know the math! If you brought in two people and they brought in two people," he continues, before long "you've got over 2,000 cases [of water] you are getting paid on, and how many people did you bring in? Two!"

Then he shows us a diagram of the structure, and it looks exactly like … well, let's just call it a ziggurat.

WHETHER EVOLV LEADS to champagne bubbles or bitter tears, it serves as a fascinating case study of how the powerful human urge for health and fitness, combined with the promise of riches, can entice large numbers of hopefuls to place essentially hopeless bets. As it turns out, MLM structures are often used to sell products that, like Evolv, claim to boost health through the simplest act: eating or drinking something.

Such products pop up all over the place, often marketed by people who have worked in or created other MLMs, fueling a huge shadow economy. According to the Direct Selling Association, a trade group, revenues from direct-sale products amounted to $28.3 billion in 2009, mostly coming from MLM businesses. Chances are you've heard about some of them as they've rippled through your town. One of recent vintage is a chocolate called Xocai, which is supposed to promote cardiovascular health while providing energy. Or maybe you've come across MonaVie's Essential, a juice drink derived from Amazon-grown acai berries that "defends against the effects of aging"; or Limu Plus, a drink with "Russian adaptogens" that "help restore the body's overall capacity for exertion and resistance to stress"; or IsaWater, which "ensures maximum hydration at the cellular level."

All of these products are wrapped in the same questionable medical claims that characterize Evolv, and all are sold using the same "phenomenal structure." This style of marketing has roots in two age-old business models that, unlike MLMs, have long been illegal in the U.S.: the Ponzi scheme and the aforementioned pyramid scheme. In a classic Ponzi—named for Charles Ponzi, a notorious Boston-based Italian con man from the 1920s—the organizer of the scam promises to pay high rates of return to investors. And so he does, but the returns come in the form of new investors' money, not from any real business. Word spreads about the big payouts, more dollars cascade in, and the organizer gets rich, but soon the inflow of new money can't keep pace with the outflow to investors, and the whole thing collapses.

These hustles have been around awhile—Charles Dickens featured one in his novel Little Dorrit—and as Bernie Madoff recently demonstrated, they're with us today.

A pyramid scheme is slightly different, and the example of a now defunct company called Equinox shows how it works. Founded in 1991, Equinox purported to sell water filters and nutrition products, but its real business was recruiting people into the pyramid, encouraging them to buy thousands of dollars of products, rent desk space, and pay for training seminars, all with the promise of generating a big payoff, mainly by recruiting still more people. After Equinox raked in millions, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and eight states sued. In 2000 the company was shut down and ordered to liquidate its assets—worth an estimated $40 million—most of which would go to people it defrauded. Founder William "Bill" Gouldd, who in 1990 paid $75,000 to settle a consumer-protection lawsuit in California, was banned for life by the FTC from getting involved in MLM.

The legal MLM business as described by Lutes shares characteristics with both Ponzi and pyramid schemes. It relies on the belief that an endless supply of new sellers—first two, then four, and so on—can be persuaded to join up. Each doubling represents a new level, hence the term multilevel. This idea has been around since at least the 1940s, when a vitamin company called Nutrilite (now known as Amway) organized its door-to-door sales force into levels. Over the years, the federal government has tried to distinguish illegal pyramids from legal MLMs—the latter is barred from paying an outright commission for recruiting new members, for example, and they have to sell at least some of their products to outside buyers—but the lines can be fuzzy.

Regardless of whether an MLM is legal, members usually succeed only by getting in early, because the math described by Lutes can become unsustainable, leading to sales-force saturation in any community where the MLM takes hold. For example, to achieve the low-level rank of principal executive under the Evolv compensation plan, you must personally sign up four sellers, all of whom must become managing executives and two of whom must advance to the rank of senior executive by recruiting their own downlines—for a total of ten sellers under you. Your group is then required by Evolv to purchase a "qualifying volume" of 250 cases, or 6,000 bottles, every four weeks. At $55 per case, that's $13,750. Good luck moving that amount of Evolv, especially if there are already a few dozen people in your area selling it. The competition only gets worse as new levels (and salesmen) are added.

Every year, thousands of people waste time and money on MLMs. A typical example is Lenore Kremen, a 55-year-old woman from Scottsdale, Arizona, who in April 2009 was recruited by a friend to sell a new energy drink called eFusjon, which was sold through a "matrix" compensation plan. Kremen says she trusted her friend and the eFusjon leadership—who told her that "the growth of the company would be shared exponentially with everyone who got in at a certain starting point"—but the matrix, she said, turned out to be a bust for her. Despite finding some 500 people for her downline, Kremen barely broke even, because she had to buy more product than she could sell and the terms of the matrix kept changing. Worse, she said, "I completely lost credibility" with the people she recruited. She quit in August 2009.

Some MLMs, including Amway and Herbalife, have lasted a long time, partly by constantly recruiting new sellers to replace those who quit, partly by expanding product lines to include things that don't involve health claims, and partly by moving overseas into places like China and Eastern Europe. But many others simply pop up, make a splash, and then fade away as the product is debunked, the market becomes saturated with sellers, or some legal action shuts it down. When that happens, the organizers often move on to a new MLM.

Critics argue that the vast majority of sellers lose their investment and only about 1 to 5 percent—usually the people at the top—make any serious money. When this realization hits those on the lower rungs, the recriminations begin. The history of MLMs can be read through the lawsuits filed against them, from big players like Amway and Herbalife to smaller ones like eFusjon, which was sued in 2009 by an angry distributor. The suit alleged that Nevada-based eFusjon was an illegal pyramid. The company denied it, and the case settled out of court under terms that weren't made public.

In January, a lawsuit filed by sellers of Amway products—accusing the company of operating as an illegal pyramid—was also settled out of court, although that settlement has not yet been approved by a judge. Amway's owners denied the charge but agreed to pay a reported $155 million in cash, refunds, and discounts to plaintiffs and other distributors and to change the way it does business by beefing up a money-back guarantee on products purchased by distributors and providing them with more sales training. Despite the track record, though, some MLMs use their enormous profits to mount effective public-relations campaigns (which is why the Orlando Magic play in Amway Center).

Controlling MLMs doesn't always mean filing lawsuits, but regulatory oversight is often weak. The FTC is the primary MLM watchdog, and in 2000 the commission, along with several states, did shut down Equinox for operating as an illegal pyramid. Critics argue that the FTC is too lax, however. In 2006, the agency proposed rules to tighten MLM regulations and require more disclosure to potential members, such as whether MLM principals have a criminal record. In 2008, under lobbying pressure from the industry, it rescinded many of the proposals.

THE SPECTACULAR HEALTH claims made by MLMs are another matter, and from the very beginning, companies that choose to network-market nutrition and sports-performance products have attracted attention from government regulators. In 1951, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cited Nutrilite for making "extravagant thera­peutic claims" that its products could help treat 57 serious diseases. In 2003, Pure De-Lite, an MLM established by Jeannette Brooks—founder of MXI Corp, which markets Xocai products—was cited by the FDA for violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by making false labeling claims.

Yet nutrition-based MLMs depend on these claims and keep making them, shielded by a federal law called the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, which forbids them from saying outright that a product can treat or cure a disease but allows them to hint, wink, and nudge all they want. As a result, MLMs often push exotic stories about the science and research that undergird their products. PiMag water, sold by an MLM called Nikken, supposedly originated when scientists discovered a water source in a remote part of Japan that imparted amazing benefits to local plant life. Nikken claims to have duplicated the environment to produce PiMag, which in turn delivers health benefits to consumers.

Despite the questionable financial structuring and sketchy claims, MLMs persist because people continue to believe they can achieve wealth and vigor the easy way. In the parallel universe of multilevel marketing, you can run a business without an M.B.A. or much experience at all, and you're buying and selling something priceless: a long, healthy, active life.

When you look into the science behind these products, however, you enter a murky realm. Evolv is an excellent example. The water was created by a self-taught chemist and tinkerer in Houston named Conrad "Gene" Kaiser, who died in 2009 at age 82. Kaiser's most famous invention—thin-set tile mortar, which he developed in the 1950s—fueled the creation of a string of new products, such as fire-suppression foams and oil-spill-remediation formulas. As the BP spill reminded us all, microbes in the environment naturally consume oil. Kaiser's idea was to speed the process by supercharging oil-eating bacteria. He formulated a slurry of enzymes and organic materials he called bio-base to help the microbes get and use oxygen more efficiently.

Kaiser reasoned that if his bio-base made for healthier bacteria, it might make for healthier people, so he began drinking water filtered through the stuff, the formulation of which has never been revealed. Soon after Kaiser began imbibing, his family members did, too, and they believed they noticed health benefits, including fewer colds.

Word about Kaiser's water spread; before long, people were showing up at his makeshift lab with empty jugs. Kaiser, a generous man, gave the water away on demand. Sure enough, some people started testifying to miraculous results, including cancer remissions.

Kaiser thought the water needed wider distribution, so in the early 2000s he began modifying the bio-base formula for mass consumption. Then he went to see Gio Tomasini, 62, an affable public relations man who's been a Houston business insider for decades. Tomasini was skeptical at first, until he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"So I said, ‘OK, if the water is what you say, I've got nothing to lose. I've got cancer,' " Tomasini told me. "I started drinking the water. It took three months for me to figure out what I wanted to do [to treat] the cancer, and I went with robotic surgery." The surgery removed the malignancy, but like most patients, Tomasini had to urinate through a catheter while recovering. Once the catheter is removed, it can take a while for patients to regain control of urine flow, but not in his case.

"The day my doctor removed the catheter," Tomasini says, "he pulled it out and said, ‘Can you pee?' So I peed. He said, ‘Stop,' and it stopped. He looked at me and said, ‘That is unusual. You are not supposed to be able to do that.' " Tomasini credited the water for his quick physical recovery.

Kaiser wanted the water to become his greatest legacy—free, or nearly free, to all comers. Tomasini didn't necessarily disagree, but he realized that for the water to do the masses any good, it had to be marketed. In 2007, he helped start a company, Health2O, to serve as a vehicle for Kaiser's bio-base—renamed Archaea Active—and products licensed to use it.

But selling the water on store shelves like a traditional retail offering would mean middlemen, fighting for space with the likes of Dasani and Aquafina, and lots of money—money they couldn't raise because, Tomasini says, his rich Houston friends were dubious that water filtered through "corn husks and blue-green algae" had health-giving, performance-enhancing powers.

Meanwhile, in 2003, Trey White had formed a company called White Energy to jump into the ethanol business. Ethanol is made when bacteria or yeast turn corn into fuel. Health2O asked Kevin Kuykendall, then White Energy's CEO, about the possibility of using bio-base to ramp up the process. That didn't work out, but soon thereafter Kuyken­dall left White Energy, and he was eventually hired to head up Health2O. He provided the link to Trey White. When White and a friend, Brent Hicks, visited Kaiser's lab and read through a stack of emotional testimonials from water drinkers, White bought control of the concept, including Health2O, for an undisclosed sum—he'll say only "millions"—and in 2009 created a separate company called EvolvHealth to market products based on Archaea Active.

As the reaction of Tomasini's friends demonstrated, belief is nice but science is better. Before White purchased control of Kaiser's invention, Tomasini says he used a connection with a friend, John Mendelsohn, president of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, to have the water tested in one of Anderson's labs. Sure enough, the testing revealed what appeared to be evidence of the water's anti-inflammatory effects on human and rat cancer cells.

Normally, such a test would be a preliminary step toward more research, but Evolv didn't wait. As soon as White and Hicks began marketing the water, they plastered M.D. Anderson's name on its labels and promotional materials, implying that the cancer center had proved Evolv's claims.

Next, Evolv turned to an Illinois company called FutureCeuticals, a subsidiary of Van Drunen Farms that supplies ingredients to the alternative-medicine, health-food, and cosmetics markets. FutureCeuticals tested the water on human blood cells and found that the cells took up more oxygen, produced more energy, and didn't release additional lactic acid. This non-peer-reviewed study seems to form the only scientific basis of Evolv's claim that athletes gain endurance by drinking it, though the company says new studies are coming soon.

ROSCOE WHITE III (hence Trey) grew up in Dallas, an upper-middle-class kid working in a family-owned barbecue restaurant. He attended college at Southwest Texas State but didn't graduate. In the 1990s, after a stint selling computers and real estate in California, he returned to Texas and took another real estate sales job. Then he had a bright idea.

All kinds of new housing developments were springing up in the Dallas sprawl, but they weren't being listed by the Realtors' Multiple Listing Service. So White and his father, Fred, created a company called MultiSearch Solutions, a database that developers and real estate agents could use to link up.

Their timing was perfect. The 1990s Inter­net bubble was inflating, and the pair's website, HomeBuilder.com, caught the eye of Stuart Wolff, a California entrepreneur who was building what became known as Homestore.com. Homestore acquired the Whites' company in 1998 for more than $9 million in stock, cash, and notes, and the Whites became employees.

Homestore went public at the height of the dot-com frenzy, its stock soared, and the Whites' holdings earned them serious wealth. Trey White took part of his Home­store windfall, started a small venture-capital outfit, and began financing real estate and other businesses, often guided by a trusted expert. Health2O had considered using an MLM to market the water, and when White came on the scene, he decided to go that route with EvolvHealth. He set out to learn the ropes by calling in an MLM veteran named John Gustin.

According to Evolv literature, Gustin has a résumé rivaling that of the Most Interesting Man in the World. He's been a bodyguard to "the Prince of Saudi Arabia." He taught self-defense and weapons handling to the FBI, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and the Israeli army. He is a world-record holder in something called Tarnishiwara. (Google the term and you get exactly four hits, all of them Evolv-related.) He has also consulted with former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, the founder of Amgen—the biotech company that created EPO—and a company called Nutrition 21, cited by the FTC for making unsubstantiated claims for a weight-loss product. He publishes scientific papers on immunology, weight loss, diabetes, obesity, and sports nutrition.

One problem with Gustin's papers, though, is that they're published in a journal called Medical Hypotheses, a non-peer-reviewed publication that's known for sometimes advancing fringe ideas. Most were written with Mark McCarty, a chief advocate of laetrile, a long-debunked treatment for cancer. McCarty is associated with a laetrile clinic called Oasis of Hope Cancer Hospital, in Tijuana, Mexico, a hub for desperate patients seeking help from the alternative-cancer-cure underground. According to Evolv, Gustin was in charge of designing "Diabetes, Obesity, and Cardiovascular units for the Oasis of Hope Cancer Hospital."

Gustin, Lutes, and a man named Charlie Culver became Evolv's master distributors, the people from whom all downlines flow. Culver is famous in the industry for operating a stock scam called PrimeBuyNetwork.com. In 2002, he was fined $50,000 by an Idaho court for violations of the Idaho Securities Act. Anne Bodak Smith was named Evolv's vice president of sales. She previously worked for Nikken, the MLM that created PiMag water.

During the public recruitment meeting in Del Mar, Ron Sineni talked about the endorsement of a pharmacologist named Robert Newman. According to Sineni, Newman "created the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, retired from them, and came to work for us full-time. He is overseeing our research."

Newman, 62, wasn't born when Anderson was founded in the 1940s. He did work there, in the lab where the water was tested, and he did retire from Anderson, in 2008. But he says he didn't go to work for Evolv full-time: he agreed to become a part-time consultant. Newman told me that the relationship ended because Evolv stopped paying him.

Newman believes there is something interesting going on in the water, and he vouches for the blood-cell study conducted by FutureCeuticals, which entered into what Evolv has called a "multi-year, multi-million dollar" business arrangement. In the experiment, Newman says, Evolv boosted cellular energy production by "a small amount."

But he's much more cautious than Evolv about making further claims. "The last thing I want to do is associate my name with a company selling magic water," he says. In fact, he would prefer that no claims be made until Evolv is proven to work, with real scientific data replicated by independent researchers.

Newman confirmed that results from the study done at the M.D. Anderson labs were extremely preliminary. The lab was unable to find any of the compounds that Health2O speculated might reduce inflammation. Though technicians found some small evidence of anti-inflammatory activity, there were caveats and cautions aplenty, the biggest one being that cell samples are typically grown in highly purified water. Any number of compounds added to that water could create anti-inflammatory responses. Health2O's water came out of Houston taps, complete with minerals, carbonates, metals, and organic compounds, and it's possible that any one of those was causing the anti-inflammatory action.

What's more, the results might not even apply to Evolv's current Archaea Active formula, which has changed and apparently now relies heavily on alfalfa. The base water now comes from an Arkansas company that markets private-label spring water for as little as 32 cents per bottle to charities, businesses, and events.

When Anderson realized what Evolv was doing with its name, it sued. White countersued. In a settlement, Evolv agreed to drop any mention of Anderson. Despite filing the countersuit, White now claims he doesn't care, that the Anderson name has no value.

As for the FutureCeuticals test, university scientists I contacted, including one expert in muscle-cell metabolism, laughed when they read the summary of the experiment posted on Evolv's website. One likened Evolv's claims to "mysticism."

TREY WHITE ENJOYS ALL the classic accoutrements of a financial go-getter: top-floor offices in a tower adjacent to Dallas's ritziest mall, a view over vast stretches of the city, a pretty blond receptionist. He seemed friendly, if a little nervous, when I sat down with him in the conference room of his headquarters one day last November. Brent Hicks, Evolv's CEO, was there, too, and the men came armed with a young crisis-management specialist named Katie Sibley, who filmed my interview and tried to steer our conversation.

I asked for a meeting not only to talk about Evolv's health claims but also because, like many MLMs, Evolv tries to create an aura of success around its leaders. White and Hicks have worked hard to establish themselves in the minds of Evolvers as up-and-coming versions of Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs. White claims to have built "several multibillion-dollar companies." Hicks claims to have been the force behind what he describes as the sixth-fastest-growing private company in America.

It's true that Hicks worked for a high-flying company. He ran the Dallas branch of Meridias Capital, a Henderson, Nevada, outfit that specialized in Alt-A loans for home mortgages, also known as liar loans because they require minimal financial documentation from loan recipients. Such loans helped fuel the housing bubble, and when it burst, Meridias was doomed. It folded in 2010.

Trey White has made a lot of money over the years, too, but he has never created a billion-dollar company. That claim seems to hinge on the soaring stock price of Homestore during the dot-com bubble, a price appreciation that White says he engineered. In fact, according to Fred White, their experience at Homestore was not a happy one, and they left after about a year. "We ran out of things to do," Fred said. The Whites had no authority to make major corporate decisions.

The man who did, Homestore founder Stuart Wolff, is now serving out a prison sentence for, among other things, using tricky accounting to inflate Homestore's revenue, thus helping justify the inflated stock price. When I asked White about this, he backpedaled a little.

"I was part of a team," he said. "There were 50 people that were part of the process."

His other ventures have been a mixed bag. A prepaid-energy-sales business failed. White Energy invested in an ethanol bubble; plagued by oversupply, soaring corn prices, and a mountain of debt, it went bankrupt in 2009, though White jumped ship a year before and may have come out ahead. White's real estate business, a company called Marlin Atlantis, has suffered in the recession. At least one of its developments is a sea of empty lots, while another, a green amusement park called Earthquest—planned to go up just outside Houston—has been delayed repeatedly for lack of investor interest.

Starting an MLM is a good way to ramp up cash flow, but White insists he's not hurting. His motivation is more altruistic, he says. He only wants to help people make money and improve their health. "Whatever people think about MLM or what companies have done before us, that's not us," White said. "What we are trying to create here is something different. Something unique. Something akin to the Apple brand of the network-marketing industry.... People say it is just a quick buck? That's B.S. I have invested millions of dollars in this effort!"

And yet his core team includes a guy associated with a fringe cancer clinic, another who was found to be a swindler, and MLM vets who've sold iffy products in the past. More recently, in mid-February, White agreed to merge EvolvHealth with another MLM, called Xowii, which was formed by James Christiansen, a onetime fixture with the MonaVie MLM. In addition, Evolv's new president, Josh Higginbotham, is a former Xowii executive who once worked for an MLM called cPrime, which sells a bracelet that "acts as a bio­-antenna, altering the way your body interacts with its electromagnetic environment, which may help to balance and optimize biological responses."

During my interview with White, I mentioned that having such personnel hardly seems like a break with MLM tradition.

"I don't want to be another MLM," he insisted again. "I don't want to be that! All that crap in the past? That's not who we are."

I pointed out that Robert Newman, White's former consultant, believes that Evolv's claims require more scientific proof.

"There are plenty of products out there that haven't been through clinical trials," he responded. "Just because he has a standard that is so high… You know what I am saying?" (Later, Sibley would call and demand the notes from my talk with Newman. When I refused, she threatened legal action.)

Then White told me a story about how the Puerto Rican national basketball team once tried Evolv. "There was a significant difference between athletes that had access to the product and those who didn't," he said.

He stared at me, then continued. "We've had Ricky Williams, unsolicited I might add, talk about how amazing it has been." Williams, an NFL running back, has cleaned up his act lately, but he's been as famous for smoking pot and indulging in esoteric diet fads as he has been for rushing.

Ultimately, White and Hicks returned to using their decision to invest as a form of persuasion. Why would they be spending millions if the water were not everything they say it is? Furthermore, FutureCeuticals' John Hunter, with whom they have a major financial arrangement, says they've got a "billion dollar" product on their hands.

AS I LISTENED TO the circular reasoning—Evolv is for real because our investment proves it's for real—my mind drifted back to the Evolv seminar in California, where the speakers were considerably more direct. One was John Gustin, the old MLM pro with the astonishing résumé. A squat barrel of a man with a dark vandyke beard, Gustin told us that Evolv has more science behind it than 99 percent of MLM "nutraceuticals."

"The technology came in, and it was used for human health with very, very sick people," he said, edging toward the incredible claim that Evolv has the power to cure disease. "Terminally ill people. And it proved itself in that space."

"Athletes are falling down for this product!" he continued. "We've all heard in the Tour de France and other sports, they are injecting hormones into their bodies to increase red-blood-cell production. Why? Red blood cells carry oxygen. Do you think they will want the product? Yeah!"

Meaning that Evolv could also juice up pro bike racers? Perhaps the World Anti-Doping Agency should go ahead and ban it.

Then Gustin issued a vaguely threatening challenge. "Is there a person in this room that doesn't believe this product does what it says it does?" he asked. "Is there a person in this room? Raise your hand right now!"

None of us did.

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