This Startup Is Using AI to Unearth New Smells

This Startup Is Using AI to Unearth New Smells

Alex Wiltschko opens a black plastic suitcase and pulls out about 60 glass vials. Each contains a different scent. One smells starchy with soft floral notes, like jasmine rice cooking. Another brings to mind ocean air and the white rind of a watermelon. One is like saffron with hints of leather and black tea. The next is the pungent aroma of fig leaves, boxwood, and basil. The most surprising one has the tang of a Thai chili pepper without the nostril-burning heat. 

The molecules wafting into my nose are nothing like I’ve ever smelled before. In fact, I’m one of only a handful of people who have ever smelled them. And yet, before any person had sniffed them, a computer model predicted how they’d smell to us. 

Wiltschko has been obsessed with scents since he was a teenager, and for the past several years he has been developing software at Google Research to predict the scent of molecules based on their structure alone. The vials he’s invited me to smell are the basis of his new startup, Osmo, a spinout of Google Research based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With $60 million in an initial funding round led by New York-based Lux Capital and GV (Google Ventures), Osmo aims to create the next generation of aroma molecules for perfumes, shampoos, lotions, candles, and other everyday products. 

The $30 billion global fragrance industry relies on raw ingredients that are becoming increasingly difficult or controversial to source. Supplies of flowers popular in perfumery are dwindling because of extreme weather driven by climate change. Species like sandalwood trees are endangered from overharvesting. Other ingredients, like saffron or vetiver, are vulnerable to supply chain disruptions due to geopolitical turmoil. Some brands still use musk and other odors sourced from animals, which presents ethical issues, since it means they must be captured or killed. Meanwhile, some synthetic alternatives, such as lilial, which smells like lily of the valley, are facing regulatory bans for safety reasons. 

Chemists at fragrance companies have figured out how to replicate some natural aromas, but it’s still a largely manual process, and many scents don’t have synthetic substitutes. “We need to be building replacements. Otherwise, we’re going to have to continue to harvest these plants and animals from our ecosystem,” says Wiltschko, cofounder and CEO of Osmo, who headed the digital olfaction team while he was at Google Research. “There’s a huge opportunity to build safe and sustainable and renewable ingredients that don’t require that we harvest life.”

In the near term, the company wants to design molecules for the flavor and fragrance industry that are potent, allergen-free, and biodegradable. “We see Osmo as a rational design business model where people want a very specific odor and we design the chemicals, just like you would design a drug in a biotech or pharma company and then be able to license those,” says Josh Wolfe, a managing partner at Lux Capital and cofounder of Osmo. In the long term, the company wants to give computers a sense of smell—to “digitize” scent—although that concept is less far along and faces some uphill technical challenges.


via Wired

January 24, 2023 at 03:04AM

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