Remember doing the “smell test” before you poured the contents of your questionable, perhaps expired milk bottle on your morning cereal? French startup Aryballe has a solution to that deep, apprehensive whiff. In the future, the company’s “digital nose” may be embedded in your fridge or milk container; it could shoot an alert to your mobile phone to let you know when something’s spoiled.
More immediate to such consumer luxuries, Aryballe is homing its digital olfaction technology as a quality control measure for the cosmetics, food, and automotive industries. The company launched its first product, a sensor-based handheld unit called NeOse Pro, last year. It has also just raised €6.2 million from nutrition and ingredients company IFF, Hyundai Motor Company and two prior individual investors to further develop and miniaturize its sensors.
“In many industries, odor is already an important quality standard, often enforced by human smell panels,” a spokeswoman for Aryballe told AFN. “Many of our customers are seeking a sensor solution for these standards because of the inherent drawbacks of human panels.”
Drawbacks like human bias and error, mostly.
Machine sensing, learning, and artificial intelligence are being used to enhance or replace human tasks in pretty much every industry these days, food and agriculture being no exception. A few are developing them for sense-related applications like Aryballe. Switzerland’s FlavorWiki is crowdsourcing data about customers’ food tastes and developing flavor profiles that are more accurate than expert tasters. Chile’s plant-based food company NotCo is using AI to make perfectly-matched vegan replicas of non-vegan foods, like mayonnaise
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Aryballe seized on sense of smell as an opportunity for a digital upgrade when it launched back in 2014. “We’ve been able to develop sensors that cover most of our senses, from sight to sound to taste. But smell is the most complicated, and we still lack a universal smell sensor today,” Terri Jordan, Aryballe’s president told AFN.
Most solutions under development are large, expensive, have limited performance, or suffer from inconsistency, she added.
A rose by any other name…
The reason cracking the digital smell code is important is because humans experience smell differently, and that has very tangible impacts on the way they engage with places, products, and experiences.
“Your milk may visually look fine and the expiration date is in a few days, but if it smells off, you won’t drink it,” Aryballe’s spokeswoman said. “In automotive, Chinese consumers have a preference for zero odor in a new car – to them the typical “new car smell” indicates hazardous chemicals.”
Aryballe’s founders, who have a background studying biochemical molecules, set their sights on businesses when they began development of the NeOse. Their goal was to develop universal odor sensors that would enable better-informed business decisions. In the process, Aryballe has also been building a database of “odor signatures” to universally define individual scents.
One of the company’s earliest applications was in the cosmetics industry, verifying the quality of raw materials. Soon after, Aryballe’s team realized their technology could be similarly applied to the food sector.
“Digital olfaction plays a key role in preventing poor quality food and beverage,” Jordan said. Verifying flavor profiles, which are linked to both sense of smell and taste, can help companies develop products aligned to consumer preferences. But the technology also has applications for product consistency and safety, she added. “A digital nose would ensure the consistency of raw materials during delivery, in addition to helping a fully manufactured product meet all odor standards set by the formulation team.”
One of NeOse’s early applications was testing vanillin, the ingredient that gives vanilla its flavor, for authenticity. The device was able to differentiate and individually profile four different types of vanillin, ranging from completely natural samples to completely artificial ones.
A whiff of the future
The core of the NeOse’s technology is a combination of biochemical sensors and optics, paired with machine learning software. Currently, its sensors are small enough for a handheld device, but Aryballe wants to shrink them further so they can be used in consumer products. For the most part, those applications appear to be targeted towards a luxury consumer market.
“If [your refrigerator] came built with a digital olfaction sensor, it could trigger an alert to your mobile app with recipes for how to use the steak that is about to expire in the next two days,” Jordan offered, adding, “Imagine an oven that could produce a perfectly baked chocolate chip cookie every time by automatically turning off once it smells the cookie is done baking.”
Aryballe’s two new investors appear focused on the technology’s quality control applications, however.
“We see digital olfaction as essential to quality control, developing new solutions for our customers, and to entering new industries,” said IFF’s Nicolas Mirzayantz. Hyundai Motor’s vice president Yunseong Hwang citing NeOse’s applications in automotive safety, such as “sensing possible internal ignition for predictive maintenance purposes.”
With its latest slug of funding, the company anticipates that its miniaturized sensor platform will be ready by 2020.