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Insect olfactory receptors
Image credit: iStock/EcaterinaLeonte

Scentian Bio raises $2.1m seed round to build biosensors inspired by bugs

September 27, 2023

  • Scentian Bio—a New Zealand-based startup making biosensors with potential applications in everything from food quality control to rapid testing for diseases such as tuberculosis—has raised a $2.1 million seed round.
  • The round, led by Finistere Ventures and Toyota Ventures with participation from Icehouse Ventures and OurCrowd among others, takes Scentian Bio’s cumulative funding to $4.4 million, including $1.7 million in grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • The capital will be used to grow the 7-strong team, further develop the technology, and commercialize the first industry-specific offerings, starting with a quality control solution for the food industry expected to launch at the end of 2024.

“Our first solution will address a primary pain point for the food industry, shifting from slow, subjective, expensive quality control methods to data-driven, objective, fast and cost-efficient digital tools,” said CEO Jonathan Good.

“Our second push will be in the medical arena, as we continue to further the development of our non-invasive, real-time, early detection diagnostic device for human diseases using volatile biomarkers.”

Andrew Kralicek and the Scentian Bio team
Andrew Kralicek and the Scentian Bio team. Image credit: Scentian Bio

Insect olfactory receptors

Spun out from The New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research in January 2021, Scentian Bio deploys patented technology developed by founder and CTO Dr. Andrew Králíček to make biosensors that utilize the olfactory receptors of insects: the biological machinery enabling bugs to make sense of their environment through smell.

The receptors, which can detect volatile organic compounds in foods, plants, human skin or breath, are orders of magnitude more sensitive than humans or gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) machines.

To date, Scentian Bio has synthesized a library of 52 insect olfactory receptors, achieved sensitivity at the femtomolar level (equivalent to one water droplet in 20,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools), demonstrated digital response on six types of transducers, and proven its ability to use a combinatorial response to distinguish two bacteria critical to food quality, Králíček told AgFunderNews.

“I’ve spent years looking at insects’ odorant receptors to understand how insects sense the world because that’s their primary sense. And we had this idea of being able to make and purify these receptors in the lab, stick them on a sensor device and see if we could sense something like a volatile organic compound (VOC).

”It took years to work out how to express these proteins, then another five years to work out how to put them into cell lines and show that you could could add a volatile chemical into solution and the cell would respond because it had that receptor expressing in it. The next step was to work out how we could make these receptors in a purified form.”

Matching receptors and VOCs

Králíček added: ”Nature has been incredibly clever in how it’s developed these receptors. For example, a fly uses just 45 receptors to detect millions of different compounds.”

But how does Scentian Bio know which receptors will detect which VOCs?

”Now we know the structure of these proteins, we can think a bit more clearly about it,” said Králíček, who says Scentian Bio has developed a prediction algorithm to match the best receptors with specific odorants.

“But most of the information has [historically] come from studies where they’ve put electrodes into tiny hairs on insect antennae and they look at the firing rate of the sensory neuron underneath. If it starts firing hard, we know that the receptor and that neuron is detecting that compound.”

Portable biosensors

Scentian Bio’s receptors are attached to a sensor platform currently being developed for DNA sequencing, explained Králíček. “We’re taking that technology and we’re evolving it. We’re making a membrane and it’s going over a hole in a solid material. And then we’ve got an electrode on either side of the membrane.

”When you add the VOC, the receptor recognizes it, opens its channel that lets positive ions go through and what you detect is a change in the current. And as you get more of that particular volatile smell, the current increases so you can also measure [the] quantity [of the VOC as well as its presence].”

He added: ”The devices we’re using at the moment are handheld, something that could be easily used in a factory or a farm and we get results in real time. Not like a GCMS machine, which is expensive and based in the lab. It’s also very user-friendly. You don’t need a PhD [to work with Scentian Bio’s technology].”

The data is then relayed to Scentian Bio’s cloud-based platform, he said. “A key part of the technology is the artificial intelligence behind it. So we’re recreating the neural networks of an insect brain, and getting what we call a VOC print.

”So imagine an array of receptors on a chip. You put your sample on top, you’ve got the biosensor platform underneath, which detects ion channel activity, and you can take that VOC print and compare that with a library of VOC prints. If you’re doing quality control on a food ingredient, you can they say, does it match our gold standard?”

From flavor analysis to medical diagnostics

To date, Scentian Bio has focused on detecting VOCs in liquid samples, and is now developing biosensors for gas samples, said Králíček. ”It’s just a case of engineering the front end of the sensing device to enable this to happen.”

The first application will allow Scentian Bio’s customers in the food industry to answer a range of questions. Has the raw ingredient I’ve purchased been tampered with, or adulterated? Is this vanilla from the where the supplier claims it is? Can I be sure my product meets the quality standards that I and my company expect to meet? Does this product match the desired flavor profile?

Down the road, the sensing technology could have significant potential in medical diagnostics, he said. ”What we’re funded to do by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is to take the first steps towards developing a diagnostic tool that can be used in developing countries to detect diseases like tuberculosis from biomarkers in the breath.

”They want something cheap, portable and easy to use on the ground, because the current approach takes weeks and sick people will leave the clinic, go back to their communities and spread the disease.”

He added: ”What we’re showing is that our receptors can detect those particular biomarker compounds, and then the next stage will be moving into a clinical pilot study to validate our array of receptors and show that the VOC print we’re picking up can be correlated with disease directly on the breath of somebody who has tuberculosis.”

Asked how scalable the production of such biosensors might be, he said: ”The platform technology has already been scaled for sequencing of DNA, and for the receptors, you don’t need a lot of receptor to put on a sensor chip.”

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