French startup to consumerize the sense of smell
One of the exhibitors in the Innovation Village at SEMICON Europa, Aryballe’s CEO and serial entrepreneur Tristan Rousselle has a strong background in medical and pharmaceutical sciences (holding a PhD in Cellular Biology), with a particular focus on proteins.
At CEA-Leti’s labs, Rousselle is combining his knowledge in olfaction biochemistry with a photonics-based molecule detection sensor concept originated at MIT to develop an electronic nose that he claims could identify hundreds of thousands of different smells, in essence, any complex combination of aromatic volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Designed as a one square centimetre chip, the sensing part would consist of an array of a hundred gold dots, grouped in sets of functionalized units each able to adsorb different target molecules, allowing for a combination of up to 30 different aromatic VOCs to be adsorbed at one time (if you only consider binary responses, that’s already 230 combinations).
Under illumination, a surface plasmonic resonance (SPR) effect takes place that varies depending on the molecules being adsorbed by the gold dots. This variation is detected through illumination, by measuring the reflected light angle variation (due to a changing refractive index in the substrate).
In all, the recognisable resonance shift signature of each VOC can be translated into their presence and relative concentrations on a scale of one to four. Hence, the global chip readout gives a unique odour signature corresponding to the relative concentration mix of all the target molecules.
While similar designs have been tried with nano-electromechanical systems using vibrating functionalized cantilevers, Rousselle says his approach would be much more cost-effective and broader encompassing.
A key aspect of the design that Rousselle will keep secret is the exact selection of the VOCs he is targeting with this electronic nose and the actual sensing data (looking like a histogram of VOCs).
“Because we try to mimic the human nose, we only target molecules to which we humans would normally be receptive”, explains Rousselle.
“But from my previous research in the pharmaceutical sector, I have identified particular VOC synergies that give more natural-like responses, so what we have patented is a combination of chemical receptors that work particularly well together to identify the broadest spectrum of odours possible”, continues Rousselle.
In the longer run, Rousselle would want to functionalize his sensors with proteins similar to those found in a real human nose, for a better match of the odour sensing spectrum.
"The human nose has 350 different sensors and they are more specific…" Rousselle points out, planning to increase the number of target VOCs from one genera
On the exhibition stand, a concept illustration of this novel electronic nose showed a consumer device the size of PC mouse, though Rousselle admits that his current prototype is about the size of a big shoes-box.
Aryballe Technologies’ CEO, Tristan Rousselle at SEMICON Europa’s Innovation Village.
He hopes to shrink the design through integration within the next six months, with a goal to sample his first commercial prototypes early 2016.
“Fragrance makers are really interested in our concept”, explains Rousselle, “being able to attribute odours with a unique digital signature would allow them to protect a given scent formula as unique intellectual property”.
“So far, for lack of an objective standard to describe and patent scents, perfume recipes are kept secret only to be tentatively copied by others”, he continues.
Although Aryballe Technologies could well design particular sensors functionalized for specific domains of application (including scentless gases), Rousselle is really aiming at the consumer market with several products, Nanosmia (the e-nose still under development) and an associated smartphone application, OdoraMap already available.
Mid-2015, the company is also planning to release another interesting product for people suffering from anosmia, a set of small gel-based objects, dubbed "Monolfact" able to change colour in the presence of specific odours.
Here, Aryballe’s Monolfact gel-based tokens change colour when detecting H2S.
The company may also sell the “naked sensor” to OEMs, say to integrate it into Fridges that could detect rotten food.
“Consumers would want such an e-nose for many reasons” explains Rousselle, “checking on food quality is an obvious one, but you could have other applications such as a guide to picking up the right mushrooms, or mature fruits”.
“But people suffering from anosmia (the loss of sense of smell) would be the first to use such a device for added safety and wellbeing” continues Rousselle, “the lack of olfaction can make people feel quite insecure, or even depressed”.
The Android-based OdoraMap smartphone app is already available as a free download, enticing users to map and share their surrounding scents with others (be it from a good meal or from nature).
Currently, the app is based on subjective human inputs, with scent categories to choose from before going into the details, a photo can also be uploaded to the scent map. But as the e-nose gets commercialized, consumers will be able to compare their sense of smell with the e-nose’s reading.
“Brands and restaurants could be tempted to join the game by highlighting their presence on the scent map with alluring food and smell descriptions”, suggests Rousselle, open for all business cases.
Aryballe Technologies is inviting everyone to contribute to what it describes as the first worldwide map of scents, and with the e-nose integrating the application, the company is also aiming to create and validate a vast database of real world odours.
It would not share the actual VOC composition of the scents, but their uniqueness and their interpretation (fresh peppermint, citrus, goat cheese, sweat etc…) with a matching score.
In the future, this database and a standardized way of encoding odours may well be the basis for mobile scent sharing through programmable aroma generators (there have already been a number of projects and startups working on this theme such as the oPhone – www.onotes.com or ScentSciences’ ScentScape, but not necessarily tied to recreating objective real world experiences). Other designers’ concepts are musing with such a technology, notably the Google nose project and Sony’s Scent Capturing postcard printer.
Beyond these scent generators, Rousselle believes that far out on Aryballe Technologies’ roadmap, such a database may well be the basis for a new type of implantable electronics able to stimulate the nasal cavity directly through nervous terminations (for patients suffering from anosmia), recreating the sense of smell directly for the brain. You could then recreate scents on demand, much more creatively than what the original Roman Aryballos would allow, the small perfurme amphora only held one fragrance at a time.