Rather than plundering scarce natural resources, Glasgow University scientists Hua Wang and Sofia Sandalli are looking to the lab for a more ethical approach to perfume production.
We probably all know someone who smells really appealing, regardless of whether they are wearing any scented perfume or aftershave. Everyone carries a unique natural scent as a result of commonly occurring human bacteria – albeit some smell better than others.
It is this kind of biological reaction that could be used to transform the fragrance industry for the better, opening up an opportunity for more ethical and environmentally-friendly essential oils created from bacteria.
That is the objective of our new spinout business, Scent No. M. We are in the process of creating new lab-developed essential oils, free from animal and plant extracts. Using lab-grown microbes, we are able to produce smells such as tropical flowers and the scents of sea air via natural processes, instead of relying on potentially inhumanely sourced materials and depleting natural resources.
While many essential oils currently used in perfumes and scented products are already derived from natural or organic origins, they can come from animals, animal by-products and plants which need to be specially harvested or farmed.
Ambergris, for example, is a rare fragrance ingredient derived from the intestines of male sperm whales, while musk is a scent historically obtained from the glands of male musk deer.
Around half of the fragrance market uses synthetic scents that are primarily derived from petroleum by-products and have potential adverse health effects.
Indeed, our research has shown that consumers are often unaware of what goes into a perfume bottle. They may have concerns about the environmental impact of the packaging and any single-use plastics, for instance, but the raw ingredients of the fragrance tend to be less well understood.
Even for plant-based ingredients, which can be grown locally and responsibly, free from pesticides, there are certain ingredients that can only be grown under certain weather conditions. Any seasonal issues could impact the entire sector’s supply chain, but a biobased alternative would reduce some of this uncertainty.
While other cosmetics companies are already looking at microbial fragrances, our concept has an important differentiator. Scent No. M explores non-genetically modified organisms (non-GMO) for essential oils.
Studies show that purchasing decisions are increasingly informed by ethical and sustainability concerns. One of the major players in the beauty industry, Unilever, recently reported that its purpose-driven brands are growing at twice the rate of other product lines.
Developing biotech and scale
We are developing a library of different scents into prototypes that we will be able to showcase to manufacturers of cosmetics, detergents, candles and other fragranced products. However, we need to be able to demonstrate how our technology can be used at scale.
To do this, we have received invaluable support from the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC). As well as winning a £20,000 funding package via the 2022 Converge Challenge, Scent No. M has also been one of 10 companies to take part in the first Biotech Innovators accelerator programme.
The accelerator is designed to provide SMEs, spinouts and start-ups with access to commercial and technical expertise to help bring new products and services into the bioeconomy. As well as giving us an opportunity to discuss our experiences with fellow earlystage businesses, we have benefited from a number of workshops covering topics such as brand building, setting up a lab, and protecting intellectual property.
Despite the clear benefits of using non-GMO bacteria, our choice to stick with all-natural ingredients means that scaling up becomes more complex. We cannot be selective or manipulate the organisms to ensure they grow quickly or create stronger smells, but with trial and error, we are confident we will get to the scale that bigger companies need from a supplier. Working with IBioIC will also allow us to access the facilities we will need, through its FlexBio centre, to optimise the process at a larger scale, starting with coffee cup size and growing larger from there.
Purity is another big concern, for perfume experts especially, and we are acutely aware of the need for our technology to mimic the exact molecules they require. This becomes even more difficult for mixed fragrances – which most are – but the fact that we have a library of scents should help us overcome this challenge.
At the moment, we are juggling running the businesses alongside full time work, so Scent No. M is still in its infancy. That said, we have proved that our concept is feasible and are considering further investment opportunities to help take it to an industrial scale.
The global cosmetics and fragrance markets are valued at over £200 billion and £18 billion respectively, and we see a huge opportunity for our bio-based concept to feed into that, particularly in the UK which has become one of the fastest growing markets. In future, there could also be opportunities for the bio-based technique to be used in fabrics, foods and flavourings too.
Dr Hua Wang and Sofia Sandalli are the co-founders of Scent No. M and researchers at the University of Glasgow