The strange scent-detection device demonstrated by the sales team from Cyrano Sciences looked a little like a candy-colored cell phone. But to the nurses at the University of California, Los Angeles Dental School, it seemed as beautiful as a mouthful of perfectly capped teeth.
A program at the Dental School was testing remedies for oral malodor-in other words, chronic bad breath-and the nurses were taking turns monitoring patients’ progress. The methodology was simple: Nurse puts nose to patient’s mouth, then everyone breathes deeply. Professionalism aside, no one involved walked away savoring the experience.
Why not try the Cyranose 2000 instead? According to Steven Sunshine, the earnest, 38-year-old president and CEO of Cyrano, his company’s handheld detector promised not only a welcome reprieve for the nurses but also vastly improved accuracy in halitosis research. A smell, after all, is really just an individual’s subjective experience of airborne chemicals known as odorants. Far better, according to Sunshine, to quantify the aroma in question by relying on the Cyranose 2000’s 32 precise sensors.
As a sales pitch, it was a slam-dunk. Unfortunately for Cyrano Sciences, marketing its new electronic nose to other prospective customers won’t be half as easy. The company, a startup staffed by chemistry PhDs and electrical engineers eager to make their mark in business, faces a customer landscape studded with skeptical purchasing managers, disparate technological requirements and the simple fact that the world has thus far been doing just fine without an electronic nose. From the food industry, to animal husbandry, to contraband law enforcement, the lab-rats-turned-entrepreneurs at Cyrano Sciences must tackle head-on the single most treacherous challenge for many startups after the initial phase of product development: inventing a market.
Conjuring demand out of whole cloth is common currency for pioneers in any industry. Apple Computer stared down the challenge in the early 1980s. Consumer goods titans such as Procter & Gamble and Gillette regularly create demand for newfangled items by virtually inventing a mass culture of desire with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual advertising. Today, life for some would be next to unlivable without triple-bladed razors and 500-megahertz personal computers. Soon, we may not be able to get by without our smell machines. At least, that’s the plan.
With the launch of the $5,000 Cyranose 2000 slated for this fall, Sunshine and company are setting out to sample the waters in two trial markets: detecting “off” odors in packaging materials, and quality control testing of raw materials such as soda concentrates for the food industry. Cyrano will face entrenched competition from both high-end, specialty analytical instruments as well as from what might be termed an installed base of human noses. Specifically, the device will have to out-sniff professional teams of olfactorily acute individuals known as human “sensory panels” employed by consumer goods makers. (Facing a related dilemma, Scott Cook, the co-founder of personal accounting software leader Intuit, once quipped that his toughest competitor was his customers’ stock of pencil and paper.)
The technology behind the Cyranose 2000 is the brainchild of a chemist named Nathan Lewis at the California Institute of Technology, who in 1993 began pondering the workings of the human nose-an organ responsible for what is arguably the most versatile and least understood of the five senses. Lewis, along with then-postdoc Mike Freund, decided to design a synthetic sniffer. The strikingly simple solution they hit upon entails doping ordinary polymer plastics with particles of a conductive material, such as carbon black. Painted onto a ceramic surface, electrons move through such composites at a predictable rate. But expose it to an odorant, and the plastic starts absorbing vapor molecules and swells like a sponge. Because the swelling alters the spacing between the conductive particles, it creates an easily measured change in the composite’s electrical resistance.
As it turns out, every type of plastic has its own unique chemical likes and dislikes. Some readily absorb oily vapors such as benzene, others prefer water. By creating an array of sensors, each from a different plastic, Lewis was soon able to generate a distinct electronic pattern for every odor. The next step was to record the patterns that different smells induced in the sensor array. Once trained, this “nose chip” could recognize fragrances it had been exposed to previously and determine when they changed.
Lewis learned that similar technology had already been invented by scientists in the United Kingdom, who had started their own company, AromaScan. In fact, the Brits were just one among a half-dozen firms that had been attempting to sell artificial probosces. But partly because of their high cost, these instruments had found little success and today the electronic nose market still remains puny at less than $15 million per year.
Lewis believed his approach was more versatile than the British system and, because it was so simple, would also be very cheap to manufacture. After building a prototype system with the help of Caltech chemistry professors Robert Grubbs and electrical engineer Rodney Goodman, the device’s commercial potential began to crystallize. Lewis was issued a patent in 1995, and it wasn’t long before a a physician-turned-venture-capitalist named Seth Harrison began sniffing around the Caltech labs. By April 1997, Cyrano Sciences had been formed with the university’s blessing, a license to the electronic nose patent and Harrison as interim CEO.