Thought LeadershipJuly 7, 2020

Improving how people experience smells and tastes

Discover the specialized scientific techniques being developed by Firmenich, the world’s largest privately owned perfume and taste company.
Avatar Rebecca Gibson

Scent and taste are two often-ignored senses, but they can be scientifically measured, developed, designed and optimized. Firmenich, the world’s largest privately owned perfume and taste company, is dedicated to improving how people experience smells and tastes for health and well-being. Compass spoke to Geneviève Berger, Firmenich’s chief research officer, to learn more about the company’s specialized scientific techniques.

COMPASS: Please tell us about your role at Firmenich.

Geneviève Berger: My role is to drive Firmenich toward its next level of scientific excellence. I am passionate about improving quality of life through science, so I am putting our science to work to delight the 4 billion consumers we touch everyday with products and solutions that contribute to their well-being.

What’s exceptional is how we master the full scientific spectrum of smell and taste, starting with raw materials and ending with human perception. Chemistry is the foundation of our work, but materials science, biotechnology and cell biology are all increasingly important, so we apply a multidisciplinary approach to constantly push our innovation forward. I deeply believe that innovation takes place at the edge of multidisciplinary thinking; that’s where the magic always happens!

Can you explain your belief that consumer products will only be successful if they improve quality of life?

GB: When it comes to health you have two ways of contributing: in the prevention phase or in the treatment and cure phase. I believe in playing a leading role in prevention, which has a bigger impact on public health. I do this by delighting consumers with daily products that contribute to their well-being.

More than a decade ago, we started investing in technologies to make healthier food and drink options taste delicious. For example, one of our latest technologies can remove up to 100% of added sugar naturally without compromising taste. Last year alone we removed 1 trillion calories from products that people love.

How did Firmenich’s participation in the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” contribute to well-being?

GB: We have made a genuine breakthrough in controlling bad smells, thanks to our understanding of olfactory receptors. Our technology counteracts malodor by neutralizing stimulation of olfactive receptors, as opposed to covering the malodor with scent.

An estimated 4.5 billion people worldwide lack safe sanitation, with devastating impacts on public health. When we realized smell was one of the greatest barriers to using toilets, we decided to become part of the solution and partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reinvent the toilet experience for increased hygiene and sanitation. Today, our technology is integrated into affordable and sustainable toilet cleaning products for low-income consumers across Bangladesh, India and South Africa. We’re providing key software for the new toilet economy, taking a human- centered approach based on our deep understanding of how positive emotions can drive behavior change.

Firmenich does a lot to support farmers. Can you give us some examples?

GB: Some of the most vulnerable communities within our value chain are the small-holder farmers at the source of our natural ingredients, such as vanilla in Madagascar, patchouli in Indonesia or vetiver in Haiti. We actively work with them, as well as with NGOs and government partners, to ensure we support their sustainable livelihoods.

For example, we pay a premium to these communities to invest in projects that they think will most benefit locals. For example, we built a school in Haiti, and in Madagascar we built a dispensary and wells for access to water. We engage our customers in this effort too. For instance, with support from our customers, we built a daycare center for patchouli farming families in Indonesia.

I deeply believe that innovation takes place at the edge of multidisciplinary thinking; that’s where the magic always happens!

Through our approach to sourcing natural ingredients, we estimate that we positively touch the lives of over 250,000 farming families around the world. To scale up our impact in this area, we have invested in two Livelihood Funds for Family Farming, along with like-minded visionary companies.

What do you consider as your greatest achievement to date in pushing the boundaries of science to improve people’s lives?

GB: Firmenich is playing a critical role to enable the rise of vegan and flexitarian diets that are good for you and good for the planet. Using our sensory expertise, we can make healthy, nutritious and sustainable foods look, taste and smell great. Today, we’re the only flavor house with integrated solutions for improving everything from taste to texture, which enriches the overall eating experience by overcoming issues historically associated with plant proteins, such as off-notes, bitterness, dryness and texture. We can now match the fatty succulence and juiciness of meat proteins in vegetarian and seafood alternatives.

How do you think science will change the world of flavor and fragrance in the future?

GB: The next big frontier that we are working on is digitalization. While digitalization is disrupting business models across every industry, it is also generating exciting new business opportunities, such as even greater speed and more personalized consumer experiences through the power of artificial intelligence (AI).

Last year we inaugurated our Digital Lab (D-lab) in partnership with the EPFL, a world-leading technology institution and one of our closest academic partners, to put us at the forefront of AI to augment our creation capabilities and lead our industry’s next technology frontier.

Creating fragrances and tastes is both an art and a science. Our perfumers and flavorists will always have the emotional and creative advantage over AI, bringing the unique human touch that all our customers demand. However, AI can augment their expertise, helping to provide bespoke sensorial experiences faster than ever before. ◆

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