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Chapter 1 – Introducing Osmo

January 24, 2023
Alex Wiltschko

It’s time for humans to give computers a sense of smell.

When computers learned to see and to hear, our species changed forever, and for the better. Teaching them to smell can transform human health and well-being.

Smell is our oldest sense, and it’s wired directly into our emotions. Our own sense of smell is phenomenal, and still mysterious. Our noses can detect Parkinson’s disease earlier than any diagnostic, sniff Alzheimer’s, COVID-19 and cancer. Why can’t our computers? Computers haven’t understood smell because we’ve had no map of it (imagine trying to build a camera without knowing about RGB, or a microphone without knowing about frequency).

Until now. For the first time in human history, we have a map of odor.

Today, I’m pleased to announce Osmo –  a company that intends to use this map to digitize smell to improve the health and wellbeing of human life.

It’s a lofty mission – one that will take Osmo’s world-class team, multi-disciplinary approach and unprecedented combination of hardware, software, data and capital ($60M in funding at launch) to achieve.

Where we’re starting: Flavor & Fragrance

In time, digitizing smell will help us detect diseases earlier, track pandemics faster, grow more food, catch food spoilage before it harms, ward off insects … and much much more. As a startup, Osmo will be starting in a space where we can create value today while building a foundation for future diversification: the flavor and fragrance industry.

You might not know about this industry, but there are a small group of companies that make every smell in nearly every product you experience. They’re called Flavor & Fragrance houses, and they’re responsible for making many of our memories, from childhood to adulthood — the smell of fresh laundry, the taste of your favorite snack, the perfume of your high-school sweetheart, the cleaning spray used on the dining room tables at your summer camp. These are all carefully constructed products, made from ingredients designed specifically for their smell.

There’s a problem, however: many of these ingredients need to be better. They need to be more biodegradable and sustainable, so they don’t endanger our environment. They need to be safer on and in our body, so that they don’t make us feel unwell. And still, they need to smell fantastic, work in a variety of products like perfumes, detergents and hand-soaps, and be affordable to produce. This problem is getting harder over time, not easier, and many ingredients that perfumers and flavorists depend upon are being removed from the market because they’re not up to our increasing standards. F&F companies are continually making new ingredients to replace those that are being lost to regulation or disruptions in the supply chain.

The design process for making new molecules, however, has been entirely manual. A fragrance chemist starts with a molecule that they know smells great, modifies it slightly, and tests it. Teams of fragrance chemists might do this thousands of times per year, and find just one or two that satisfy all of the requirements I mentioned above, making it good enough to put on the market. We’ve already built an AI system that can design new molecules to precise specifications, and created molecules that smell great in the hands of master perfumers, industry experts, and double-blind odor panels. Osmo’s first steps to giving computers a sense of smell is to use our map of odor to build better, safer, more environmentally-friendly fragrance ingredients. We have worked for many years on artificial intelligence and machine learning for olfaction, and have developed deep expertise in this space. But, we approach the flavor & fragrance industry with a deep humility; many of the best companies in this space have been working on these problems for over a hundred years, and have adapted to a changing world many times over.

While our entry point is flavor & fragrance, our ultimate goal in giving computers a sense of smell is to improve human health and well being, and it’s going to take a long time to achieve this goal. We will never lose sight of this. Applying our technology and expertise in the flavor & fragrance industry is an exciting and impactful first step in building a business meant to last longer than a lifetime.

How we’re building it

In pursuit of this vision, Osmo is bringing together a founding team of world-class neuroscientists, machine learning experts, psychophysicists, hardware and software engineers, data scientists, analytical chemists and industry experts: Chase Buchholz, Mike DeTienne, Rick Gerkin, Jon Hennek, Brendan Lehnert, Rohinton Mehta, Harry Pellerin, Wesley Qian, Rich Whitcomb, and Jake Yasonik. I’m honored to be on this journey with them.

Together we’re building on work that started at Google Research, where I led a digital olfaction team that used cutting-edge machine learning and careful laboratory experiments to establish the foundations for a map of smell. In building and validating this map at Google, we achieved unexpected scientific milestonessuperhuman scent prediction, the development of new insect repellents that could save lives, and a deeper understanding of the biological forces of olfaction itself.

We decided the best path for growth and investment for our mission was through a separate startup, which would give us the speed and flexibility to tackle the unique challenges ahead of us. We co-founded the company with Lux and GV – gaining incredible partners in Josh Wolfe, co-founder of Lux Capital, who had also been on a decades-long pursuit of digital olfaction, and Krishna Yeshwant, who co-leads the life sciences team at GV. We’re excited to build this company with Josh as he joins our board, and with Krishna as a board observer. Serial entrepreneur and investor Andy Palmer joins as our founding independent board member.

With Lux and GV as co-leads, we’re pleased to announce a $60M Series A funding round for Osmo. Other fantastic investors and funding institutions join the round, including Arena Holdings, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Moore Strategic Ventures, Exor  Ventures, Two Sigma Ventures, and the Amazon Alexa Fund; individual investors include Hugo Barra, Soumith Chintala, Jeff Dean, Henry R. Kravis, Rich Miner, and Thomas Reardon. This is an amazing group of funders and investors, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to be taking this journey with them.

While we’re not looking for more funders at this time, we are looking for “Osmonauts” to power and guide our journey. Our simple mantra is “be kind, get stuff done.”If you’re passionate, have a love of scent, love to learn, and have a deep expertise in an area the company  needs, consider joining us. We’re looking for a head of chemistry, experts in chemoinformatics, data scientists, DevOps engineers, ML engineers, product managers, analytical chemists, and chemical lab managers. Check out our Careers page for positions we’re trying to fill.

Where we’re going

Fulfilling our mission of digitizing smell to improve the health and wellbeing of human life will take a while. At Osmo, we are building the foundational capabilities towards enabling computers to do everything our noses can do. We will be successful when people live longer, happier lives because of digital olfaction. This is a challenge for our society, and for our species as a whole.

It took a hundred years to digitize vision, starting from the advent of popular photography. There was a time before the photograph when the only record of the visual world was in carefully crafted paintings or our own minds. Just like the photograph allowed us to capture light, we imagine that the osmograph will capture the smell and taste of the world. Scents make memories, and memories make up the stories of our lives. Scents tell us if we’re healthy or sick, and knowing that information early can save lives.

We’re on a long road, but we’re taking our first steps today. It took 100 years to digitize our sense of sight, and we will digitize the last human sense, our sense of smell, in a fraction of the time.