Having spent 20 years researching how smell receptors in insects work, it's no wonder former Plant and Food scientist Dr Andrew Kralicek is excited at the prospect of a groundbreaking discovery becoming commercialised.
Kralicek discovered how a panel of synthetic insect receptors could be used to create a device to smell and taste chemical compounds. Scentian Bio, of which he is chief technology officer, was formed to create a novel technology for commercial use in medical, food or industrial settings.
These receptors are the result of 400 million years of evolution and enable insects to easily find mates, detect predators, find food, or where to lay eggs with their receptors.
Kralicek's team investigated whether insect smell receptors could be combined with electronics to create an "insect nose/tongue".
Kralicek went through North Island company Sprout Agritech's Accelerator to understand how to commercialise his discovery.
Sprout and Plant & Food Research partnered to spin-out the Scentian Bio technology with a $1 million investment from Sprout and its partners — Finistere Ventures, Fonterra, OurCrowd, and Callaghan Innovation.
Cardea Bio, a San Diego-based biotech that integrates molecular biology with semiconductor electronics, recently partnered with Scentian Bio to support its manufacture of the bio-electronic tongue/nose tech platform.
Kralicek says that across the food supply chain, flavour and fragrance quality control currently relies on legacy methods, including so-called "taste testers" or slow, bulky, expensive lab instruments, which take hours or days to produce results. Cardea and Scentian's bio-electronic platform will speed up testing, is small enough to fit in a handheld device, and simple enough to use anywhere by anyone.
Kralicek says more than 30 years of combined scientific diligence is going into the platform. "The combination of Cardea's technology with our insect odourant receptors enables us to translate the language of chemical compounds into digital signals to analyse food components, detect airborne and liquid-based toxins, and diagnose disease in almost real-time on a massive scale."
Every flavour and fragrance has a unique combination of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be read by the system. Scentian's platform will house 40-50 receptors and will be able to detect thousands of chemical signals at the push of a button.
With the support of Cardea, Scentian plans to expand its offerings to broader food quality testing, as well as animal and human disease diagnostics. This collaboration aims to resolve the challenges associated with standard detection methods, which are typically slow and expensive, as they can only be run with the help of complex scientific personnel, laboratories, and techniques.
Development of next-generation diagnostic tools that could bypass complex chemical assays and detect the presence of diseases based on their distinctive VOC profiles from, for example, a patient's breath, are also planned.
"These chemicals are all information about the state of these biological systems. This is a chemical language waiting to be interpreted — it's just sitting there, and no-one's reading it. Animals can read it, dogs can read it, bees can read it — we can read some of it, but only with our noses," Kralicek said.
In August Scentia will embark on a six-month proof of concept study.
"We're going to take the library of receptors, put them on chips, and show that they are all accurate — and that they actually do something. Then we are going to develop three different flavours and put them on the chip and to show the world that we can produce unique tasteprints."
"In six months, we'll know whether this technology is going to work."
Cardea chief executive Michael Heltzen said it was "fascinating" to see Scentian make synthetic insect odour receptors and integrate them with his company's technology, so together, they can link smells and tastes up to the digital world.
Heltzen said the idea of electronic noses that are based on biological receptors had been dreamt about and theorised for generations — they were now running in labs because of the innovation partnership.