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Swiss fragrance and flavour manufacturer Firmenich shares the science behind scent-making

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 8 min read
Swiss fragrance and flavour manufacturer Firmenich shares the science behind scent-making
Leading Swiss fragrance and flavour manufacturer Firmenich shares the science behind scent-making
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When we think of how perfumes are created, we may imagine an apothecary-type set-up where perfumers in white lab coats sniff dozens of essential oils to arrive at the best scents. While this scenario could still be true for small-batch artisanal fragrance houses, bigger manufacturers like Firmenich rely on more than just oils and test tubes to develop their scents.

A large part of Firmenich’s success is its extensive library of digital innovations such as recently-launched Scentmate — an AI-enabled platform that streamlines and simplifies perfume co-creation to deliver winning fragrance solutions for its clients. Using 50 years of fragrance data, Scentmate recommends the best perfumer-curated fragrance solutions, shortening into minutes a process that previously took weeks. Samples arrive within 48 hours, and orders are fulfilled in under five days.

Founded in Geneva, Switzerland, 125 years ago, Firmenich is the world’s largest privately-owned company in the fragrance and flavour industry, with a turnover of $6.29 billion (as at June 2021). Its business is focused on three key areas: perfumery, ingredients and taste, all backed by world-class science and innovation from its R&D centres around the world.

From your cereal or coffee in the morning, to your shampoo, detergent, shower gel or eau de parfum, Firmenich has helped to scent and flavour some of the world’s most desirable brands, which touch over four billion consumers daily across more than 100 markets. They include the likes of L’oreal Elseve, Dove, Comfort, Ajax, and Palmolive, for consumer brands; as well as Kate Spade, Issey Miyake, Hugo Boss, Chloe, Diptyque, Gucci, Bulgari, and Yves Saint Laurent, for fine fragrances.

Globally, about a quarter of its 10,000 employees are involved in the innovation process, from discovering and producing good smell and taste molecules to the application work to ensure that the products perform well. Customers benefit from a palette of over 2,000 ingredients, from natural sourcing of Rose Centifolia Pays in Grasse and Red Fruit Naturome in Scotland, using state-of-the-art technologies including CO2 extraction (SFE) and white biotechnology to develop renewable and sustainable molecules designed with green chemistry principles.

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Firgood, launched in June 2021, is a patented process which enables the biomass processing of 100% natural ingredients obtained by a sustainable proprietary extraction technology

“Sound scientific discoveries and novel technological inventions are the engine for our businesses’ long-term growth. Our R&D scientists are in charge of creating high potency fragrance and flavour ingredients, performing and differentiating technologies such as encapsulation, and creating knowledge and AI tools for our flavourists and perfumers,” explains Dr Dong-Fang Chen, vice president of R&D in Asia Pacific.

“We have, and are connected to, world-class scientists and technologists who are addressing the hardest scientific challenges of our industry such as safety issues, creating a carbon-neutral footprint, and making healthy food taste great.”

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As a testament to how talented and highly-skilled Firmenich’s scientists are, one of its research consultants, David MacMillan, has just won the 2021 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Firmenich is shaping the future of fragrance and taste, and Asia is where its continuous push for scientific excellence and focus on supporting customers with data-driven insights can find its best application in everything, from immunity-boosting taste solutions to health-conscious products in the area of sugar and salt reduction.

Here, Options finds out more from Levenza Toh, vice president of perfumery for Asia, about changing consumer trends in Asia and the importance of AI.

Toh: With science as our engine of growth, we are harnessing our innovation leadership in key areas, from sustainable solutions for nutrition, health and hygiene, to climate change and biodiversity

What are some of the challenges you face today?
The macroeconomic slowdown caused by Covid and changing customer behaviours are the biggest challenges. Our first priority was, and remains, the safety of our colleagues, as well our customers and communities. We were fast out the gate to implement extensive health and safety precautions at our sites across the world, to ensure we could continue to play our role within the global food and hygiene value chain.

Getting used to the new normal and turning challenges into opportunities are crucial to driving our business and serving Firgood, launched in June 2021, is a patented process which enables the biomass processing of 100% natural ingredients obtained by a sustainable proprietary extraction technology our customers. With science as our engine of growth, we are harnessing our innovation leadership in key areas, from sustainable solutions for nutrition, health and hygiene, to climate change and biodiversity. We will also continue to invest in digitalisation, e-commerce and AI to enhance our capabilities and speed-to-market.

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How has this changed the way you work?

We’re truly amid a revolution. We have become smarter and more consumer-focused than ever. FY2021 saw our biggest investment ever in consumer research, not only for product testing but also for deeper research in global consumer sentiment. We have run three large-scale global surveys through each phase of the pandemic. We are using data science to drive innovation, new technology and new creative solutions, and we developed new customer platforms to serve the needs of small or mid-sized customers, whose digital business models mean they may produce fewer quantities of fragrance, but develop dynamic and expansive products more quickly.

What trends do you see taking root in Asia?
What a product does matters, more than ever, but also what it is made of. Consumers who expect more well-being benefits are often more conscious of making a positive sustainability contribution too. The natural confluence of these trends leads to the same product and innovations that are more natural and responsibly sourced, to support these rising lifestyle demands from consumers. In Asia, while familiar products were most sought after during the first lockdown, we see an increased demand for innovation now as a top-ranking feature. We have also begun to see younger Asian consumers paying more attention to traditional remedies and solutions, but in a modernised product format.

The demand for functional fragrances with a benefit on mood enhancement is an emerging trend, with 73% of consumers mentioning this amongst the most desirable product attributes. Today, we see demands for “good vibes” or “seductive” notes rising again, while the expectation for “safe clean” and “serenity” notes that emerged at the beginning of the pandemic remains very important.

What type of olfactory trends do you see in fine fragrances?
Our insights have unveiled four main trends for perfumes. Those concerned with health and hygiene prefer fragrances that provide a sense of protection and peace of mind against bacteria and viruses. These scents tend to be more aromatic-herbal, floral, and soapy. Younger consumers are drawn to long-lasting aromas that are punchy and edgy with a stronger holistic sensorial experience, and tend to be more floral-fruity or have chypre-woody oriental bottom notes. Customers that gravitate toward natural fragrances defer to the ingredient list looking for more citrus, green, fresh and floral notes. There is also an increased willingness to pay more or trade up for more premium scents.

Can you share Firmenich’s efforts to go green?
As consumers continue to demand for more renewable and sustainable solutions, we are continually examining ways to minimise our impact on the environment. Ingredients produced via biotech are one way of doing this.

As an example, we created Dreamwood, a synthetic molecule to resemble natural sandalwood notes, giving consumers access to the classic sandalwood oil without the need to chop down endangered trees. Inspired by the iconic Mysore sandalwood, Dreamwood offers the signature creamy olfactive warmth and delivers a positive impact on the planet: 100% natural, 100% renewable carbon, and ultimately biodegradable.

Another example is EcoScent Compass, the industry’s first tool to holistically measure a fragrance’s sustainability footprint, from its intrinsic green properties to its environmental and social impact.

In the taste sector, we recently launched Dynarome TR, the latest addition to proprietary SmartProteins technology, which delivers a natural, authentic and mouthwatering cooking aroma for meat analogues across several plant-based food formats.

In 2020, Firmenich launched the industry’s first AI-augmented laundry-care fragrances

Why is artificial intelligence so important in your industry?
AI is a cornerstone of Firmenich’s innovation that allows us to marry the most fundamental elements of our DNA: cutting-edge research and development with the unique expertise and creativity of our perfumers and flavourists. AI-augmented creation enables uniquely tailored perfumery and taste solutions with unprecedented speed-to-market. In 2020, Firmenich launched the industry’s first AI-augmented laundry care fragrances and created the first flavour via AI.

As a testament to our efforts in advancing AI innovations within our industry, we were proud to win the Digital Innovation of the Year in November 2021. The annual Digital Economy Award, organised by the trade association SwissICT, DigitalSwitzerland and publisher Netzmedien, recognises the most digitally advanced organisations in Switzerland as well as the most innovative digital projects from eight categories.

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