The miracles of science are indisputable. Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, launched in 2008 by a group of five MIT scientists, has demonstrated that possibility firsthand. The biotech resurrected extinct plant DNA using samples provided by the Harvard University Herbaria. The research team extracted DNA fragments from dried plant samples, which were then analyzed in a sequencer machine to determine the order of their component nucleotides (the building blocks of nucleic acids which build DNA and RNA). From these sequences they sought out the sesquiterpene synthase (SQS), or the enzymes found in a majority of floral scent molecules (usually 1,700 letters long), which were printed into actual SQS sequences using a DNA printer. These genes were then inserted into a yeast compound to grow, offering an idea of what these long-lost scent molecules might have smelled like.
In 2021, biology-first beauty brand Arcaea was launched out of Ginkgo Bioworks, securing $78 million in Series A funding, with investors including Olaplex, Givaudan, and Chanel. The company developed ScentARC, a microbiota-shifting prebiotic to deliver superior deodorizing technology while reinforcing the skin barrier. Most recently, Arcaea has launched Future Society, debuting with a fragrance collection called Scent Surrections.
The range focuses on six resurrected flowers—the surviving tests from the 14 conducted tests of Ginkgo Bioworks original endeavors. These were presented to Jérome Epinette (Perfumer at Robertet Group and creator of best-sellers such as Byredo’s Gypsy Water), Daniela Andrier (Perfumer at Givaudan and the nose behind scents like Prada Candy), and Olivia Jan (Senior Perfumer at Givaudan and the creative responsible for fragrances like Mimosa by Commodity). The three creatives developed two fragrances each for the final lineup.
Grassland Opera focuses on the Orbexilum stipulatum, a plant that grew in the North American Plains until 2018. As its name suggests, the end result doesn’t downplay the theatrics, opening with an invigorating blend of clary sage, fig leaves, ginger, and bergamot which leads to a sensual heart of jasmine, mimosa, and ylang-ylang, anchored on a deep base of sandalwood, patchouli, Ambrofix, and guaiacwood.
Solar Canopy is based on the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus, a flower last found on Hawaii’s southern slope around 1912. A fruity floral scent, it opens with bergamot, red currant, and pink pepper before developing into a hear of lychee, pistachio, magnolia, and rose, resting on a base of pink sugar, Ambroxan, and vetiver.
Floating Forest is a nod to the Shorea cuspidata, last seen in 1998 in Borneo. The green aquatic fragrance contains notes of waterlily, salted musk, wet stones, and driftwood.
Reclaimed Flame takes inspiration from the Leucadendron grandiflorum, which was made extinct due to wildfires in South Africa in 1960. An aromatic citrus, the fragrance contains facets of grapefruit, geranium, eucalyptus, and chamomile.
The Wendlandia angustifolia, which went extinct in 1917 in the India Western Mountains, serves as the centerpoint for Invisible Woods: a concoction of ginger, rose, iris, and Akigalawood.
Haunted Rose, inspired by the Macrostylis villosa subspecies 1 and 2, was last recorded in 1960 in South Africa. The floral fragrance is built around a heart of rose absolute and passionfruit, accented with warm saffron and black pepper as well as Ambroxan and sandalwood in the base.
While the monumental scientific significance of this project is not to be downplayed, its leadership team emphasizes that there is an even more important potential to be gleaned from the enterprise: emotional connection. BeautyMatter spoke to Jasmina Aganovic, Chief Executive Officer of Arcaea, about reframing our relationship with science, the future impact of biotech on fragrance, and creating the Jurassic Park of fragrances.
Of all the categories you can launch using this innovative technology, why did you decided to use fragrance?
One of the big gaps that we see in the market is with how science is used. Often the association with science is that it is for utilitarian performance, for clinical studies. All of these things are absolutely true; science can help us deliver on excellent clinical studies for products that demonstrate fantastic performance. But what science can also be used for—which we did not see it being used for, and we believe is holding back some major innovations—is the ability to have it connect emotionally with consumers and leveraging it as something that can access new dimensions of creativity.
For this reason, we thought fragrance was a really interesting category because fragrance really doesn't have much to do with performance. It's a category that historically has always been rooted in storytelling. We thought this was a unique way to honor the storytelling element of fragrance, but also access a story that previously was not possible because of science and technology. We wanted to lean on that as a way to tell an entirely new story and to set aside people's associations and predispositions for how science should be used, which we believe is limited. There's so much more that we can do with it.
The human creativity element is what makes this really special and stand apart. We may one day be able to actually resurrect the flowers and regrow them but the human relationship with those plants over that period of time has been lost. That doesn't mean that we have to go into a spiral of sadness; it’s just acknowledging where we are and that we can't out science our way out of things.
I'd like to dive a little bit into that storytelling and your marketing strategy. I'm curious as to who you're expecting to connect with, given what you were just talking about regarding new inspirations.
What we picked up on and believe is true is an almost universally shared view of the future, which is one filled with feelings of uncertainty, associations with a dystopia, fear, and even deep concern. The feeling that I have felt as we were developing this is actually one of possibility and hope that I wasn't aware of before. In terms of the types of people we're hoping will connect with this, this narrative of reminding people that the future still hasn't happened yet, and there is possibility, there are people working on remarkable things—and our products by proxy can hopefully remind them that those possibilities still exist—can appeal pretty broadly in terms of demographics.
We believe that what I call a wizened millennial will resonate with this particularly. They entered society with a very different kind of perspective, and generally have been beaten down and, strangely, made fun of because they've been told they have unrealistic expectations, which I don't necessarily believe is true at all. Their expectations were actually quite fine, and the direction the world has gone in has disappointed them. That will be a large portion of the demographic that we want to start to connect with. Of course, there's reason to believe that younger demographics will connect with this, too, based on some of the research that's coming out. We'll learn, of course, as the brand is out there, but that's who we're looking to connect with to start.
Millennial consumers also had a kind of interesting upbringing in the fragrance category. Niche, storytelling-led fragrance brands or even unisex fragrances—they were the generation that witnessed the evolution of that.
And the move away from singular signature fragrances. Now we live in a different era of wardrobe-type fragrances for everyone.
As a millennial, I fully subscribe to that notion. How did you decide on which of the extinct plants you would pursue? If I'm not mistaken, the team went into the Harvard University Herbaria, selected species, and then trialed which ones you could build the sequences from.
It was exactly that. This project first started at Ginkgo; they didn't know if this was even going to be possible, so they started sampling as many different flowers as they could. There was another underlying point to choosing a wide variety of flowers, which was that you wanted to see that the actual data you were generating was substantively different. This is why the different types of species and regions they came from were important. Each of these flowers, which were not that closely related from a botanical perspective, we would see these different types of scent molecules showing up. They were not successful with all the flowers. They sampled 12 or 14 but were successful with six, which is why we ended up moving forward with those.
In terms of access to these very ancient historical plant samples, I wonder what those negotiations were like?
The Herbaria is closed to the public, but they were very intrigued by this as a project. The only thing that they asked for in return was that any work that was done of the sequencing data that came out would be made available to the public for free.
What were the particular challenges of sequencing that DNA?
The primary challenge is that DNA degrades over time. Some samples were 100, 150 years old. There was enough that had stayed put together, but there were still gaps; what that necessitated is a very specialized group of experts who work in paleo genomics to help reconstruct some of those gaps. It is actually quite analogous to that famous scene of Doctor DNA in Jurassic Park, where they talk about how they were able to recreate the DNA of dinosaurs because the scientists in that movie used frog DNA to help fill in the gaps. There are some similarities there.
I want to dive into the creative process of creating the fragrances. What was that creative exchange like, given that they were creating fragrances about plants we haven't seen exist in this way before?
This is a really important part of the overall story and a great example of how predisposed people are to how science should be used. When people think of science and fragrance, they think of AI to come up with molecules we've maybe not had before or a way to study how our neurochemistry changes with how we experience different olfactive stories. But all of those lose the human creative element, which has been so important, not just in fragrance, but throughout all of human history. If we go back to the brand Future Society, our tagline is “We can invent our tomorrow.” We won't invent our tomorrow through AI, right? AI is not going to come up with all these amazing ideas; it actually will come down to human ingenuity that has been shaped by individual experiences and the things that we can't fully understand about where creativity comes from.
The perfumers are really interested in new and different mediums. When they get a creative brief, the creative brief is typically based on existing fragrances that they can tweak up and down with a story that's important to the founder, creator, or brand, but in this case, the starting point and way they had to construct their fragrances was really different. They were very intellectually stimulated by this; we were really lucky to have access to perfumers who typically would not work with brands that don't yet exist.
Another question that we get, is why did you work with three perfumers and not choose just one? This speaks again to human creativity and that it comes in so many different forms. All three of them interpreted the biological data and became inspired by it in very different ways, which I thought was so interesting. One of the perfumers was inspired by time travel and the recreation of the full environment of when those flowers were blooming. Another perfumer was very cerebral about the soil and the microorganisms, the dirt and the earth with the story of what was happening with the flowers. Then another one was much more technical in her translation of the data. Also their knowledge of aroma chemicals and botany helped steer the data in the direction of the olfactive families these flowers belonged to.
There's this interesting gap in terms of science and fragrance, perhaps because so much of fragrance is rooted in this primal aspect of a biological mechanism or natural raw materials being harvested in the fields. These very historical roots sometimes felt a bit at odds with technology: the human craft of perfumery versus the cold mechanics of science. How do you find the meeting place between those two points?
It's often because people default to technical accuracy and precision as the ultimate manifestation of success. That creates a really imbalanced relationship with science thatactually we've seen play out across society, which has resulted in skepticism for science and intimidation. [We were] putting all of that aside in this project, where we recognize we don't know if the flowers actually smelled this way because the flowers are presumed extinct and we have no control group to test it against. But that doesn't mean that this project isn't important.
Now we are able to get a glimpse into the direction of what they smelled like, thanks to this technology and the talent of these perfumers. That’s wonderful and should be really exciting for this point in time where science and human creativity exist, but you're right. You're talking about the cold element of technology, which goes back to the first question you asked, which was why fragrance? We saw that science only has one way of engaging with people and it doesn't connect emotionally, unfortunately. But science requires a lot of creativity to win. It can open up a lot of creativity, so we wanted to approach it from that angle.
How would you describe the business operations of Arcaea as a whole?
Arcaea as a business exists to shape product categories through biology. Now, what types of technologies we're investing in to do that is as follows: we believe the application layer of translating biology to beauty is the most critical layer that's missing now. That is to say, understanding how to formulate with novel biological ingredients, understanding how to identify areas where biology can do something different in a product category like deodorant or haircare. Also, understanding how to validate an ingredient, understanding how to stabilize an ingredient, understanding how to structure clinical studies to drive its performance.
We're using all of these biology-first technologies. The things that you won't see in our lab are things like deep cell engineering expertise. We view those as not being product-centric enough. During the last two years, we've been living in this world of personal scent, odor and deodorants, and technologies that can impact that space. Also of course, fragrance. That’s the first world that we've been immersed in, and we want to create a nice through line of biology impacting this area to start. Then we have other kinds of product categories that we're doing work in, including things like sun care that will be coming online in the coming years.
How do you think biotech in general will impact the fragrance category?
Traditionally, the way the fragrance industry has approached biotech is to develop replacements. This is still going to happen given the reality of the pressure on the supply chain that exists; that will be one big part of it. I hope, for example, with the fragrances that we developed, people will start to think about using tools like DNA sequencing and bioinformatics to look at fragrant stories in a different way, because they can be different starting points for stories. The story doesn't have to be “I went on vacation, and this reminds me of that memory.” You can now start to construct different types of worlds that serve as different sources of inspiration that are very biology driven. My hope is that will start to enter creative briefs as well.
You've just launched the consumer brand arm with this debut collection. How are you looking to expand the use of the technology, but also just the brand in general in the future?
We hope that through interacting with our products, people will think, “Oh, wow, I never thought of that. I didn't know that that was possible.” I'm in our Boston office, which is our headquarters, and about 60% of our space is lab space. We are developing novel ingredients that will steer these products.
To give you a sense of some of the themes that you will see us going after, it's interacting with the earth’s elements in ways that we haven't interacted with them before; an interesting take on the flora element. We will be expanding into other unexpected categories as well. You're going to see a couple of product launches next year that will build on the story of fragrances, but you won't see us expanding into other categories until 2025. We will be progressively setting the stage for those.
Unfortunately, innovation doesn't happen overnight, so our timelines are longer, but we're okay with that. We think the fragrance story and people's experiences with whatever product format they will be introduced to need some time to live and breathe as well. That's the plan with other pipeline innovations we have coming through our lab.
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