“The science of smell is simply amazing”

Sarah Reisinger, 45, heads research at the Swiss multinational Firmenich, which produces fragrances and flavors. Firmenich – hj SWI

Sarah Reisinger is a biotech specialist from Silicon Valley. Today, she directs the research of one of the main Swiss companies in the flavors and fragrances industry. Its mission: to use science to instil a feeling of peace and serenity in as many people as possible.

This content was published on October 24, 2022 – 13:00

Helen James (artist)

Smells accompany every moment of our lives. They imprint people and places in our memory. They make the mouth water or cause disgust. And make magical or terrible the experiences we live.

It was the ancient Egyptians who made odors an art, mixing flowers, plants and oils to obtain fragrances to wear on the body and hair or to use as medicine and religious offerings. In the records, a woman named Tapputi, who lived in Mesopotamia around 1200 BC, is the first chemist known to have used distillation in the production of perfumes.

Today, Tapputi’s legacy is in the hands of multinational corporations earning billions of dollars every year. Some of these firms are led by a new generation of female scientists who use biotechnology and artificial intelligence to produce complex perfumes and aromas.

Sarah Reisinger is one of them. A specialist in biotechnologies, at the helm of the Firmenich research unit in Geneva, she feels the weight of the heritage in a company which has counted Nobel Prize winners in chemistry (such as Leopold Ruzicka) and illustrious women scientists, in particular Geneviève Berger, former patron of the CNRS, the largest research center in Europe.

Sarah Reisinger succeeded the latter in 2021, when Firmenich had already marketed laundry fragrances and meat flavors generated using artificial intelligence. The manager now wants to harness algorithms and machine learning to develop innovative fragrances more efficiently.

“It involves rethinking the way we do science on a daily basis, from experiments to process automation,” she explains. Sarah Reisinger believes that data science can help design new fragrances through the analysis of thousands of formulas, raw materials and chemical reactions, while improving operational planning.

>> The influence of scents on our daily life:

From Silicon Valley to Geneva

My interlocutor, a firm voice, greets me with a determined handshake. Her white polka dot skirt brightens up the classic lines of her blue suit. Unlike other managers I’ve interviewed, she doesn’t seem particularly comfortable talking about herself and her accomplishments.

To break the ice, I ask him about his studies and his origins. She is 45 years old, was born and raised in the United States, between Wisconsin and Minnesota. After her studies, she moved to California, where she obtained a doctorate in microbiology at Berkeley.

At the start of her career, she worked in the field of biotechnology for the development of biofuels and new drugs, particularly in the treatment of cancer. She then moved on to researching components and technologies for cosmetics and other consumer products. Until Firmenich’s offer in 2018, and this heavy decision to move to Switzerland.

Sarah Reisinger has no regrets, but her husband and two sons aged 5 and 10, who followed her on this adventure, initially had a little trouble overcoming the language barrier as well as shape another life.

Sarah Reisinger is proud when she walks into a store and smells the fragrances she helped develop. Keystone / Julian Stratenschulte

Today, the little family feels at home in Switzerland. “We still miss bookstores and libraries in English”, smiles the scientist, reading being the only activity offering her breathing space between her professional and family activities.

Sarah Reisinger looks back with nostalgia on her twenty years in San Francisco, remembering the passion that motivated her colleagues to give their best every day. “For most of my career, I’ve worked in Silicon Valley settings, where passion was everything. I learned a lot.”

However, she says she is happy to have put an end to the stress of responsibilities in fast-growing start-ups and the pressure of returning to work quickly after maternity.

Personalized perfumes

It is only then that we begin the chapter on the science of perfumes that my interlocutor really relaxes.

“The science of smell is just amazing,” she says. And to explain to me that our nose contains more than 400 olfactory receptors, which often have small differences from one individual to another. This means that no one perceives odors in the same way. Sarah Reisinger not only wants to know more about one of our most fascinating senses, but also about “the mechanisms of this very personal experience, of which we still know very little”.

The real challenge for a researcher like her is to develop perfumes and aromas that bring positive emotions to as many people as possible. Fragrances act as chemical messages that our nervous system interprets, generating sensations and emotional states. “When we smell a perfume, something happens in our brain. But it’s not just a pleasant or unpleasant sensation,” explains the scientist.

Scents help us feel more comfortable and safe in certain environments. Sometimes they even influence how we interact and react to certain situations. A pilot study has demonstrated that essential oils, particularly sandalwood oil, can relieve stress and aid recovery after a stressful event, reducing systolic blood pressure and salivary cortisol levels, considered biomarkers of stress.

Our nose has more than 400 olfactory receptors which often show small genetic differences from one individual to another. Firmenich

In 2020, Firmenich launched a fragrance inspired by Mysore sandalwood oil, usually obtained from an endangered Indian plant. Sarah Reisinger’s team created their own sandalwood molecules using DNA sequencing to identify and replicate the enzymes responsible for forming the scent of sandalwood. “By applying technology to the biology of olfactory receptors, we seek to help people combat stress, unplug, and regain mental well-being.”

The sense of taste can also be influenced. Sarah Reisinger tells me that her team is experimenting with new flavors that can be added to vegetarian or vegan foods that mimic meat. Smell and taste are closely linked, so much so that many people who suffer from anosmia, a condition in which they lose temporarily or ad aeternam the ability to perceive odors, believe they have also lost the sense of taste (cases of anosmia exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the virus can cause loss of smell).

“We are deepening our understanding of how our taste and smell receptors work and what activates them,” explains the researcher. The aim is, for example, to develop plant-based burgers that only give off the typical smell of meat during cooking, and not when raw, in order to reproduce the sensory experience of the products as faithfully as possible. originals.

A sector where mystery reigns

That said, Sarah Reisinger does not specify how she intends to achieve this. When she seems to want to tell me more, the head of communications, who has been following the interview from the start, glares at her.

It’s that the industries that produce perfumes and flavors are notoriously shrouded in mystery and trade secrets. Besides, I am neither authorized to visit Firmenich’s laboratories nor to go into too much detail about certain technologies. In this sector, competition is fierce, especially between Firmenich and Givaudan, another Swiss firm in the perfume sector, which do not give each other gifts.

Will Firmenich stay in Geneva?

In May 2022, Firmenich announced its merger with the Dutch company DSMExternal link, a leader in the food sector. This announcement raised fears about the company’s future in Switzerland.

In October, Firmenich inaugurated in Geneva a new technology campusExternal link of production and research of 225,000 m², at a cost of 200 million francs, to reaffirm the close links of the Geneva company with the city.

End of insertion

Sarah Reisinger could have embarked on an academic career and shared the results of her research to advance science. She chose to work in the private sector, a decision that, she says, allows her to focus on end products and more concretely impact the world. Firmenich’s fragrances and flavors, which employ more than 10,000 people worldwide, reach more than four billion consumers every day through products ranging from perfumes to shampoos to breakfast cereals.

It is with jubilation that Sarah Reisinger confides her pride when, in store, she observes all these perfumes containing the fragrances developed by her team. She imagines these people wearing them and, for a moment, feeling a sense of peace. “After all,” she observes, “it is from relaxation that true innovation is born.”

Translated from Italian by Pierre-François Besson

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In accordance with JTI standards

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“The science of smell is simply amazing”

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