Sniff technology: detecting everything from drugs to diseases | FT Tech
It could be the Shazam of smells. A California-based start-up has developed a device to sniff out substances such as drugs, explosives and viruses. Sniff tech is a burgeoning sector which could have major implications in fields including healthcare and security. The FT’s Patrick McGee takes a trip to the lab and gets a good whiff of how the future might smell
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This is Penny, my Hong Kong rescue dog. And she has a powerful nose. When my wife was first pregnant a few years ago, Penny knew that she was pregnant before we did. And she would cuddle up to my wife's belly day after day, week after week.
Of course, pregnancies aren't the only thing our four-legged friends are able to sniff out. For centuries, a dog's innate sense of smell has been used to detect everything from drugs and explosives to viruses like Covid-19.
But what if you could capture the power of a dog's nose and reliably replicate it with a machine? Outside of San Francisco, a company is doing just that.
Koniku is a start that is mapping out the world of smells and building what it calls a smell cyborg.
My wife and I think that our dog, Penny, figured out that she was pregnant before we even knew. Are we on to something there?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. That's a very great example. The cool thing about that is all human beings, yes, we give off smells. We have these volatile organic compounds that are constantly giving out information on what our mood is, on what our state of health is. If you're pregnant or not, you have VOCs just gushing out of your entire body that Penny is able to smell.
It's these VOCs, or smells, that Osh and his team are trying to decode. And they're doing it by mimicking the receptors inside a dog's nose.
The science at its heart is simple... every smell has a unique molecular structure that can be identified, mapped, and detected. Koniku has developed a way to use living biological cells to react to the smelly molecules in the air. They do this by fusing living neurons with electronics.
Neurons are placed on a computer chip. They're connected to a set of unique lenses. In this way, the complete device is imbued with a sense of smell, like a living creature.
I see. Oh, that's cool.
So what we do here is we take a blank cell. And we need to get that cell to make a protein that detects VOCs, that detects the smell. We package DNA, which acts as an instruction set, and we stick that DNA into the cell to make a receptor that detects a VOC.
There are trillions of different combinations that end up forming the smells of everything around us.
Do you want to look inside?
So you just look in there.
So what you're looking at the cells that have been genetically modified to carry these receptors at about 10x magnification.
It's just 500...
Here, they call their man-made sniffing device, the KoniKore. Head of engineering, Jos Sebastian, says it's all about mimicking the tiny receptors inside real noses.
When you look at what we are trying to create in the biochip, essentially we are replicating vasculature, the whole capillary system, the mechanism for food to reach there, humidity, all of those things. So essentially, we are mimicking biology.
One business that has been an early tester of the company's biomimicry is Airbus, which recently began using its devices for security at San Francisco airport.
With our partners at Airbus we deployed earlier this year a test deployment within a real airport environment. So you have a situation where you come with a bag that you don't have to touch. You don't have to open anything. And we demonstrated 97 per cent accuracy that we could detect explosive compounds in that bag.
There are other players in the sniff technology field. In healthcare, several new startups are working on sniffing out diseases such as cancer using artificial intelligence.
When cancer is in the body, the body fights it. There are metabolic reactions. And we're using AI to figure out how it changes and detect cancer very early based on that. The controversial part is that we're not looking for biomarkers.
Anybody who is looking into diagnostics, they're looking for biomarkers, which means a specific protein. We're saying dogs have been proven to be extremely effective, fast, accurate at detecting cancer by sniffing, let's say, urine. And they can achieve up to 99 per cent accuracy.
Now, what they're sniffing is obviously an odour. And it's not a specific compound because many different compounds can combine and give the same odour. So the AI that we're using effectively emulates the brain of the dog.
And we believe in the next nine to 12 months, I think you will see a big shift and then slowly huge adoption. But it will be a hockey stick, because it really trumps everything else out there in the market. In terms of cost and accuracy, we're talking about huge advancement.
But creating things in the lab can also create new challenges.
You have to first...
Sentience director of science is Andreas Mershin. The MIT researcher founded Osmocosm, an annual conference dedicated to sniff technology. He says legal protections are needed to ensure we remain in control of what's been created.
Would you be happy with someone having your osmodata? That means all the data that comes off of your body as body odour, would you be comfortable with that being recorded, mined, annotated, sold, rented, et cetera by people who aren't you? Let's say your cell phone company.
We are working towards establishing the legal frameworks that need to be in place before this technology is let loose on the planet for us to be able to trust this the same way that we would trust the family dog that is trained to identify, let's say, incipient diabetic shock. You trust this dog even though it has claws and teeth. It can eat your baby, it can can eat you. But yet, you trust it and you love it. That trust is not there with any of our technologies.
So once trust is established, what's to stop sniff tech from transforming the way we live?
The fact that this technology sits in my lab or sits inside of a dog's nose and it's not in your pocket, it's upsetting. And it should be upsetting you too. I think that brave venture capitalists have to come through and find brave entrepreneurs who will bring this to the market. And perhaps, the larger companies such as the Apples and the Samsungs will follow.
Back at Koniku, the team is confident there's no limit to the number of applications the company smells cyborg could have.
What we're doing sounds like science fiction.
Yes. It's not.
It's science fact. The long-term vision is to diagnose disease in real time. From your breath, you're giving off a lot of smell data. How can you empower these doctors, or how can you give these doctors superpowers to do more?
In a sign of growing faith it has in it's technology, Koniku is now building manufacturing facilities in Europe. The sniff tech industry is projected to hit $1.5bn by 2026.
And if Silicon Valley commits significant resources to sniff technology, a future where the likes of Penny have some serious man-made competition isn't too far off.
Who's a good dog? Who's a good dog? Who's a good dog?