Second in the IndieBio EU interview series is Efflorus. Efflorus is a Canadian biotech company comprised of Anmol Ratna Singh, Ashutosh Bhanot and Jailun Chen. Efflorus have noticed an unsustainable future in the fragrance industry and they aim to change it.
They discovered that endangered Agarwood trees are destroyed to produce Oud. Oud is a trademark fragrance in the Middle East and costs a whopping $30,000/kg and has a $2 Billion market. Unfortunately, humanity has brought Agarwood forests down to the brink of extinction.
I sat down with Efflorus to find out how they plan to save these scented forests and ensure that luxury for us does not have to mean extinction for others.
Shama Chilakwad: Who are Efflorus and what are you trying to produce?
Anmol Ratna Singh: Efflorus is a synthetic biology startup working on producing Oud. Oud is a well-known fragrance in the East. It costs more than $30,000/kg. The natural source of Oud is Agarwood trees, which grow in South East Asia. It is well known that the Agarwood tree is an endangered species. We are working hard to prevent Agarwood trees from going extinct.
SC: What was your inspiration that lead you to join the IndieBio EU accelerator?
ARS: Our project started out as purely a science project, but we soon figured out that we needed a well-equipped lab space and some capital to cover expenses. We were looking for help when we found out about IndieBio through Connor O’Dickie of the DIY Biology group in Toronto. We looked into the programme and got to know about Muufri, Kilobaser and Hyasynth – companies from 2014 cohort, and we got very excited. Knowing that we had found a perfect match for our project needs we decided to apply for the accelerator.
SC: How is Oud produced traditionally, is there any problems with this method?
Ashutosh Bhanot: Oud is traditionally produced from Agarwood trees. In the wild, only those trees that get infected by a specific fungus produce this fragrant resinous oil called Oud. Due to high value of Oud, Agarwood trees have undergone unrestrained felling for many decades. This has created a significant shortage in supply of high quality fragrant wood as well as resinous oil – Oud.
SC: How are you going to produce biosynthetic oud?
Jailun Chen: We will use proprietary technology to biosynthesize Oud. Biosynthesis of Oud requires elucidation of metabolic pathways. We plan to use well-established yeast fermentation technology for production level scale-up. Currently we are testing our technology and optimizing specific yeast strains.
SC: What are the advantages of your producing Oud using your method over producing oud using the traditional method?
ARS: There are a number of advantages. Firstly, obtaining high quality Oud from Agarwood trees is not rational given that the Agarwood trees are an endangered species. Secondly, about 400kg of infected agarwood tree wood is required to produce 1kg of oil by distillation – that’s an inefficient and an extremely expensive way of producing Oud. Thirdly, we can produce a consistent supply of high quality Oud at lower costs. So overall, biosynthetic production of Oud is the only sustainable way to keep the fragrance alive.
SC: What other fragrances do you plan to produce in the future?
ARS: We plan to go towards other rare fragrances like Musk (source – Musk Deer) and Ambergris (source – Whale), which come from endangered species. Musk deer has almost been driven to extinction because of the high-value of the Musk fragrance. We want to prevent this brutal practice of driving species to extinction for luxury commodities.
SC: When do you think your product will be ready for the market?
ARS: We believe that with the right resources and correct direction, we should be hitting the market with bio-Oud by mid 2017.
SC: What are some of the highlights of the IndieBio accelerator so far?
ARS: IndieBio accelerator is a wonderful programme for very young startups to get mentorship, business insights and a lab-space to innovate in synthetic biology. IndieBio has an amazing partnership with University College Cork, which has allowed us to use sophisticated lab equipment to move forward on the technology front of our project. The highlight of the programme has been the mentorship sessions. We have received mentorship from some of the best people in the field of business, lean startup thinking, Marketing, Finance, Pitch Coaching and many more. It has all been a very enlightening experience.
SC: Have you experienced any setbacks during the development of your product and how did you overcome them?
JC: Certainly, midway through the accelerator we did a soft pivot. We switched from algae to yeast as our organism of choice because of high downstream cost of processing of algae. We lost some time in the process but we are wiser now. The lesson we learnt from our mistake was to be flexible with the emergence of new information. We believe that setbacks happen in any startup but the way we handle them sets an important precedents for everything in the future.
SC: Where do you see Efflorus in the future?
ARS: In the future, we want to serve the fragrance market in an influential way. We want sustainability to become “cool” in the common language of the fragrance industry. We believe that the way to achieve this objective is to build amazing, sustainable fragrance products, which reach out to every corner of the world.