A nose for innovation? Odor-detecting tech wins support from Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs

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Kitted out with facial recognition and voice recognition software, your phone can serve as your eyes and ears. One thing it still can’t do at all is replace your sense of smell.

A Cambridge startup called C2Sense is among a handful of groups aiming to transpose that sense into the digital space.

This week the effort has won a high-profile vote of confidence. C2Sense was among the latest cohort of startups inducted into Breakout Labs, a division of noted venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s organization that funds high-tech startups.

C2Sense will receive $350,000 and access to a who’s who list of investors, said Hemai Parthasarathy, scientific director of Breakout Labs.

“C2Sense fits with everything we’re looking for in Breakout Labs,” said Parthasarathy. Typical awardees are usually looking to commercialize a future-facing invention that has yet to find a market, and is therefore likely to be passed over by other investors.

MIT chemistry professor Timothy Swager and student Jan Schnorr founded the company last year to commercialize a way to convert smells into an electric signal.

They developed a novel combination of materials that can bind with smelly molecules that accompany ripening fruit or rotting meat and change their resistance – an effect that is easy to measure electrically.

With such a device hooked up to their phone or packed into processed food bags, shoppers could check the freshness of meat before they buy it and a store could test it before it disposes of stock.

“Early on it might just be a hand-held device that you hold next to the beef or the avocado and apple and it tells you the freshness,” Schnorr said. The goal is to enable consumers, food wholesalers, and everyone in between to reduce food waste.

C2Sense has raised a total of $1.5 million from angel investors, including the latest top up from Breakout Labs, based in San Francisco. Schnorr said that the company has developed a prototype device and field tested it. The plan is to have a product on the market by 2017.

Breakout Labs has funded 26 early stage companies so far that, according to Parthasarathy, “the market is not in a position to take care of .”

C2Sense, like the others, has built a platform that can be adapted to a variety of uses. That makes it hard to project where the company will be five years down the road. But according to Parthasarathy, “Living to fight another day is our intermediate measure of success.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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