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The scent of things to come

A series of AHRC awards over many years have led to groundbreaking achievements with major commercial potential. Nothing better illustrates the extraordinary developments in knowledge exchange in the arts and humanities than Jenny Tillotson’s groundbreaking work.

Jenny Tillotson

The results of AHRC-funded projects and research are myriad, but every so often a project comes along that promises to impact on many fields and have a genuinely huge commercial potential. One such project is Jenny Tillotson's eScent, which looks at the way that we use perfumes and scents, whether that is to deter insects, improve our sense of wellbeing, deliver therapeutics or simply appear more attractive.

Tillotson has been receiving backing from the AHRC since 2001, when her idea was in its infancy as a dress, rather than an advanced system for scent delivery. Now that she has developed her inventions into something almost market-ready, she reflects that the money and support she has received has been essential for her work to reach this point. It has taken her from the world of high fashion to the world of high-tech, with her business and commercialising the eScent product.

“It started as a dress in 2001, which received a small award in creative and performing arts,” she says. “From there I created the scent delivery system with the AHRC Innovation Award from 2004. Then there is the patent too, which allows real tracing of impact way into the future.”

eScent AHRC funding timeline

Jenny Tillotson has been working with the AHRC in various ways since 2001, when she received a Small Award for the creative and performing arts. This award was related to her Smart Second Skin dress, which has been the basis for all development since.

A 2004 Innovation Award allowed her to work in micro pumps and bio sensors, which led to the eScent patent. Once this was in place Tillotson received further funding, in the shape of a 2010 Knowledge Transfer Fellowship. This allowed her to work with Philips Research on a piece of research entitled Smell The Colours of the Rainbow.

In 2014, Tillotson received an AHRC Follow-on Fund IMPACT & Engagement Award to work on the feasibility of eScent and validate the commercial potential of the Intellectual Property. This was followed by a London Fusion Collaborative Award from AHRC/European Regional Development Fund. This award was for collaborative work with Goldsmiths University to look at the user and market needs for eScent, as well as market size potential.

This patent is undoubtedly the most important result of the work and research that Tillotson has put into the project. “The patent covers a liquid delivery system, so that could be a scent, an insect repellent, perfume or aromatherapy in response to some sensed biometric property or sound,” says Tillotson. “So, for example, it has to be triggered by some kind of action or sound in the near environment, which could be a mosquito, music or snoring, even. It could be programmed to react to emotional response such as heart rate or body odour as well, which is really useful. It works for stress or anxiety in that case, so is very much for wellbeing.”

Smart Second Skin dress
The original Smart Second Skin dress

Even a surface reading of the eScent patent is enough to excite any entrepreneur in the field of sports, perfume, health or wellbeing. A product that can mask your body odour when out for a run, deliver a shot of insect repellent when it detects something about to bite or can spritz you with Rescue Remedy when you are strung-out is the sort of tech that makes sense. Tillotson says that the AHRC funds allowed her to get ahead of the game in this field while everyone had their sights on satisfying our desire for technology that augmented our vision and hearing.

“There has been a real focus on audio-visual for things like the iPad,” she says. “A lot of companies are now talking about digital scent and new olfactory features, so it is definitely the right time for this. It is hard to work with fragrance, but is also very exciting and powerful. It is also subjective. Everyone has a different ability to smell and it can depend how they are feeling or even what they have eaten that day. That is a reason perhaps why fewer people have worked in this area, but also why it is so exciting.”

“A lot of companies are now talking about digital scent, so it is definitely the right time for this”

Put simply, eScent is a wearable that interacts with the user via technology so it knows when to deliver a short spray of scent, as well as which scent to deliver. So, sportswear businesses may want to deliver a dash of something to clear a runner's nose or give them a boost in the final lap, or a medical tech supplier may want to develop a use whereby a medicinal spray can be delivered when triggered by heart rate. The concept visibly draws on the idea of Tillotson's original Smart Second Skin dress, which had neurobiology integrated into its fabric. In effect it has gone from science fiction to science fact over the years, as has Tillotson.

“I failed all my exams at school, but now I am a STEM ambassador.” she says. “I was inspired by reading science fiction books and even Star Trek. I have no science background and have had to learn as I go. It really is everything from JG Ballard to insects that have inspired the journey. It all started with a PhD in interactive olfactory surfaces 20 years ago. I was looking for something beyond 'scratch and sniff' but didn't quite know where I was going to go.”

How a dress became a high-tech scent delivery system

Jenny Tillotson's initial project, the Smart Second Skin dress, was more a conceptual fashion piece than an attempt to revolutionise the way that we use scents. But all the clues were there, even if Tillotson had not yet seen them herself in the 2001 design. The dress rapidly moved from drawing to prototype of an interactive piece of hardware that imitated human skin and nervous system alike, with the technology to do that coming after further awards to aid research.

Subsequent research work has focused on biometrics and developing the product as a commercial idea. Rather than being a dress, the new technology will be embedded in either clothing or jewellery, reacting to movement, sound, body odour or mood. Tillotson has worked with big name sportswear manufacturers, cosmetics manufacturers and tech businesses in her quest to make the product perfect.

The scent is released in a small burst near to the user, so that it is not like spraying your perfume bottle on the street. Wearability allows for both personalisation and proximity. Medical applications will range from helping amnesia sufferers to help in monitoring and controlling mood swings in bipolar disorder.

One person who did have some clue as to where Tillotson might be heading is knowledge transfer expert Philip Ternouth, who was Innovation Director for National Universities and Business at London Fusion. Ternouth has followed Tillotson from his time on AHRC panels to his role at London Fusion and beyond.

“This one was distinctive from an AHRC perspective,” says Ternouth. “This is due to the fact that technology is one eventual outcome of research, it demonstrates that AHRC funded research can have high impact applications across many different disciplines, far from where the researcher started out. This can be true of research in general but this is a great example for the AHRC research community.”

“We have got to the point now where it is a very investible proposition and it is close to market. The market is potentially huge and it is a bit like a binary variable in that once the switch is thrown then people will recognise and relate to it. It can take off very quickly from there. The sake of convenience alone makes the market huge, for men as well as women.”

Hugh Parnell, who is Tillotson's business development advisor, also believes that the eScent has the potential to rapidly create demand once it is unleashed upon the market. Parnell is Chairman of Cambridge Clean Tech and acts as mentor to various new companies, including Tillotson's eScent.

“It could well become viral,” says Parnell of eScent's potential. “There are some very serious people in the fashion industry that have indicated interest in having a mechanism that demonstrates the ability eScent has. Department stores are interested too. So, she is on the brink and just needs to find the capital. We have talked to a lot of capital sources and venture capital business angels, but we need to find the right person at the right time.”

Parnell is convinced that the savvy investor will see sheer scale of potential markets for the eScent, which he believes brings scent delivery into the 21st century.

“One clear market is the replacement for the perfume bottle and the ability to deliver an array of personal scents using small cartridges that can be replaced,” he says. “The other is wearable technology, fashion and perfume overlapping. The patent offers an array of uses that stretches from anti-malarial to something you might use in the bedroom to dispense pheromones - what I call ‘the Ann Summers effect’. We are focussing on the wellbeing market for now, which is very big in itself.”

Parnell cites the mobile phone as a model for the kind of disruption that eScent could bring to the market.

“When mobile phones started they were supposed to be for making calls, but soon the biggest use was for texting, taking photographs and using the internet,” he says. “In much the same way, we don't know what smell is for, but Jenny is developing methods and thoughts for many ways that we can use aroma and smell in a very personal way. I think that is radical and potentially world-changing. Getting to the point where the world says 'we can't live without this' is the challenge.”

“I think that is radical and potentially world-changing”

Jenny Tillotson is more than ready for that challenge. Only time will tell whether eScent will be a global game-changer. But there is little doubt that the AHRC has played a part in taking it to the brink of realising its full potential.

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