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C2Sense is digitizing our sense of smell for the Internet of Things

C2Sense utilizes digital gas sensor technology to pioneer Internet-of-Things technology for digitizing smell, enabling smarter agriculture and safer workplaces.

Based on technology originally developed in laboratories at MIT, C2Sense has worked its way through MIT’s innovation pipeline and most recently secured a spot in the first cohort of the Engine, a new deep-science investment fund affiliated with MIT.

I sat down with Jan Schnorr, CEO of C2Sense, to talk about the implications of digitizing smell and the existing challenges for innovation in the field of tough technologies.

A digital sense of smell

With growing computational resources, advances in electrical engineering and manufacturing, and improved algorithms, we are just beginning to experience the onset of a truly digital age. A key characteristic of this age is the ability to transform our interactions with the environment into digital signals, and vice versa. Consider vision: image recognition software can simulate how we perceive objects and turn images into a stream of data, while AR/VR technology uses data to create digital environments for us to interact with. Similar principles hold true for our other senses, such as hearing (voice recognition, noise-cancelling headphones), touch (haptic feedback, force touch), or even thoughts (human-brain interfaces).

“Currently, the digital world is only using some senses, e.g. vision, hearing, or physical senses such as temperature or acceleration. Adding the sense of smell gives access to new information that cannot be obtained otherwise. We can even extend our sense of smell beyond our physical limitations, smelling stress markers of plants and animals that indicate potential diseases to deal with.” Jan Schnorr, CEO of C2Sense

The digitization of our sense of smell has long been hindered by high sensor costs, technological limitations, and challenging data interpretation. The MIT startup C2Sense has set out to overcome these challenges however, using their proprietary gas sensing technology. Jan Schnorr, former PhD student and postdoc in the Department of Chemistry at MIT, co-invented C2Sense’s technology on a platform of carbon nanotube-based sensors. After having initially served as CTO, Jan has matured into the role of CEO, displaying a strong vision of the company’s future.

Digital Smell for Smart Agriculture

According to Jan, one of the exciting applications of C2Sense’s technology is its use as ammonia sensor in livestock monitoring — a market currently worth roughly $1.6B. Ammonia gas is produced when bacteria begin to decompose animal waste, causing a biting smell that is commonly associated with urine. If the concentration of ammonia within a poultry farm surpasses a certain threshold, it can harm the animals and even cause death. Therefore, poultry farms require sufficient ventilation to replace ammonia and other toxic gases with fresh air.

Yet, especially during the cold winter months, increased ventilation equals high utility bills, as additional heating is required to keep poultry farms at reasonable temperatures. Further, ammonia can cause harm to animals at concentrations that cannot be detected by the human nose. The result is that poultry farms are often under ventilated, not only reducing the quality of animal life, but also causing economic losses of roughly $500M per year in the United States alone.

C2Sense sensor hardware. The device is opened to display the consumable active sensing cartridge and system pump. (Credit C2Sense / Jan Schnorr)

C2Sense plans to address this dilemma using novel low power and easy-to-produce gas sensors. These devices allow for reading out ammonia levels in a continuous manner while analyzing the gathered data in the cloud. Based on the processed data, the ventilation in a poultry farm can then be controlled in a manner that reduces ammonia levels while saving heating cost. Jan believes that the combination of their next generation sensor technology with in-house analytics will “provide the most value” to their customers.

We estimate that our sensor data can cut the typical annual ammonia-related losses per [poultry] house of $2,000 – $5,000 at least in half”, Jan commented.  “This may sound small at first but considering that there are over 100,000 houses for broilers alone in the U.S., this will have a big impact. Our second-generation solution will look for livestock health and other information, and we predict will save at least three times that amount.” After an initial test in spring 2017, C2Sense is currently undergoing further tests with 18 poultry houses across the United States and has sold several hundred sensing systems.

C2Sense mobile web platform. Raw data from the hardware is compressed and sent to the cloud. Custom algorithms process these raw data streams, and report real time gas concentrations to customers through the interactive web portal. (Credit: C2Sense / Jan Schnorr)

Innovating Tough Technologies

In order to succeed, tough technology ventures such as C2Sense rely heavily on capital-expensive prototypes. The combination of elevated market and technology risks in comparison to digital-only startups is less attractive to potential investors though, so many “deep” technology startups struggle to secure funding after their transition from an academic setting into a newly-formed venture. Often, they’re forced to disproportionally trade equity for cash.

“In the beginning, C2Sense worked with limited funding which kept us disciplined, but might have slowed us down at first”, Jan elaborated.  Fortunately, support and guidance from Timothy Swager — MIT professor and C2Sense co-founder — and MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation allowed C2Sense to time their startup launch just right. “If the technology is not ready […] yet, it is better to wait and optimize it in a university lab before launching. It is also essential to spend a lot of effort early on to understand the target market and value the technology provides.”

“By now, we have found a great group of investors and other stakeholders who understand tough tech well and help us build a great company. I would be lying if I said that it was easy, though.” Jan Schnorr, CEO of C2Sense

During their incubation in MIT’s laboratories, Jan and his co-workers were able to build a focused technology platform that — in combination with a broad IP portfolio — was strong enough to attract outside investors. As a result, C2Sense secured a spot in the first cohort of MIT’s new accelerator and venture fund, the Engine. When asked about the Engine, Jan stressed that he not only appreciated the funding opportunity, but even more so the efforts of the Engine’s team to help “founders understand market opportunities and build a profitable business.”

Expanding into new markets

For their next big steps, C2Sense plans to build out their customer base and expand their market, with the motivation to provide long-term solutions in plant health and livestock monitoring, logistics, and related fields. Specifically, Jan and his coworkers are pursuing the application of their sensor technology in fruit freshness monitoring with the goal to improve food quality and diminish overall food waste along the supply chain. In addition, C2Sense is working toward employing their sensors as personal protection equipment for workers in industrial plants or similar settings that pose a risk of exposure to chemical vapor leakages.

To achieve these goals, C2Sense aim to close their Series A funding later this year. However, Jan’s ambitions for providing a platform technology for digitized smell don’t stop there: “The opportunities in smart agriculture and industrial safety alone are huge, but there is much more\”, he explains. “Just imagine how digital photography has changed the world around us; from sending a photo to my family in Germany to advanced face recognition and image analysis. We believe that the digital sense of smell will enable similarly big changes.”

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