A taste of high tech

Flavour and fragrance drive emotions, but in turn they are driven by science. A case in point is Firmenich, a venerable yet high-tech creator.

Text: Eric Johnson | Images: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Life & Science – July 2017

What is the biggest technical novelty in your industry, flavours and fragrances?

Berger: We’ve have made a genuine breakthrough in the control of bad smells, thanks to our understanding of olfactory receptors. Over the past 30 years, our Research team has been driving a multi-disciplinary discovery platform to counter malodour from body odour and garbage, all the way to kitchens and toilets. Our recognised research in this area is driven by combining our scientific know-how across a number of fields, including analytical innovation, receptor biology, organic chemistry, sensory and cognitive science, fragrance development and creation, as well as delivery technologies. Our technology counteracts the malodour by blocking the receptors to prevent the smelling of the malodour, as opposed to covering the malodour with scent.

“Smell is our company’s main business.”

And what good is that?

Ghostine: Malodour is much more than a personal nuisance; it is a major health problem in the developing world. Today there are 2.5 billion people on earth who don’t use sanitary toilets, who relieve themselves in the open. This spreads disease and degrades the environment, and it often exposes those same people to danger and attack. Smell is our company’s main business: we know that many of these people don’t use a toilet, because they cannot bear its stench. This is why we partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reinvent the toilet experience for increased hygiene and sanitation. Our vision is to make our breakthrough malodour control technologies reach the populations most in need through affordable and effective toilet cleaning and freshening products. By making the process of cleaning and using toilets more pleasurable and frequent, we can increase toilet usage. This in turn promises to help save the lives of 800,000 children that die each year from diseases caused by lack of hygiene.

So flavours and fragrances are more than luxuries?

Berger: Yes, and they are scientific products, too. Science is our engine of growth, which is why we invest 10 per cent of our turnover in research & development – last year that was CHF 320 million.


Lebanese-born-and-educated Gilbert Ghostine rose through the ranks at drinksgiant Diageo before becoming CEO of Firmenich in late 2014.

Geneviève Berger has PhDs in physics, human biology and medicine; she was Chief Science Officer at Unilever before joining Firmenich as Chief Research Officer in early 2015.

How do you attract scientists to work for you?

Berger: That 10 per cent investment is alluring. It gives them access to world-class tools and support. Being in the “engine room” of the company is also appealing. I personally have always been passionate about learning and pushing the boundaries of science to improve people’s lives. That’s why I am committed to extending the capabilities and deliverables of Firmenich’s scientific fields, to develop products that address some of the world’s biggest challenges today, such as obesity, malnutrition or access to greater hygiene and sanitation. Today’s younger scientists want to do something meaningful for society: this reinvention of toilets, for example, is a chance to do just that.

“Nature is the world’s greatest chemistry lab.”

Are there other examples?

Ghostine: As a private company, I can’t tell you what’s in the pipeline, but one technology what I can mention is “taste modulation”. We have developed flavours that allow foods to keep their same deliciousness yet with less sugar, salt or fat. Just last year we removed 100,000 metric tonnes of sugar from our customers’ food and beverages, some 500 billion calories, without forfeiting taste or mouth feel. A collateral benefit of this, from an environmental perspective, is that it took 3,000 40-ton trucks off the roads. Also to ensure the world will have enough protein sources to feed everyone healthily going forward, we are exploring alternative sources of protein ranging from lentils and pulses to insects. What’s key for us is to make them taste great so the consumer can enjoy healthy proteins in a more sustainable way.


In 1900, Geneva-based Fred Firmenich bought a majority in his brother-in-law’s five-year-old fragrances firm and retitled it with his surname. The company later branched out into flavours; today it turns over CHF 3.2 billion and employs 6,500 people in a supply chain that stretches around the world.


Firmenich does a lot of natural products. Is there a future for synthetics?

Ghostine: Synthetic, natural and biotech ingredients all have their purpose and role to play if we are to meet consumers’ demands sustainably. Nature is the world’s greatest chemistry lab. Everything we do in our labs is mimicking nature. We copy nature to preserve it, which is why there is a place for synthetics and “white” biotechnology to complement our natural ingredients. We’ll have plenty of scientific work and challenges in these areas for years to come.

Where do you see your company in ten years?

Ghostine: We’re family owned, and always take a long-term view. At the heart of our success for the past 121 years are three main principles:

  1. Our constant pursuit of world-class research.
  2. Partnerships and collaboration with like-minded experts to scale up our impact.
  3. Our deep sense of social responsibility. Business cannot thrive if society or the environment fails around it. That’s why we lead our business in the most responsible way possible.

To answer your question, I cannot say exactly what we will be doing in ten year’s time. What I can say is that we will be operating according to our core values and these three principles.