We spoke to Dr Emanuela Maggioni, co-founder, CEO and CTO of OW Smell Made Digital, a hardware and software solution for digitising scents.
For our September Spotlight Series blog, we had a chat with Hub Member Dr Emanuela Maggioni, co-founder, CTO and CEO of OW Smell Made Digital. Since childhood, growing up in Italy, Emanuela was fascinated by scents and the power of scent to etch people and places in memories and associated emotions. Her passion for the sense of smell led her to complete a PhD in olfactory perception and a postdoctoral research position in computer science, working on novel scent-inspired human-computer interfaces. She joined the Enterprise Fellowships programme in 2019, which was instrumental in kick-starting her entrepreneurial journey and translating her scientific knowledge into commercial opportunities through OW Smell Made Digital.
In your own words, what is OW Smell Made Digital?
OW’s vision is to revolutionise the future of digital scent technology, transforming industries and enriching everyday life through our science-driven creation and delivery platform of scent experiences. We have expertise in both the hardware and software solutions for digitising scents. We’re offering more than just scents; solutions based on our technology can influence emotions and behaviour, disrupting existing markets and creating new ones.
Engineering is all about solving problems. What problem is your innovation solving and what makes it ground-breaking?
Just as every colour can be created from a mix of primary colours, OW can create every scent from a combination of base compounds. Aspiring to translate scents digitally isn't new; precision, breadth and repeatability are.
I’m not an engineer by training but I always approached the problem as an inventor, with engineering solutions.
Attempts to digitally recreate scent have remained largely conceptual. However, today’s scientific understanding of scent functioning and processing, combined with our technological advances of digital scent-delivery, enables solutions across multiple market sectors, even though they may not realise it yet.
For example, our technology has created traction from a world-leading FMCG industry partner, enabling them to accelerate their R&D scent product testing, reducing costs both in resourcing and material waste. Commercialisation along with scientific validation are our key ingredients to move beyond mainstream practices.
What was the moment that made you think “I can turn this into a commercial opportunity”?
The Enterprise Fellowships programme was a turning point. I received it after completing an 18-month proof-of-concept development project, funded by the European Research Council, and presenting it at the largest consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. This was eye-opening to see so much interest in what was bubbling in the research lab for the past few years. Initial traction came through the immersive market, (eg digital content creators and artists) and then we were approached by world-leading expert in olfaction Dr Andreas Keller from the neurogenetic research group at Rockefeller University, to support the development of a novel, non-existing digital smell testing solution. In both cases, the creation and delivery of digital scents was key, yet for different benefits. Altogether, with our other clients, we then worked on both our hardware and software solution, now OW platform.
Wading into unknown territory can be unsettling – what were you most excited by and what was most challenging for you when starting out?
Leaving academia and becoming an entrepreneur was daunting and equally exciting, as I knew it would help me share my passion, ingrained from childhood memories, with many more people than I could ever do through an academic career. However, creating a real product solution and transforming markets is challenging. People don’t think about their sense of smell as a modality to work with, create with and bring into the digital economy.
As a female founder and mother (of two daughters), getting the work-life balance right is a challenge at times, but also a great privilege, and hopefully inspirational for the next generation. There are always ways to make everything work, we do not need to compromise!
Can you share a time when failure mattered in your business journey?
Trying to convince the wrong investors, without knowing they were wrong at the time. I think that this is part of the natural process early on, but it has been an essential learning curve to the benefit of the entire company. Getting this wrong has helped us to both crystallise the direction we are going in and to find the right people to help support the vision.
What has been the most surprising aspect about your entrepreneurial journey?
The support of many experienced people. There continues to be so many people to learn from and to turn to for advice. Many of the connections that have had lasting effects came through the Enterprise Fellowships programme.
What impact has the Enterprise Fellowships programme had on your business so far? What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt?
Coming from an academic background with no experience on anything to do with setting up a business (nor running one!) I have been able to turn to the network, the one-to-one sessions and invaluable mentoring for ongoing support and training. The fact that all of this is continued is amazing, as our business is growing, so I have occasions on which I require experience and specialised support.
And finally, have you got any tips for potential applicants?
I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who has a great innovation. The Enterprise Fellowships programme is not just a common accelerator – it’s a life changing opportunity, you become a member of a community that is genuinely invested in your ambition, success and share your struggles, offering continuous support.
A few simple tips – show your passion and enthusiasm and be completely honest when writing your application. You don’t need to have it all figured out, but you will need to show that you have the willingness to face the inevitable challenges and uncertainties coming your way.
Who is your role model? No one person in particular – but all female entrepreneurs doing great things both at work and with family.
Tell us a random fact not many people know about you? I had my first car accident when I was three, and I was the one driving.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Weird one, probably – I like to smell my hands and the underside of my elbow when stressed.
When I was a child, I wanted to be… Basketball player.
I am currently binging Succession… nothing has topped that since.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Believe in yourself – the essay comment from my secondary school teacher, having judged the content rather than the spelling and grammar.
Conversely, what has been the worst piece of advice? ‘Don’t worry it about it’.
I don’t understand why… British people have a problem with me dipping a digestive into a herbal tea.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Tough question! Margherita Hack, Gino Strada, Bill Gates, Rita Levi-Montalcini (I’m making tiramisù).
If you were an investor, which Hub Member would you invest in? Nathan Macabuag, Koalaa Prosthetics.
Is there something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started? It’s too late!
If you had to start all over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what? I would try to enjoy the ride more.
The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.
We run four programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.
The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.
Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.
The Enterprise Hub was formally launched in April 2013. Since then, we have supported over 350 researchers, recent graduates and SME leaders to start up and scale up businesses that can give practical application to their inventions. We’ve awarded over £11 million in grant funding, and our Hub Members have gone on to raise over £1.3 billion in additional funding.