An early-morning walk in a damp spring forest when the first rays of sunlight touch the ground; a visit to a crowded oriental market overflowing with goods, spices and colors; an exquisite candle-light dinner accompanied by a selection of elegant wines: olfactory sensations are important components of how we perceive the world around us. They are deeply connected to our emotions and inseparably interwoven with our memories.
The perception of smells and flavours is a highly complex process, and scientists have estimated that humans can distinguish more than 1 trillion (1012) olfactory stimuli. Chemical analysis has detected about 500 volatile molecules that contribute to the aroma and bouquet of wine, but mere scientific analysis does not diminish the wonder at the enormous complexity of our sense of smell and how it contributes to our quality of life.
Complexity in flavours and fragrances
The flavour and fragrance industry provides key ingredients for food, drink, home and personal care products and accordingly has a highly complex structure. A huge range of raw materials, with different supply chains, is sourced from all over the world. Production processes, ranging from traditional extractions through synthesis by green chemistry to modern biotech approaches, have to be coordinated and integrated.
Demands and expectations of customers in a global market place vary widely according to local tastes and customs. This makes it necessary to offer a wide range of products with finely tuned sensory properties. Research and development requires the global collection of samples and ideas, and the analysis and integration of huge amounts of biological, chemical, physical and sensory data.
A fine balance between tradition and highly innovative approaches is required to support established products and bring new ones to the market. Biotechnology plays an increasingly important role in the flavour and fragrance industry, helping to secure reliable and sustainable provision of key ingredients and to gain access to compounds with new properties as the basis for novel products.
Swiss companies lead the way
Givaudan and Firmenich, the two largest players in the flavour and fragrance ingredients market have their headquarters in Switzerland. Together, they capture about one third of the global fragrance and flavour ingredients market that in 2016 was estimated to have a total combined value of USD 26.5 billion and growing strongly.
For both companies, biotechnology plays an increasingly important role in both R&D and production. In 2016, Firmenich announced the large-scale production of AMBROX®, an amber fragrance with musk and wood tonalities using a breakthrough white biotechnology fermentation process, coupled with proprietary green chemistry. Just the year before, the company won the prestigious Sepawa Innovation Award for its CLEARWOOD® perfume ingredient. With woody and patchouli notes, this ingredient is produced by a sustainable process based on Firmenich’s industrial (white) biotechnology platform.
For Givaudan too, industrial biotechnology offers a multitude of opportunities to the flavour and fragrance sector. The company expects that eventually about half of the fragrance compounds will be produced using biotechnology and it is actively engaging in research and collaborations in this field.
It is not only the economic potential, but also the possibility of increasing the sustainability of production processes that is an important success factor. For example, a research and production facility integrated into the Bazancourt-Pomacle biorefinery in northeast France is transforming the way the company produces cosmetic ingredients. The circular economy model contributes to a positive growth dynamic, while helping to achieve Givaudan’s eco-efficiency targets.
Success factors in Switzerland
It is probably no coincidence that Switzerland, long known for a watchmaking tradition that requires a mastery of complexity and a fine hand for details, is also a place where these leaders from the flavour and fragrance sector can thrive. Switzerland regularly occupies top rankings in global innovation. The comprehensive education system provides a motivated workforce at different qualification levels and the high standard of living in Switzerland makes it easy to attract top talent from abroad.
Publicly funded education and research institutions are well equipped, internationally connected, and draw top scientists from all over the world. The research landscape stretches from academia, through innovative start-ups and SMEs, and on to large, multinational companies with their global resources. Efficient knowledge and technology transfer between basic and applied research and industrial applications further stimulates innovation.
The biotechnology sector also profits from Switzerland’s research and knowledge infrastructure such as the Competence Center for Biocatalysis CCBIO at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW), and the well-established precompetitive collaboration between key players within the Swiss Industrial Biocatalysis Consortium (SIBC).
Switzerland’s leading exporter
The chemistry, pharma and biotech sector share of total Swiss exports has been steadily increasing over the years, from 31.8% in 2001 to 44.8% in 2016. Since 2009, the sector, which is represented by scienceindustries, the Swiss association of the chemistry, pharma and biotech industry, has become the largest export industry in Switzerland. In 2016, it’s exports reached CHF 94.3 billion – a new record. About CHF 80.3 billion was contributed by exports of pharmaceutical products, where biotechnology plays a major role.
The diversity of the product portfolio in the sector and the clear focus on life sciences is reflected in a further breakdown of the export statistics. Besides pharmaceuticals, vitamins and diagnostics, that together make up the lion’s share of 85%, it ranges through fine chemicals, agribusiness, plastics, flavours and fragrances, and pigments (see figure below).
The Swiss chemistry, pharma and biotech sector has a decidedly international orientation, which is clearly demonstrated by the geographical breakdown of global sales. For the top ten scienceindustries member companies, the total turnover of CHF 137.6 billion in 2015 was achieved mostly in the Americas, other European countries and Asia, with only a very small proportion in the domestic market (see figure above).
World-wide marketing based on the manufacturing and sale of innovative high-value products, is an essential part of the strategy of scienceindustries member companies. Swiss companies, not only the big multinational corporations but also many small and medium-sized enterprises which pursue their successful niche strategies, have been present on international markets for decades.