It’s easy to get swept up in the news and activities of the industry’s global titans, but what about the smaller firms that are out there flexing their creative muscles? In this instalment of ‘Start-up of the month’ – which celebrates the lesser-known companies and their innovations –we speak to Lena Jüngst, co-founder and chief evangelist of Air Up, a company that specialises in creating scent-based flavoured water systems designed for refillable bottles.
How did the concept of using scented pods to flavour water originate within Air Up?
The concept of using scented pods to flavour water came about when Tim Jäger – my co-founder – and I were working on our bachelor thesis, ‘Neuroscience meets design’. During our research, we discovered the phenomenon of retronasal smell, which involves perceiving taste through our sense of smell. Sparking our interest, we then began brainstorming ideas on how to leverage this science.
Our thesis project ultimately led to the idea of creating a drinking bottle that could flavour water solely through scent. This marked the beginning of Air Up. Initially, we experimented with unconventional methods, starting with a room scent. We inserted a straw into the scent source and simultaneously drank water from a glass with another straw, innovatively combining scent and taste.
What is the underlying mechanism of Air Up’s scent-flavouring technology? Could you explain the scientific principles governing the transduction of scent into taste when introduced into water?
As you sip from the bottle, a scented pod releases fragrance. This scent enters your nose, where olfactory receptors send signals to the brain, creating a sensation of smell. Combining taste with scent perception, the brain interprets this as a distinct flavour. In essence, Air Up allows users to perceive flavour in plain water through scent alone. This innovative approach provides a zero-calorie, zero-sugar method to enjoy flavoured water, revolutionising the beverage industry.
How is this technology fundamentally reshaping the landscape of the beverage industry?
By offering a unique solution to the dilemma of choosing between health and flavour. As humans, we often can’t resist flavourful food and drink. Therefore, we tend to favour fizzy drinks over plain water due to their taste. With Air Up, consumers don’t have to decide between health and flavour, it offers the possibility to experience taste without added sugar or any other additives.
Through its innovative bottle design and scent pods, we have created a bottle that transforms plain water into a flavourful drink solely through scent, reducing consumers’ reliance on sugar and artificial sweeteners. It’s a fun, convenient and healthier alternative to traditional soft drinks.
Is it possible for users to tailor the flavour intensity by modulating the number of scented pods employed, or does it adhere to a predetermined flavour profile?
You can use a single pod at a time, and these pods are interchangeable, allowing you to switch between Kola, Virgin Mojito or any of our 28 flavour pods with each sip. After deactivating a pod, it can be stored in the airtight pod pack and exchanged for another flavour of your choice. Customisation options are available for Air Up’s water bottles. You can choose from various strap colours, mouthpieces and body designs.
I always tell myself, the best packaging is no packaging.
Can you provide insights into the environmental considerations that Air Up endeavours to mitigate?
At Air Up, we are dedicated to addressing environmental concerns through various initiatives. Firstly, to reduce our carbon footprint, we have moved production to the EU, cutting transport distances by up to 15,000 kilometres.
Our pods are eco-friendly, using up to 88% less plastic compared to single-use plastic bottles and flavouring five litres of water per pod, potentially eliminating five single-use bottles per pod. Our modular drinking system is extremely long-lasting, and production facilities are powered by renewable energy sources.
We also have partnered with Eden Reforestation Projects, which means a tree is planted for each order, further offsetting environmental impact. Yet sustainability is an ongoing process – we see it as a journey that we take together.
What differentiates Air Up from other flavoured water products on the market?
Traditional flavoured water products are often filled with sugar, additives or chemicals. This is what Air Up is aiming to change; we have cut out these chemical nasties without sacrificing the flavours we crave, providing a healthy, value-for-money alternative for those struggling to find just that.
How did Air Up navigate any challenges encountered during the development and launch phases, and what specific measures were implemented to overcome them?
We encountered a lot of challenges. It is a very long road from an initial creative idea to the point of founding a company. One thing I remember very well was the pitching towards investors and how exciting it was to find them. A very complex process with many different factors involved. For us, the most important one was always that they have to share the same mission and that we could (and still can) benefit from their profound knowledge and decades of experience. To give you an example: Some of our investors are very strong in the beverage industry, which of course, offered us a great network, especially when starting the business.
What’s next for the company?
I believe that innovation is at the heart of everything we do. We started the process of staying hydrated; it’s one of our key aims, and we plan to carry on doing this. Therefore, we will continue working on more innovation in the product categories and on innovative materials. We continue to explore more sustainable materials for our drinking system, which we hopefully can launch soon.
Another big effort will be the extension of our nearshoring efforts. By moving our entire production to the EU, we will cut down transport distance for the pods by up to 15,000 kilometres in total. That’s about 1,875 Mount Everests stacked together and, therefore, a lot less pollution.
In general, sustainability is something we are always working on. One future project is to check on how we can optimise our pod packaging. We want to change the material of our pod packaging and gradually reduce it. I always tell myself, the best packaging is no packaging.
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