Most car fresheners try masking bad smells, with pine or fruit aromas. But why not subtly change the way the driver perceives an odor, tricking the person into thinking the smell is pleasurable?

And why not harness chemicals found in the tears of children, or the sweat of parachutists, as a basis for your product? 

That’s the premise of Moodify, an Israeli company to which Toyota just gave a big vote of support. The company says its scents, based on a decade of neurobiology research at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, help drivers by subtly affecting mood and behavior through saturating olfactory receptors from a diffuser beneath the seat.

Its first product, “Moodify White,” which eliminates bad odor perception, has just reached markets and is being showcased by French auto parts supplier Valeo at the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show this month. 

Toyota is all in. The carmaker’s AI investment arm joined a $1.6 million investment round in “functional fragrance” startup Moodify. Israel-based Next Gear Ventures, which focuses on the automotive space, led the round. 

Moodify, which has raised a total of $2.3 million in its two-year history, promises more than perfume. “Moodify Blue,” based on the pheromones found in children’s tears, reduces stress and aggression, while “Moodify Green,” derived from the fear perspiration of parachutists, improves awareness and alertness.

Moodify is part of a wave of olfactory-focused companies grabbing carmakers’ attention. Earlier this year, France’s Aryballe, which makes aroma sensors, secured a $7 million investment from Hyundai Motor Co.

Jim Adler, founding managing director at Toyota AI Ventures, said in a blog post that Moodify’s technology improves someone’s “sense of well-being.” Adler called smell technology “a fascinating field full of possibilities.”

New Possibilities 

Real estate agents often use the smell of freshly-baked bread and brewing coffee to sell houses. Studies have shown that ambient scents can boost sales in shoe stores and casinos.

Millions of sensory neurons in the linings of the back of the nose transmit scents to the brain as chemical signals. The brain’s response, and the physiological effect of different aromas, can be shaped by changing these signals.

Human’s olfactory systems are more sensitive than previously believed, John McGann, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, wrote in in a 2017 Science article. Odors can bring back memories and emotions, influence our nervous systems and stress levels and affect our behavior, he wrote.

“Chemo-signals are part of our everyday communication,” said Moodify CEO Yigal Sharon, a psychotherapist. “Many industries have started to realize the power and significance of smell, and we are very excited to be a pioneer in this novel field.”

The company also plans to deploy its technology in hotels and retirement homes.

Moodify is not the first group to attempt to harness this perfume power. Using odors in wartime is “an eccentric but well-known military tactic,” said G. Neil Martin, professor of psychology at Regent’s University in London and author of The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste.

“In Vietnam, they tried to build a machine that could ‘sniff out’ the Vietcong,” Martin told Karma. “Malodor is an excellent way of repelling people so as an olfactory device it is almost perfect and not fatal.”

New Ground

But the active use of scents to modify drivers’ behavior is largely unexplored territory.

“Although very powerful, using advanced scent technologies to solve-real world problems has very rarely been successfully achieved at scale, but we believe Moodify has great potential to do so,” said Tal Cohen, general partner at Next Gear Ventures, in a press release.

Martin says there are few empirical studies on how scent influences active, complex situations like driving.

“One study found that the ambient odor of lemon led to better braking performance at stoplights in a fairly artificial lab set-up. In our study, people played a rally game, at three levels of difficulty, and we replicated this effect with lemon and found some other benefits,” Martin said. “However, for the scent to be successful it would have to be intermittent. We habituate very quickly to odor.”