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Innovation economy

A South End startup is taking a fresh approach to deodorants 

Arcaea is using science to disarm bacteria that cause body odor

Associate analytical chemist Lea Haehnel worked next to the stability chamber in the formulation area of the lab at Arcaea in Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

When the 30 employees of Arcaea go to work in South End, they’re trying to reinvent some of the things you likely do before you show up at work: put on deodorant, perhaps slather on a little sunscreen, and style your hair.

Arcaea wants to bring biotech’s science-driven approach to product development into your bathroom. The company, spun out from publicly traded Ginkgo Bioworks in 2021, raised $78 million in funding from a group of backers including Chanel, the British maker of apparel and cosmetics. Earlier this year, Arcaea began sending samples of an early product, dubbed ScentARC, to prospective customers —such as large personal care companies — hoping that they will want to integrate it into the products they sell.


ScentARC aims to change the way that the colony of bacteria in your armpit cranks out unpleasant smells, while encouraging the growth of the bacteria that can keep skin healthy. Yes, it’s a deodorant.

Jasmina Aganovic, Arcaea’s chief executive, says that deodorant was introduced in the late 1800s. But “in the last few decades, we have learned a whole lot more about body odor. Your sweat doesn’t smell.” Rather, body odor comes from certain bacteria that “produce very smelly compounds” when they feed on chemicals in your sweat. Arcaea’s approach: rather than attempting to kill all the bacteria — including beneficial strains — that live in your pits, it’s created a specific blend of nutrients to prevent bacteria from pumping out odors.

To develop ScentARC, Arcaea had to compile “a whole library of armpit microbes,” Aganovic says — work that involved swabbing the armpits of both company employees and volunteers. Then, Arcaea worked in the Gingko lab in Boston to see how different kinds of nutrients would affect the microbes it had collected. Machine learning software crunched the data that emerged from the lab, suggesting “a bunch of blends” of nutrients that might affect the way the microbes produced smells, Aganovic says.


Testing the early products also fell to Arcaea’s employees: “We had a placebo arm, and a candidate arm,” Aganovic says, or one pit that got a deodorant swipe that didn’t contain the active ingredient, and one that did. Then there was smell testing. “The industry has a standardized scale, and descriptors and words” to describe the vast spectrum of aromas, Aganovic explains, from funky to fresh. (She notes that the company didn’t use fragrances or substances like baking soda as part of the deodorant’s formulation — just the nutrients.) When tested last year by a third party, 87 percent of the 30 people who tried it said the product was “very good” at preventing bad smells from developing over the course of the day.

Jasmina Aganovic is the CEO of biotech company Arcaea, which is developing a deodorant that aims to change the way that the colony of bacteria in your armpit creates unpleasant smells.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Aganovic says that the company has a strategy of both trying to sell ingredients like ScentARC to big brands that already make personal care products, as well as developing its own brands. The company aims to launch its first wholly owned brand later this year — possibly a sunscreen. In 2022, Arcaea acquired Gadusol Labs, an Oregon company that was exploring the potential of synthesizing a naturally occurring chemical, gadusol, that protects fish from ultraviolet rays. (Yes, fish make their own sunblock.)

Earlier in her career, Aganovic worked for Living Proof, a Cambridge maker of hair care products that counted “Friends” star Jennifer Aniston as a spokesperson and shareholder. That company was acquired by the consumer products giant Unilever in 2016. Aganovic says the hair care category is “massive” and that she thinks the holy grail would be a product that could “train your hair to memorize styling. If I want my hair to be wavy today, why do I have to style it from scratch? People are making spaceships land backward in the middle of an ocean. So why not this?” Spray-on hair styles would be the company’s “moonshot,” she says.


But before that, there may be other hair care products. During a tour through Arcaea’s lab, Jaide Jensen, its head of biotechnology, points out several testing devices. One is a combing machine that stresses hair as you would when you’re brushing or combing it in the morning: “You count how many hairs that have broken off, and the length, to find out if your treatment protects the hair from damage,” Jensen explains. Another machine does “curl retention testing,” curling hair around a rod, exposing it to humidity, and examining it to see how well the curl holds up. Coming soon is another machine that mimics the sun’s effect on skin.

In the darkroom, scans of electron microscope images of hair samples show one treated with hair care products (left) and untreated. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“Biotech and beauty are super hot right now,” says Mark Polson, a former vice president at Estée Lauder, who is now a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But it will be a challenge for Arcaea to introduce its own brands, he adds, because “the market is already flooded with new beauty brands. It’s challenging to get noticed.” But some startup brands, like Drunk Elephant and e.l.f., have managed to break through, he says.


And the number of startups trying to use biotech industry practices to make beauty or personal care products “grows every day,” says Kelly Kovack, CEO of media company BeautyMatter, which covers the beauty and cosmetics industry. “The exciting thing about these startups is that they are effectively making the beauty industry more sustainable,” by reducing its reliance on petrochemicals or natural ingredients that must be grown and harvested, Kovack says.

Recently, the venture capital arm of L’Oreal put money into a San Diego startup, Debut, that, like Arcaea, is seeking to leverage biotech to create consumer products. A Boston venture capital firm, Material Impact, was also part of that $34 million funding round.

In an increasingly crowded and well-funded space, Kovack says, “consumers have never been more demanding, and are increasingly informed about the science.” Eking out a place in their morning routine requires money, evidence that a product works — and a little bit of magic. “Clever marketing and a pretty package,” Kovack says, “will only get you so far.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him @ScottKirsner.