Stinky cars — everyone knows them. We’ve all stepped inside vehicles with a lingering scent of cigarette smoke, a forgotten banana peel or other olfactory nastiness.

Car dealers and rental agencies typically spray perfume or air freshener to mask offending smells. But about 30% of people don’t like the smell of perfume. Many others are allergic to various scents.

Israeli startup Moodify aims to replace the pine-scented car fresheners that hang from the rear-view mirror. Its high-tech approach is based on a decade of neurobiology research at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

Moodify has an exclusive licensing agreement with the Weizmann Institute to commercialize the university’s olfactory research in order to mass produce a variety of “active scent” products.

The company’s first product, Moodify White, eliminates perceptions of bad odors by temporarily affecting how the brain interprets smell. It confuses the brain with custom scents in the same way that a white-noise machine dulls unpleasant sounds by saturating the space with a neutral audio background.

Moodify CEO Yigal Sharon explains to ISRAEL21c that Moodify White generates a small number of molecules “that transmit to the brain a different smell, so that the odor molecules won’t be recognized at all.”

Moodify’s small device for the car “diffuses scents passively, not with electricity,” Sharon says. The device could be located underneath the seats or in the ventilation system.

Dollars and sense

Foul smelling cars are not just an annoyance. “It affects the price if a car smells stale or damp,” Sharon says. “Those cars will be stuck on the lot and dealers lose a lot of money. We can correct this problem, so the car has a higher value.”

Sharon envisions a “razor blade model” for Moodify’s business. A dealer, automotive parts supplier or manufacturer will install the diffusion unit in the car at a cost of under $50, Sharon says. The customer will receive 12 cartridges to last through the first year. After that, car owners can buy replacement cartridges like shavers buy razor blades.

Ultimately, Moodify hopes to improve its technology so that each cartridge will last up to a year. “You’ll replace them when you take the car in to be serviced,” Sharon says.

Dealers and rental-car agencies in America won’t get their hands on the product until the January 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Moodify’s initial public demonstration of the technology took place in September at the German Automotive Industry’s trade show in Frankfurt, as part of a collaboration with automotive supplier Valeo.

Sharon says Moodify hopes to start selling its device to partners by April of next year. Eventually, consumers may be able to buy their own Moodify White system.

Sharon says the company is already talking to hotels and hospitals, where cigarette and other odors abound. But cars are where the money is.

In October, Toyota AI Ventures joined a $1.6 million round in Moodify led by Israel-based Next Gear Ventures. Moodify has raised a total of $2.3 million in the two years since the company was established.

Founded by psychologists

Moodify CEO Yigal Sharon. Photo: courtesy

Moodify’s roots might surprise you: Sharon and his cofounder, Yaniv Mama, are not car buffs. They’re both psychologists with expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

They were looking for a way “to teach empathy, a part of CBT, as a computer algorithm,” explains Sharon. “Our initial idea was to create things that will improve the psychological well-being of human beings.”

Sharon and Mama began studying the most effective ways to manipulate human emotions for the better, and smell rose to the top.

“Smell is connected directly to the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain,” Sharon explains. “Other senses have different pathways. Smells can affect emotions in a much cleaner way. As soon as we realized the potential, we dropped the computer and moved to scents.”

Sharon’s history as a psychotherapist suggests that there’s more to Moodify than “white noise” and scent neutralizing.

A second product in development, Moodify Red, will be designed to wake you up “100% of the time. It can save your life,” Sharon says.

He points out that car manufacturers have long been searching for ways to detect if you fall asleep at the wheel, coming up with such high-tech approaches as pressure sensors and cameras.

“But all the car can do today is sound an alarm. And 40 percent of people won’t even hear it because they’re asleep!” Sharon notes. “Others might wake up from the alarm and fall asleep again.”

But if an “empathetic car” were to sense you’re nodding off, it could blast out a bracing dose of Moodify Red.

It’s not a nice scent, Sharon admits. “It’s like drinking something really cold. You get a brain freeze. But it will wake you up, even if you’re sleep deprived.”

Other Moodify products in development include the alertness-promoting Green – “like Red Bull with no side effects,” Sharon says – and Blue, which could reduce stress and aggression and improve sleep quality.

Moodify has been a part of Capsula, an accelerator from Tel Aviv University and the Israeli government; the DriveTLV Innovation Center for Smart Mobility; and the Renualt-Nissan Mitsubishi Alliance, which is located within the TLV CityZone, where Moodify has its offices.

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