[Author's note: After the publication of this story, I learned that some of the statements quoted in this article about the purpose of Sweet Peach Probiotics were made in error. Please see the update at the end of this post and read my follow-up story.]
Freedom of speech. Freedom of assembly. Freedom to have intimate bits that smell pleasantly like ripe fruit.
Why have we, as a society, embraced these first two rights as universal but stopped short of No. 3? Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome, the male founders of the biotech startups Cambrian Genomics and Personalized Probiotics, respectively, think it's time we crossed that Rubicon--whether or not anyone was actually asking for it in the first place.
At the DEMO conference in San Jose, California, on Wednesday afternoon, Heinz and Gome outlined their shared vision and previewed plans for a new probiotic supplement that will enable women to change the way their vaginas smell. Called Sweet Peach, it will be made using Cambrian Genomics' DNA printing technology and financed through a campaign on the crowdfunding platform Tilt.
Sweet Peach will have practical benefits, like preventing yeast infections and other health problems caused by microorganisms, Heinz said in his presentation. But the ambition behind it is a loftier one.
"The idea is personal empowerment," he said. "All your smells are not human. They're produced by the creatures that live on you."
"We think it's a fundamental human right to not only know your code and the code of the things that live on you but also to write your own code and personalize it," he added.*
And why stop at humans? The other product Heinz and Gome are partnering on is Petomics, a probiotic for dogs and cats that makes their feces smell like bananas.
Cambrian Genomics has already used its laser-DNA printing capability to power another popular crowdfunded product, Glowing Plants, which raised more than $480,000 on Kickstarter. Heinz turned to Tilt for Sweet Peach because, he said, "we got banned from Kickstarter."
While Heinz blamed that decision on Kickstarter's being run by "a bunch of hipsters from New York" who "don't like supporting actual cool science," Gome clarified the situation to Inc. after their presentation, saying Kickstarter had instituted a ban on synthetic biology projects because they are seen as too controversial. "It just created such a big fuss. They didn't want to handle it," he said. "I don't blame them. Most governments around the world are having difficulty regulating this field."
He also offered a little insight into why two men had seized on feminine odor as the target of their entrepreneurial energies. "It's a better idea than trying to hack the gut microbiome because it's less complicated and more stable," he said. "It has only one interference per month."
The pleasant scent is there "to connect you to yourself in a better way," but it also serves as a sort of indicator to let users know the product is working. "It tells us where the protein is expressed," he said. "What, would you rather have it glow?"
Critical update: It turns out that Heinz and Gilad did a terrible job of representing the goals of Sweet Peach and its founder, Audrey Hutchinson, whom they neglected to mention during their presentation or my conversation with them afterward. Hutchinson was appalled at the implication that Sweet Peach is intended to introduce artificial fragrances into its users' vaginas. Please read my follow-up piece to hear her side of the story (and learn how Heinz's thoughtless mistakes cost him new investors).
*Correction: The original version of this post attributed a quote to Gome that was spoken by Heinz. I corrected the attribution after seeing a replay of their presentation on YouTube.