The sweet smell of success

Article Date: May 18, 2016

Story by Ian Coutts. Photo courtesy of Garrett Elliott Photography.

Thanks to a host of Kingston-based organizations in the business of supporting innovation, fragrance entrepreneur Will Yin and his partners may soon be enjoying the sweet smell of success.

Yin is the Chief Executive Officer of Scent Trunk, an ecommerce startup that sells personalized fragrances direct to the public. The idea got its start in May 2014 when Yin (who had just finished a mining engineering degree at Queen’s) and some fellow students were part of Queen’s Innovation Connector Summer Initiative, an intensive program for would-be entrepreneurs. As penniless students, says Yin, “We wondered: what can we start that costs no money?” 
Looking around, they quickly settled on fragrance. Because of the number of middlemen involved, between perfumer and customer, the markups on scent are very high. If they could cut out a lot of these, they reckoned, they could sign up subscribers to their service and sell scent directly to people for much less. No one else was doing it.

Yin and company quickly discovered why. With fragrance, “If you send someone something they don’t like they are going to cancel you.”

“Then we thought, I’m an engineer, and there is so much research on scent out there, can we develop some sort of engine that custom builds the experience for them?” He and Scott Grant, Scent Trunk’s chief technology officer who holds a PhD in machine learning and data science, created a database incorporating, he says, “every fragrance ever made – all the ingredients, all the notes, all the concentrations.” New customers fill out a questionnaire saying what they like, and Scent Trunk will create it for them. Over time, the customer can refine their preferences further, and Scent Trunk can blend them a fragrance that matches these, potentially something unique.

Today, after about a year and a half in business, Scent Trunk has grown to nine employees, and is about to begin raising its all-important seed round of funding. From its simple beginnings to this key milestone has been a long haul, and Yin is quick to thank the Kingston innovation partners for their help.
“Rick Boswell [Assistant Director at Innovation Park] got us some extra lab space. We wouldn’t be able to operate right now without that. As a student business, you can’t get a loan from the bank, so you can’t rent anywhere.”

“Launch Lab has been really helpful, too,” he says. “Sam Khan and Scott Runté are our mentors. We update them on what is going on, and they help with the mental burden – it’s actually quite stressful doing a startup so it’s good to talk to someone who has been through the whole thing before.” Scent Trunk has also been able to secure funding through the NRC’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, co-located at Innovation Park.

“Everyone has been really helpful,” he says. “When you are a startup it’s going to get messy and a little disorganized. They have definitely been there to help us out.”