Originating from a bachelor’s thesis, the novel Air Up scent-flavored hydration system comprises a custom-engineered, refillable water bottle and flavor pods that transmit flavor through scent, for a zero-calorie, zero-sugar beverage without additives. In June 2022, Air Up expanded beyond its European roots, launching in the U.S., with support from investors that include PepsiCo, Ashton Kutcher, and Guy Oseary.
“The idea for Air Up first formed in 2016 when my co-founder, Tim Jäger, and I were working on our bachelor’s thesis, ‘Neuroscience meets Design,’ analyzing one of the greatest social problems of our time: unhealthy nutrition,” relays Air Up co-founder and Chief Evangelist Lena Jüngst. “We knew hydration was essential for supporting our overall health and wellbeing, and most of us vastly underestimate how much we actually need. In fact, according to the National Library of Medicine, 75% of Americans remain chronically dehydrated. With Air Up, we saw an opportunity to inspire change and delight the world with revolutionary and exciting scent-based taste experiences.”
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According to Jüngst, just 20% of what we perceive as taste comes from our taste buds; approximately 80% actually comes from our olfactory receptors, where the brain interprets scents as flavor (as opposed to smell). Science calls this concept “retronasal smell,” which, in layman’s terms, translates to tasting with the nose. The Air Up system transports the pod’s scents through the mouth, triggering said effect—so the body sips plain water, while the brain “tastes” flavor.
The reusable, 22-oz Air Up bottle is made from Eastman’s Tritan BPA-free copolyester, with the mouthpiece that holds the pods and a strap for carrying made from silicone. According to Jüngst, the proprietary design of the Air Up system is what makes the experience so innovative. “The bottle is expertly engineered with a tilt to allow each sip to transport carefully crafted flavors from our flavor pods in the water through the mouth all the way to your olfactory receptor, where your brain perceives the smell as taste,” she explains. “The air bubbles are the ‘flavor transmitters’ that help you taste the flavor of your pod.”
The pods are in the shape of a ring and are made from polypropylene. Pod flavors are supplied by a scent manufacturer that extracts them from natural products such as fruits, spices, or herbs. Air Up’s scent creation team then uses these ingredients to produce a range of diverse flavors. The flavors, in the form of a liquid, are then applied to a non-woven carrier material within the pod. To activate the flavor, consumers slide a pod onto the mouthpiece of the refillable Air Pod bottle. Each pod is crafted to flavor approximately 1.3 gal of water.
Pods are sold in a three-count flexible Doypack-style pouch with a resealable zipper. Each of the pods inside is covered with a removable film lidding that acts as a protective layer over the pod and conserves the flavor to ensure the scent-flavored experience functions properly and lasts as long as possible. Once the freshness seal is removed, the pod will retain optimal flavor for around seven days.
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In addition to providing consumers with a healthy hydration system, Air Up also provides a more sustainable packaging system. One Air Up bottle and a three-count pack of pods is equal to around four gallons of flavored water. This represents the equivalent of 30 single-use 16.9-oz plastic bottles, Air Up notes. “Doing the math, it’s 88% less plastic—a pack of three pods represents 35 grams compared to around 300 grams for 30 16.9-ounce bottles,” it says.
The Air Up system originally launched in Germany in 2019 and quickly spread to nine other European countries, reaching more than 2 million consumers and eliminating up to 130 million single-use plastic bottles and 2,600 tons of sugar. To date, the 300-person company has raised more than $60 million dollars in capital, which has been used to accelerate expansion across Europe and into the U.S.
According to Jüngst, to manufacture the pods, Air Up has invested in highly automated, proprietary equipment that will become operational by year-end 2022 at a facility in the Netherlands.
Air Up is available in 14 flavors, from classics like Lemon and Cucumber to layered options like Orangeade and Mango-Passion Fruit, with more varieties on the way. The bottles—in a range of color options—as well as the flavor pods are sold on the Air Up website, with prices starting at $39.99 for a starter set that includes a bottle and a three-pack of pods. A standalone pack of pods ranges in price from $7.99 to $12.99, depending on flavor.
“Having a direct-to-consumer first approach as our primary sales channel has many advantages and, most importantly, allows us to connect with consumers most effectively,” says Jüngst. “We love having a direct line to our community and will continue to evaluate the best ways to sell and distribute Air Up moving forward.”