Sip, sip, hooray

Houston entrepreneur makes a splash with wine-selecting technology

Houston-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Amy Gross wants to find you the perfect wine. In fact, she wants it so much, she built her company, VineSleuth, around the concept that technology and machine learning could find the best wine to match individual palates.

VineSleuth's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes. Flavor profiles from thousands of wines are incorporated into her database, and none of those are based on the typical wine scores you'll see in magazines or reviews of wines.

"We have a team that tastes and analyzes wines and inputs their findings. Then, we have a team that codes all of that data," she says.

VineSleuth's technology can be easily overlaid on a restaurant, grocery store, or other vendor's existing web platform or app to provide a tailor-made experience for customers.

"Take a grocery store setting for example," says Gross. "A customer logs into the store using their loyalty card, and their past wine purchases come up. Our technology can analyze those and point to different selections in the store's inventory they'll enjoy."

Think of it as using big data and machine learning to deliver big returns for wine drinkers.

Gross has been deliberate and incremental in how she's grown her company, and she just got a major boost: back in September, she won the 2018 Start Here Now competition, a combination business pitch event and incubator aimed at encouraging women entrepreneurs. She took home the $10,000 Silicon Valley Bank Grand Prize, as well as an app-design concept prize to help her improve the app she created, and a media and PR consultation.

"It was such an affirmation," she says. "To have them validate our work and my future plans."

Planting the seed
It was a slow and steady growth for Gross, who started work on VineSleuth in 2011. But her wine journey started before that.

"My now-husband asked me out on a date, and I'd just graduated college," she says. "I wanted to be sophisticated, so I ordered the house chardonnay. Well, after four or five dates, I started paying attention to what I was drinking, and I developed my palate."

She and her husband and friends of theirs enjoyed exploring wine together, and on a trip to Napa in 2009, Gross noticed something. All six of them were drinking the same wines — mostly Cabernet Sauvignons from Oakville — but they had remarkably different reactions to them.

"I thought, wouldn't it be great if there were an app that told me what I wanted, not what was 'good?'" Gross says.

While she wasn't sure then how to create such an app, she knew she needed to build up her wine knowledge. She started learning about wine in earnest and launched a wine blog. That gave her access to wine vendors and wine makers.

And then, several things happened in steps. Her brother-in-law wrote a basic algorithm that would collect taste profiles and other details from wines, but Gross needed something more. A neighbor who was an applied mathematician took that original algorithm and built on it.

"When I felt brave enough to show it, I shared it with the owners of some wineries I'd developed a business relationship with in the Finger Lakes," says Gross. "They loved the idea, and it turns out one of the winemaker's wife was a sensory scientist at Cornell. At every key place along building this business, it's been about relationships."

Still fermenting
Gross did create an app, but she admits it's not quite where she wants it to be, so she'll likely tweak it over the coming year. In the meantime, she's focused on the B2B future of VineSleuth. While she says the technology her team has created is currently being used for wine, she knows it's possible to take it and expand its capabilities to beer, chocolate, spirits and other consumables.

Building the business has been both an adventure and a learning curve for Gross, whose background is in journalism and PR. But even though she doesn't come from the technology or STEM side, she says her journalism work made her a great researcher – which is exactly what she needed to build VineSleuth. She's also a driven and detail-oriented project manager.

"My team once called me the den mother, keeping everyone on track," she laughed. "And in a way, I am. But I'm also watching the future of AI happening in front me and I really love hanging out with the brilliant people on my team. This is a blast."


Amy Gross is also working on a consumer-facing app, called Wine4Me, that helps users keep track of their favorite wines and gives recommendations for new wines. Courtesy of VineSleuth

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Building Houston

 
 

The latest Houston innovation news includes a name for the burgeoning Texas A&M University campus in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of TAMU

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks. From a Texas university naming its burgeoning new campus to a Houston SaaS startup with fresh funds, here are some short stories in Houston innovation.

ThoughtTrace raises $10M series B

ThoughtTrace has received investment from Chevron Technology Ventures. Photo via thoughttrace.com

ThoughtTrace Inc., a Houston-based software-as-a-service startup closed a $10 million series B round led by Canadian venture capital fund McRock Capital with contribution from Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) pursues externally-developed technologies and new business solutions that have the potential to enhance the way Chevron produces and delivers affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "ThoughtTrace fits that mandate with the potential to automate the complex, time-consuming, and document-intensive workflows required for our ongoing business operations."

ThoughtTrace's software quickly analyzes documents and contracts and produces results at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods. With the fundraising deal, Scott MacDonald, McRock's co-founder and managing partner, will join ThoughtTrace's Board of Directors.

"We are extraordinarily excited to have both McRock and Chevron join the team. McRock brings a great background in the industrial space, which we see as a great fit. In the case of Chevron, they went from being a new customer in 2019 to an investor in 2020," says Nick Vandivere, ThoughtTrace CEO, in a release.

"With the new capital raise, ThoughtTrace will accelerate its investment in creating AI with unparalleled speed and accuracy, grow strategic partnerships and platform integrations, and add to its existing team of talented professionals, all of which will bring further value to the growing ThoughtTrace customer-base," Vandivere continues.

Texas A&M names its Texas Medical Center campus

The new campus will be called Texas A&M Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

After announcing its plans for a $546 million medical complex in Houston's Texas Medical Center in February, Texas A&M University has released the name of the 5-acre campus rising at the intersection of Holcombe Boulevard and Main Street: Texas A&M Innovation Plaza.

The project will be completed in phases. The first phase, which will open later this year, is a renovation of an 18-floor building at 1020 Holcombe Blvd., which will to be the new home for EnMed, a dual degree program that produces both a master's in engineering and a medical degree.

"EnMed is just the first example of innovation that Texas A&M System intends to bring to the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza," says Chancellor John Sharp in a news release. "We are excited to have such a visible location in the Texas Medical Center."

Rice Business Plan Competition lays out virtual plans

The competition must go on. Photo via rbpc.rice.edu

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

  • Elevator Pitch Competition on June 17 (Open to the public): Each team will deliver 60-second pitches.
  • Round 1 on June 18 (Open to startups and judges only ): Each team will deliver 10-minutes to pitch to a panel of judges followed by Q&A.
  • Live finals on June 19 (open to the public): The seven finalists will pitch to the judges, and following a round of questions from judges, the winners and prizes will be announced.

Two health care educational institutions team up for new program

Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine have launched a collaborative medical track. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Louisiana's Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have joined forces to allow Xavier students a smooth transition into Baylor's graduate programs. Xavier students, including traditionally underrepresented minorities — according to a press release — will have the opportunity to apply for the program in November. Three students will be selected for the program, which facilitates acceptance into the medical school.

"Our commitment at Baylor College of Medicine to diversity and inclusion creates the best environment for success across our mission areas of healthcare, research, education and community outreach," says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. "This important collaboration with Xavier University will strengthen this commitment, and I look forward to welcoming students from this new partnership into the Baylor family."

Klotman continues to express how inclusiveness is a priority for BCM and for this partnership.

"We live in a world where healthcare is changing and evolving," says Dr. Anne McCall, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Xavier, in the release. "This partnership will further equip our students with the diverse tools and training that they'll need to foster equity in the medical field and compete on an international level."

University of Houston begins offering virtual tours for perspective students

Potential UH Cougars can get the 411 on campus via a virtual tour tool. Photo via uh.edu

Before COVID-19 sent everyone home and canceled gatherings, classes, and events across the world, the University of Houston was already working on a way for potential students to tour and learn more about the campus. Now, in light of the pandemic, UH has released this virtual tour offering complete with live interaction from UH student ambassadors.

"I'm really excited about the live component we just added because prospective students can ask questions just like during a face-to-face campus tour and that interaction is invaluable," says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of UH Admissions, in a release. "UH is so committed to access, and we see this as a great opportunity not only for students in Houston and Texas, but for those coming from out of state. We are opening up access to campus across the world."

Anyone can sign up for a tour online through the university's website.

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