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

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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