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In the Lab with Next Glass: a Lesson on the Science of Taste

Next Glass, often unofficially described as the Pandora of wine and beer, is an app for smart phones that purports to tell users – with a high degree of scientific certainty -- how much they’ll enjoy a particular bottle.  A week and a half after its November launch, the app boasted more than two-hundred-thousand downloads and some serious national attention.  But as is the case for many tech start-ups, the company won’t generate income until millions of people are using the app. 

A numerical rating based on thousands of data points instead of adjectives – – like “oakey” or “buttery” – is how Next Glass claims to take the guesswork out of finding the next great bottle of wine or beer. 

But before we get into the science behind it, let’s step into the office of Kate Brandis, one of my colleagues who has gamely agreed to download the free app and take it for a spin. 

“And I’m just going to log in using my Facebook account… and it says ‘let’s get started.’ …It’s suggesting Blue Moon -- which I like…”

Kate gives it four stars as she continues to rate bottles and build a taste profile. 

“Oh!  Okay, so I’ve rated on a star system about three different beers and three different wines and it says ‘You’re done.  You’ve rated enough to get started.  However, the more you rate the more we can help you discover…’”

The discovery process starts, according to Kurt Taylor, Founder and CEO of Next Glass, with a piece of equipment worth about a half-million dollars that’s roughly the size of a small copier.  A liquid chromatography mass spectrometer – known in scientific circles as a “mass spec” – is perched on the edge of a counter in the back of a second floor laboratory at UNCW’s CREST Research Park. 

Inside the machine, more than one hundred tiny amber vials of wine and beer metamorphose into a numerical rating on a smart phone.  Taylor is opening a small drawer which holds the samples. 

“The auto-sampler’s able to open this drawer, stick a needle into the top of the sample… There’s no oxygenation involved because of that.  And then it extracts the wine or beer, goes through a cleaning process, and then injects it into the chromatography portion of the instrument here.”

It’s like sucking liquid through a straw filled with silica, he says.  Then he goes on:  solvents are pumped through the sample to spread apart the different compounds.  Then nitrogen dries the sample…

"It’s then injected and spun very, very quickly and all the compounds start to fly off based on their molecular weight."  

It only takes about four minutes to tag and measure several thousand compounds.  Those compounds then show up as data points on a chromatograph a computer monitor – which looks a little bit…

"So it kind of looks like a seismograph and so you see all these different peaks and lines and each one represents a different compound."

And so the bottle of wine is demystified. 

Taylor says his tech start-up, incubated by UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, now employs eighteen people – three of them in the lab.  Part of the CIE guidance, says Taylor, included connecting his business to the right kind of investor at the right time.   

"We decided to go out and get lots of investors involved at a lower amount instead of getting one person to take it all out.  Our jobs, at that point, were to reduce the amount of risk involved in the company.  Most of our investors are working anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 into the company."

That approach allows the company to cast a wider net to capture investors.  And seeking only a few very large investors would leave the start-up more vulnerable if one person backed out. 

The company won’t earn income until at least the middle or end of 2015, says Taylor, when the company can start charging grocery stores, bars, and restaurants for access to its database. 

“If you’re a new restaurant and use our tools to pick an inventory that was suited to your geography, you could then say that you want to reach out to five hundred people that would love this wine in your area.  So then you can say, ‘I just added this wine.  Next Glass says you’ll rate it a 95.  Come in and try it and we’ll give you $5 off.’… Getting an introduction to new people based on something they’re going to enjoy is a no-brainer for a lot of them.”

However, says Taylor, Next Glass won’t sell users’ personal information. 

So back to the real world with Kate… Initially, Kate had only rated about 5 bottles…     

“Scanned a bottle of Guinness Extra Stout – dark beer – which – blech… No.  It gave me a 96.  So… that’s surprising.” 

When we asked Kurt Taylor about this, he told us the app doesn’t have enough information about her tastes… So she rated about 15 more bottles... and went back to the store…

“I just scanned a bottle of Layer Cake Shiraz – which is something I have tried before and actually kind of liked it.  The score from Next Glass was an 88.6.  So I’d consider that pretty accurate… I scanned a bottle of Red Stripe Jamaican-style Lager, and it gave me a 65.  I have tried Red Stripe.  I do not like it.” 

While the app may tell a user that it only takes a few bottles to get started, in our unscientific experiment with Kate, quantity was key in order to develop an accurate taste profile.    

Expanding Next Glass to sodas, coffee, and liquor is in the cards.  Eventually.  But Taylor says right now he’s focusing now on building his company’s valuation.  The best way to do that:  develop millions of users. 

How soon does he expect to cross the one million-download mark?

"[laughter] Well, um… that’s really tough to say… But we will definitely be looking to do that in 2015."


Listen to the short version here.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.