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Purdue Spinout VinSense Brings Big Data to the Terroir

January 27, 2017

Although the juice of fermented grapes has been a popular libation for centuries, wine is having a bit of a pop culture moment.

Millennials apparently can’t get enough of the stuff. According to Beverage Dynamics, they quaffed 159.6 million cases of wine in 2015, while Baby Boomers sipped just over 114 million. And, perhaps inspired by the chardonnay-soaked “Real Housewives” ubiquitous on reality television—or maybe it was the 18-month, Bizzaro World version of the reality show otherwise known as the 2016 presidential election that drove us to drink so much—women now account for 57 percent of all wine consumption in the United States.

To keep up with the surge in demand as well as cope with the effects of drought and other environmental factors, new technologies are being incorporated into the cultivation of wine grapes to maximize yield and better manage the growing process. VinSense, a Purdue University spinout startup focused on wine tech, is one such company with an eye on the future of viticulture.

“There have been a lot of advances in precision agriculture on a large scale, but how do you turn that data into information that helps growers make better decisions?” says David Ebert, co-founder and CTO of VinSense. “Practices and feedback that worked before are not giving the complete picture anymore.”

Ebert says the company’s “decision support software” gives wine producers and farm managers real-time information on soil and crop conditions, allowing them to oversee irrigation and water conservation, pruning, canopy management, and other aspects of vineyard administration. The goal, he says, is to make wine-grape production more voluminous, efficient, and sustainable while reducing variability both within the vineyard and across growing seasons.

That variability is one reason why a successful vineyard involves complicated decision-making. A perennial crop, wine grapes are especially sensitive to year-to-year changes in weather; soil temperature and moisture; and other ecological conditions. Wine grapes are also typically grown in areas with “incredibly complex soil,” Ebert notes, which significantly affects both the quantity and quality of the wine that is eventually produced from it.

Crop uniformity is also a challenge. If there’s uneven ripeness among the grapes, some of the chemicals in the unripe fruit can create a disagreeable flavor that Ebert compares to green bell peppers; one small section of unripe grapes in a vineyard can taint thousands of gallons of wine, he adds.

VinSense’s software maps the vineyard and suggests where to place sensors to collect information about the crop’s soil and moisture. That sensor data is then turned into a dashboard of visual analytics, creating a more precise picture of what’s happening on the vines. Ebert says VinSense can also offer predictive analytics based on the sensor data, historical data, and physical models.

“We never tell anyone what to do, but we help them understand the data so they can bring in their own expertise to make decisions,” Ebert says. “The precise controlling of the canopy and water management make a big difference.”

Ebert, an engineering professor who also leads the Visualization and Analytics Center at Purdue and enjoys a hearty Zinfandel during his downtime, established VinSense in 2015. He initially targeted vintners in the Western United States that were dealing with persistent drought, which was complicating wine production.

Growers he talked to in California were concerned about the deployment of water resources and the long-term sustainability of the state’s wine industry, both economically and ecologically. They wanted a relatively inexpensive way to see soil variations on a map to assist with harvest decisions. Historically, those decisions were made by analyzing four separate soil samples per acre and plugging that information into a spreadsheet. The VinSense system automates that process, and wine producers can use it to monitor their fields from an iPad or desktop computer.

The seven-person company headquartered in West Lafayette, IN, plans to sell its technology on an annual subscription basis after an initial fee for set-up and map generation. The company is currently doing a large-scale test of its software at Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyard in Northern California, along with a number of smaller trials in the state. It is also testing its technology at Huber’s Orchard and Winery in Borden, IN.

Federal and state grants, along with support from Purdue, provided VinSense with its initial funding. Ebert says the company plans to go after a Phase 2 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant this year and may also pursue venture capital as it continues working to demonstrate the value of its software.

As for the company’s long-term plans, Ebert has begun to explore how grape genotypes and growing conditions can impact the final quality of the wine produced. (For example, can grapes be coaxed into expressing certain flavors like spiciness?) He believes the VinSense system could also be useful to growers of other specialty perennial crops, such as almonds.

VinSense is planning its “main launch” in the spring, Ebert says.