By Miranda Knight
Can computers taste? Cal Poly chemistry graduate Katerina Axelsson says so — and she has the data-backed artificial intelligence (AI) innovation to prove it.
While doing chemistry work at local wineries in college, Axelsson noticed that wine scoring was inconsistent and subjective, quickly seeing a need for more transparency in the wine industry and a better understanding of what consumers really want.
“I saw an opportunity to make the subjective wine scoring process more objective,” she said. “I figured that, instead of the 100-point critic system of wine scoring, the answer was in the chemistry.”
So, Axelsson went straight to the lab, where she spent two years innovatively testing wine as a human would taste it, rather than simply for quality control like a typical lab.
By the end of this, she had gathered a mass of data that needed processing, so she set up a meeting with Alex Dekhtyar, the head of the computer science master’s program. The proposed thirty-minute meeting ended up lasting four hours, landed her a business partner in Dekhtyar and was the start of her entrepreneurial journey.
“Around that time, I joined the HotHouse Summer Accelerator for a sort of similar product idea, a wine tasting kit that educated people about wine,” she said. “After that, I went into the HotHouse Incubator where we started getting data from the recommender deployments. That’s kind of when the wheels started turning.”
Thus, Axelsson pivoted her concept and turned it into Tastry, the technology-driven AI company she is the CEO and founder of today.
“The data we were gathering on consumer preferences was unprecedented and led us to build an insights dashboard, like a software product,” she explained. “Now we’re in the business of not only telling consumers what to buy, but telling retailers what to stock and wineries what to make and where to sell it.”
During Tastry’s two years in the incubator until its 2017 graduation, and for some time after, the team fully dove into B2B technology to vertically integrate into the wine industry. Now, they have released their BottleBird app and have plans to launch “Powered by Tastry” software on e-commerce wine websites to keep in touch with consumers.
But while the startup has a history of upward success, Axelsson says that it hasn’t always been easy to be seemingly “selling a rocket ship when people were only looking for a faster horse.”
“We’re making some pretty big claims,” she said. “To say that we can predict how a product will perform in the market just based on the chemistry is almost not believable. And I couldn’t just say this is faster and better and cheaper than what the industry was already using because there’s nothing out there like it. I had to really gain customer trust.”
However, Axelsson confidently utilizes efficacy tests to show, rather than tell, that there is validity in Tastry’s technology. Not to mention, Tastry has no shortage of customers on the Central Coast.
“San Luis Obispo [County] is the perfect environment for this type of company because we’re directly embedded into the wine industry, with the added benefit of being right next to Cal Poly which has a lot of talent to pull from,” Axelsson noted. “Plus, having access to the CIE helped surround me with an incredible network of like-minded people, mentors and investors.”
With that being said, Axelsson doesn’t plan on moving Tastry out of San Luis Obispo anytime soon — there’s still so much opportunity to tap into and plenty of local wine for her computers to taste.