At a glance
Winemakers, explains Jacob Manning, are scientists and engineers. And the truly epic ones are also great artists – “they’re like da Vinci,” enthuses the Winely CEO.
And increasingly, it’s the tech tools produced by Winely that the coterie of the world’s best winemakers are turning to in their pursuit of great art.
Dunedin-based Winely produces technology for real-time fermentation analysis – addressing a problem that, according to the business, the wine industry has been seeking to solve for more than 15 years.
Fermentation is the millenia-old process by which grape juice is turned into alcohol. A complex chemical process, involving thousands of different compounds, it also influences the quality and character of a wine – everything from its flavour, aroma and look.
Wine fermentation also happens quickly – taking anywhere from a few days to a few weeks – requiring winemakers to constantly check what’s happening in their fermentation tanks to ensure their product is developing on track and capturing the desired qualities.
Traditionally, this is done by drawing samples from tanks once or twice a day, which are then sent off for lab analysis and the results fed back to the winemaker to inform their decisions.
The problem is, in the intervening time the ferment has already moved on, meaning at best the winemaker is making calls on dated information or, at worst, fails to capture a problem before an entire tank of wine is lost.
A timely solution
Winely’s end-to-end solution combines Internet of Things – using sensors that sit in fermentation tanks and transmit data on what’s happening – with artificial intelligence and cloud-based software, which analyses and reports the data to winemakers, all in real time.
On average, wineries using the technology save around $200,000 a year through reduced labour and improved quality control. There are also significant health and safety benefits, with staff no longer required to negotiate high scaffolds to manually retrieve samples from massive tanks containing powerful ferments.
Manning co-founded Winely with CTO Abbe Hyde in 2017. Both had backgrounds as startup entrepreneurs, and had developed a piece of technology they thought could be used for gathering data during winemaking.
They approached winemakers to ask what kind of data they might want to gather, and were told that while accessing more kinds of data would be useful, timeliness and accessibility of data was more crucial.
The winemaking season is highly compressed, requiring many wineries to operate 24/7 for one-to-three months of the year. Winemakers are not only under intense time pressure to make decisions, but also don’t have time to gather and interpret data from multiple sources.
Manning and Hyde took the insights onboard. With support from a Callaghan Innovation Getting Started Grant, they built the first iteration of Winely, which automated the sampling process and offered some fermentation analysis, and trialled it at a Central Otago winery in 2019.
NZ’s wine exports have doubled in value over the past decade, now totalling $2 billion annually, but with NZ producing just 1% of the world’s wine supply, the opportunity is global.
Still solely focused on R&D, Winely has since developed its technology alongside the world’s best winemakers in NZ, Australia, California and France, where Manning says it’s working with “the second most influential winery on the planet”.
It is also working with the Australian Wine Research Institute, NZ Winegrowers’ Bragato Research Institute and California’s UC Davis.
“The reason we’ve had such amazing buy-in from wineries is that winemakers have been looking for solutions in this space for more than 15 years,” explains Hyde.
“One of the most gratifying aspects of building Winely is seeing the difference real-time data makes; we put our technology into a winery research facility, for example, and within an hour we’d detected an issue that could have killed one of their ferments.”
Growing the team
A major challenge for Winely has been accessing experienced staff, particularly technical winemakers, of which there are only a small handful in NZ.
Instead, the team has developed a process to train its own talent, particularly students supported by Callaghan Innovation R&D Experience and Career Grants.
Summer internships helpfully coincide with the business’ busy period over winemaking season. This allows students to work on R&D projects identified in Winely’s product development roadmap, and also help install the technology in the field.
“Then post-February, if we have a clear project for them to continue on with from an R&D outcome in the field, then we look to employ them fulltime in a research role,” says Manning.
Two of Winely’s staff of 10 have already joined the business this way, with another in the process, and a further two about to start.
Late last year Winely raised $2 million from venture capitalists in NZ, Australia and California, and despite working around the world, the founders are committed to remaining in Dunedin.
“Our Callaghan Innovation support solidifies our need and desire to be NZ-based,” says Hyde. “We were able to justify our position to remain in NZ, despite some pressure from offshore investors, due to the R&D support that exists here.”
Manning says the business’ next step is to grow its commercial team to offer its technology to wineries globally. But as fermentation analysis specialists, there is much larger potential to apply the technology beyond even the scope of the world’s 1 million wineries.
Fermentation is seen as a key process in unlocking the potential of many nascent industries – everything from alternative proteins to bioplastics – that are emerging to address global resource and sustainability concerns.
“These industries are emerging so quickly, and they need to be able to understand and pick apart the fermentation process,” says Manning. “Fermentation is absolutely critical to humanity, so it’s a pretty exciting space.”
Updated: 9 December 2021