First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Katerina Axelsson: I am very fortunate that none of my immediate family have been personally afflicted with COVID-19.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Tastry.
Katerina Axelsson: I paid my way through college by working as a chemist in the wine industry, where I noticed idiosyncrasies with how wine was made and then marketed. I noticed that a custom-crush winery could make a 10,000 gallon batch of wine and sell one half to one client, the other half to another client, and the same wine could be bottled, branded, marketed, and priced differently and would subsequently receive different industry scores from the same wine critic. I saw an opportunity to provide more transparency to consumers, and beneficial insight to manufacturers, by objectifying the subjective nature of sensory-based products like wine.
I obtained permission from management to run experiments and test my hypothesis after work hours and on weekends. Over the next 18 months, I analyzed hundreds of wine samples using a unique analytical chemistry methodology I invented. The chemical compounds were associated with consumer perception, as opposed to quality control (i.e., the typical role of chemistry in the wine industry). The data set I gathered was very robust, and I took my research to the head of the Data Science Master’s Program at Cal Poly. I scheduled a half-hour meeting, which became a 4-hour meeting.
The Professor cancelled his class and invited other PhDs into the meeting to analyze the data. Following that meeting, Professor Dekhtyar and I partnered and filed a patent for “tracking and predicting consumer preferences for sensory-based products.” Professor Dekhtyar is currently our Chief Data Scientist.
How does Tastry innovate?
Katerina Axelsson: Tastry is a data and insights company that has created revolutionary AI and analytical chemistry methods to predict how sensory-based products (i.e., wine, beer, spirits, beverages, fragrance, coffee, etc.) will be perceived by consumers and perform in the market. I founded Tastry in 2015 and now lead a world-class team of data scientists and chemists; we like to say, “…we taught a computer how to taste.” We have standing research and development teams in both analytical and flavor chemistry and artificial intelligence. The datasets we create are unique, and my vision is to use them to revolutionize and optimize every step in the supply chain for sensory-based products. Starting in the wine industry, we use our data-driven insights to guide manufacturers on what to make and how to make it, wholesalers on what to distribute and where to distribute it, retailers on what to stock, and who to market it to, and consumers on what to buy.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Katerina Axelsson: When the pandemic first hit, most of our contacts in the retail sector fell silent, too busy keeping water and toilet paper on the shelves to pursue previously scheduled integrations and deployments. We quickly pivoted and initiated our 2021 plan to expand our offerings to manufacturers. While it has been a struggle, we have managed to exceed our revenue projections for the year.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Katerina Axelsson: It is my experience that every entrepreneur has to constantly difficult choices, but the lesson that has been reinforced for me…“be flexible, and be open to otherwise unlikely opportunities.”
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Tastry in the future?
Katerina Axelsson: I exercise religiously and support my employees’ efforts in work/life balance. For example, at Tastry, we embrace the idea of flexible working hours and locations. While the business goals of Tastry come first, we strive to avoid structure for structure’s sake.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Katerina Axelsson: Tastry is a “white-space” company, and although we have not identified any direct competitors, we are aware of companies that provide services that are adjacent to our core value proposition. In every case where we have evaluated a potential competitor, we see an opportunity for a partnership. An example would be e-retailers of wine who have similar-looking “wine recommendation” quizzes used to recommend wine club packages sold through digital interfaces. Although the quizzes look similar to Tastry’s, the recommendation engine largely functions as a “tasting note filter” and does not use chemistry data to procure recommendations.
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