Digitizing taste communication: FlavorWiki innovates in flavor profiling

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02 Jul 2018 --- Health and wellness are of growing importance to many consumers, and hence to formulators and suppliers. However, despite recent shifts towards clean label and sugar, sodium and fat reduced preferences, one factor will always remain king within food and beverages – and that is taste. FlavorWiki, an online sensory and consumer insights solution, is looking to scale up its services within the ingredient supplier space to help industry bring healthy, sustainable, and above all enjoyable, food options to 1 billion consumers by 2024. Founded in May 2017 and headed by Daniel Protz (CEO), Paul Price (Head of Business Development) and Wolfram Willuhn (Lead Data Scientist), FlavorWiki’s online platform solution allows food suppliers, developers and retailers to create studies that capture insights focused on taste perception and preference (flavor, texture, aroma or mouthfeel). 

At its heart, FlavorWiki’s methods see tasters enter their responses into a smartphone, tablet or PC, with a machine learning algorithm subsequently processing responses to create comparable sensory profiles without the need for professional, trained tasting panels. 

FoodIngredientsFirst spoke with Protz about the company’s efforts to scale up its services, as well as what it has to offer to suppliers, both large and small, at a time when industry is seeing some major shifts and acquisitions.

Click to EnlargeThe start-up is currently garnering a lot of industry interest, which Protz credits to suppliers’ frequent need for consumer insights to support flavor reformulations, as well as FlavorWiki’s unique way of flavor profiling – cutting time and costs.

“We use a statistical method so the two outputs in two different places are comparable. You don’t need to rely on a trained sensory panel in both locations. Currently, when a supplier sends a prototype or formulation for customer feedback, the customer might say it’s too sweet, spicy or thick; these are all verbally based descriptions, and not very useful for the R&D team making changes. It’s relative and descriptive,” Protz explains.

“For the algorithm, people are only asked to distinguish between the intensity of two items. We found that 70 percent of consumers can understand intensity differences. In cases where we’re using wrong descriptive aspects or words, or when it may be too nuanced for a regular consumer to tell the difference; we see this in the statistics. We can then adapt this methodology to make it accurate,” he says.

FlavorWiki’s methods allow customers to give feedback which can be compared to all the sensory work already done by a supplier internally, paving the way for constructive R&D discussion regarding the changes to be made. 

“We call this taste communication: a standard communication framework for taste. This is a frequent supplier need, particularly in the brief and sales process” Protz says. “We are currently focused on optimizing the algorithms to improve our ability to build statistical relevance using just these simple inputs.”

Another critical aspect, according to Protz, is the company’s use of consumer-facing applications that can be delivered through a variety of digital channels including social media, mobile applications or in home appliances.

“We did some pilots with smart home applications where the appliance is dependable and generates data, allowing manufacturers to see what the user did: how long they cooked something for, for example. As long as the user follows the instructions, you can measure their perceptive input on the recipe and use it to personalize the individual’s experience: perception and preference,” he notes.

Following growing interest, the company is raising its first round of financing this summer to continue upgrading the user interface of its tools and will then focus on specific customer segments. 

“We have done a lot of successful work with many different types of groups, from retailers to ingredient suppliers and fresh fruit growers. For example, when you harvest your fruits, whether or not it rained the week before, many aspects can affect the taste. The comparability of the data allows us to track the taste segregation across the supply chain. Now that we’ve seen how different parts of the supply chain can use taste measurement, we want to focus on just one or two of them to scale up our first product,” he notes.  

Protz has been involved in the start-up space since 2009, mainly working with e-commerce. Compared to other tech industries, he notes, “innovation in the food and beverage industry occurs slower. And as one of the biggest industries in the world, it is well-established, but also fragmented and diverse.”  

Click to Enlarge“That diversity is one reason we believe it's critical to partner with our early 'beta' clients to develop the most scalable product features to support the industry overall. And we’ve been signing them up at an increasing rate since the spring. We’re also really pleased to have been accepted to the inaugural EIT FAN Accelerator that is supported by MassChallenge and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), together with a broad industry consortium of Nestle, Givaudan, Pepsico, Buehler, Strauss Group and many other commercial and academic institutions across Europe and Israel.” 

“Programs like this help us deepen our connection with industry and be sure we are building a solution that can support a sustainable, competitive and great tasting food supply for the future.”

The CPG landscape has shifted significantly over the past decade, with larger companies previously limiting innovative impetus among smaller companies. 

“However, when [companies such as] Amazon started to sell online, the sale of food and beverages also evolved. We saw more low-cost methods of marketing to boost brand awareness, [leading to] the proliferation of smaller brands,” Protz notes.

“At this moment small companies have the disadvantage of having less resources, but they do have the ability to implement formulation changes with speed,” he says. “These small companies actually innovate much faster but lack the background and professional resources, particularly in terms of formulation science.”

“This is of course an important reason IFF bought Frutarom; the well-established companies in the supplier space with real core competencies in the food sciences are trying to open up their services to the small and medium players.” he says. “It’s that small and medium food producer space that’s growing. The industry is at an inflection point; we are going to see dramatic changes that cause people to reinvent the way they work. There will come a need for more communication, faster innovation cycles.”

“There will be less time to implement formulation changes, but companies are likely going to need to do them more often as consumer demands are changing more quickly,” he notes. “Running taste and sensory labs is a well developed practice that will always have a place, but it is expensive, cumbersome and slow. [FlavorWiki can] help in terms of costs and speed, which can be useful for both big and small companies.”

The supplier space has seen a raft of mergers, acquisitions and regulatory changes over recent months, and forward-looking companies are bound to be looking for cost effective and innovative ideas to streamline their processes, paving the way for companies such as FlavorWiki to make their mark.

By Lucy Gunn

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