A taste of success for Penn State alumni startup Analytical Flavor Systems

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Jason Cohen, CEO of Analytical Flavor Systems, talks about the work his young company is doing, you can hear the passion in his voice.

The start-up, launched in 2012 while Cohen (B.A., Political Science) was an undergraduate at Penn State, stemmed out of his research on the flavor profiles of tea, conducted under professors Ryan Elias and Joshua Lambert in the Department of Food Science.

But Cohen had a data problem. He just couldn’t recruit enough tea tasters. “So I started gathering data on coffee tastings,” Cohen recalls, “but I still couldn’t get enough tasters. Then I started holding beer tastings — and I no longer had a data problem.”

Around this time, Cohen and co-founder John Dori moved their research to Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). Working alongside John Yen, they developed a software application that streamlines data gathering and analysis.

As Cohen talked to coffee roasters and beer brewers about their research, he realized he had a service that he could sell.  Analytical Flavor Systems was born. He made the strategic decision to postpone his integrated master's research in food science and machine learning in IST in order to develop his business.

The concept of Analytical Flavor Systems is simple: Trained tasters use a smartphone to record reactions to 25 different factors as they sip from a new product batch. The software, dubbed Gastrograph, collects an additional 600-1,000 pieces of data, including date, time, altitude and temperature. Everything is added to a database of tens of thousands of tastings, and then analyzed.

Over time, the researchers developed strong predictive models that help drink makers identify strengths and weaknesses in a new brew.  More importantly, Gastrograph recognizes when the production process missed the mark.

“Because the ingredients in food and beverage production are agricultural,” Cohen explains, “they vary in flavors, and can lead to inconsistencies.” That’s where Gastrograph comes in, providing early detection and correction during the production process.

AFS Brewer using technology

Over time, Analytical Flavor Systems researchers developed strong predictive models that help drink makers identify strengths and weaknesses in a new brew.  More importantly, Gastrograph recognizes when the production process missed the mark.

Image: Invent Penn State

Cohen credits the TechCelerator at Penn State for transforming their team into a true start-up.

“The TechCelerator was our crash course in how to sell something. How to make sure you are building something valuable — and communicating that value,” he says.

As they tapped the resources of the 10-week business incubator, Cohen says, “We went from a research group to a real company.”

Co-founder John Dori also took advantage of support from the Invent Penn State ecosystem — he participated in the inaugural Penn State Summer Founders Program, which provides grants to Penn State students who are working full-time on a start-up.

Now, Analytical Flavor Systems has big news: They’ve just completed their first successful round of venture capital funding.

Techstars, a prestigious venture capital group, and ZX Ventures, the corporate investment arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev, have both signed on to back the growing company.

What’s their secret?  “Our technology is more accurate that anything that has come before. We are able to help brewers update their production process in real-time to adjust for flavor inconsistencies,” Cohen says. “It’s ‘predictive manufacturing’ — and it’s never been done before.”

In a press release, Eamonn Carey, Managing Director at Techstars Connection, echoes the sentiment, noting that “Analytical Flavor Systems is working at an incredible intersection between the art and science of flavor and the rigor and analysis of quality data. Their tech and the team they’ve assembled is second to none.”

In the short term, Cohen is ready to invest in growth of operational capacity. The team is moving from State College to New York City, though Cohen says he’ll stay connected to Penn State. He plans to come back for Global Entrepreneurship Week, where he’ll give a talk to the community, and hopes to attend the College of Information Sciences and Technology’s Start-up Week.

The team sees big potential for the future. “We talk a lot about the personalization of products,” Cohen says. “We can use our data to help develop and select a product that is perfect for you — not only for your personal preference, but also for your exact time, place and moment.”

 And that’s something we can all raise a glass to.

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Last Updated November 14, 2016