Bringing wine to light

Innovus Launchlab at Stellenbosch University is a hub of innovation, where brilliant ideas are brought to fruition. JAN VAN DER AHEE meets two men whose ideas can change the world in very different ways.

When Jan Thomas was stumped by the astonishing variety of wines available, he created an app to help him decide.

Ask Jean, an app that predicts your wine preferences 

UPDATE: The last time we looked at ‘ask-jean’ – the startup that is aiming to help you find wines you’ll love using AI,  they were building an app for your phone. A few exciting things have happened since then. Jan Thomas the founder decided to first release a web-app (a website that looks and feels like an app – that you access via your mobile, because they believe that it is important to build credibility and provide access to some of the functionality without having to download anything (you can follow this link to try it out for yourself – app.ask-jean.com). They have signed up a number of estates to pilot and test their platform, as well as Pulp restaurants – where they will be hosting AirBnB experiences for locals and tourists to try South African wines in Cape Town – to help them find wines and farms to visit and try. They are also hosting a couple of seminars to engage with the industry – the last one included Christo from WineMS, Berno from Revolute and Spencer Horne from CloudLine (whom they have partnered with to help wine producers test a vineyard disease image recognition & analysis solution).

Host your own wine tasting

If you love trying new wine then you will want to take note of what they are doing – they call it democratising wine tastings. ask-jean has now made it possible for people to run their own tastings and make a little extra. Customers can order a box for R500 (which comes with everything they would need to – from the wines to glasses and pairings as well as some fun activities in between the tastings). They have even set up the web-app to track the tastings and get customer responses. Its the perfect way to get people to try new wines, engage with each other and provide useful feedback for producers to use. All in all – we’d keep an eye on this start-up that is making waves by making wine more accessible to visitors and locals alike. Imagine what they can do for our industry when they start pushing for global usage!

Our smartphones are getting smarter by the day. They help us to stay in touch – or sometimes, to deliberately avoid each other. They alert us to the latest news and help us keep appointments. They know exactly how long it’s going to take us to get to work and can suggest which routes will get us there more quickly. And now there is an app called Ask-Jean coming that will help you decide what wine to drink. Ask-Jean is currently in the final stages of testing the accuracy of the wine prediction algorithm, and creator Jan Thomas tells us that they plan to have the app go live by the end of next month.

Most great inventions come from trying to find a solution to an everyday problem. Jan Thomas’s problem was feeling overwhelmed by choice after he was again confronted with a wall of wine at a liquor store. 

“I had a problem that needed to be solved,” says Jan. “I wanted to make sure I always drink great wine but I’m not a trained sommelier so I often feel worried that I’ll buy a wine I don’t like.” 

In a world where choosing a wine can be intimidating, the app Ask Jean brings a fresh approach. With the help of its algorithms, it can predict whether or not you’ll like a wine before you buy it. It also helps you understand the finer details of the Wine of Origin and how to recognise and read labels; it can even suggest food pairings. In the long term, it is also planned to be a platform for social communities based on their wine choice, among other things, which in turn could influence future buying patterns.

And it’s not only about wine; Jan tells us the app’s functioning also extends to other beverages.

“At some point, everyone has wanted to try a new wine, beer, gin, champagne, even coffee, but then wasn’t sure whether they’d like it. Ask Jean identifies your personal taste preferences based on our clever little algorithm called, you guessed it, ’Jean’, and suggests an option that works best for your palate.

“I’m always looking for an excuse to try a new wine, whisky, gin, champagne or coffee that I hope I’ll like, so I thought I might as well help others do the same.”

Using patented algorithms, the app develops a preference profile from the information you feed it; the more wines you rate, the more detailed the software’s understanding of your palate becomes. Then the next time you’re in a store standing in front of a shelf full of unfamiliar bottles, you simply scan a label into the app and it tells you whether the wine fits your preference profile.

If you sense marketing gold in the data gathered about consumers’ taste preferences, you’d be right on the money. Jan says the algorithms could be applied to any consumer product involving taste, smell and feel. The data gathered can show trends in consumers’ habits and preferences, which is supremely valuable for companies trying to understand their customers or gain traction within a new market. 

Today’s consumers are becoming increasingly knowledgeable and willing to experiment with wines, but as their palates are broadening, so their wallets are shrinking. Now, especially with so many young wine drinkers entering the market, it’s the perfect time for ‘Ask Jean’ to help them spend their hard-earned cash wisely. 

And while our smartphones can certainly help us to learn a lot about wine, there’s one thing an app will never be able to do for us: drink it.

UPDATE: Jan Thomas contacted us to let us know the app is now in beta phase and they have added some exciting features into the mix. If you’d like to try the app for yourself go to https://app.ask-jean.com/

With SolarTurtle, James van der Walt is bringing energy to people far removed from the grid. Each container based kiosk has multiple solar panels linked to renewable energy batteries. These can charge a range of devices in the kiosk or be purchased to provide power at home.

SolarTurtle, renewable energy kiosks for rural communities

The brainchild of CEO Lungelwa Tyali, chief technical officer James van der Walt, administrator Charlene Barnes and sales director Ursula Julius, SolarTurtle wants to empower female entrepreneurs in South Africa’s rural communities by creating a sustainable micro-franchising model based on the scalability and commodification of renewable energy. 

In 2011, James, a social entrepreneur and engineer, quit his job as a software engineer in Ireland when he realised he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life. Tired of hearing people complain about the state of the world, he decided the only way to make a difference is to take action. And if you want to change the world, the logical place to start is in the places that need it most.

The following year, he moved back to South Africa and founded Ugesi Gold, a not-for-profit business with the vision of putting access to power in the hands of the most vulnerable. He took this business idea to Stellenbosch University, where he researched the concept thoroughly. In 2013, he completed his master’s in mechanical engineering, specialising in renewable energy under Professor Wikus van Niekerk (now the dean of the engineering department at Stellenbosch University). The product of his thesis was the SolarTurtle.

Established in 2016, SolarTurtle is a social enterprise that designs and manufactures solar-powered energy kiosks that can be used by entrepreneurs to provide a self-sustaining source of energy to community members in rural and off-grid areas.

These kiosks, which have already been distributed to various parts of South Africa, have solar-powered panels that open up during the day to collect energy from sunlight. The panels then close up at night, locking themselves securely into the container.

“The SolarTurtle feeds just like a turtle,” explains James. “In the morning, when it is safe, the panels unfold from their secure location to feed on the rays of the sun. In the evening, when it is unsafe, they fold away into the hard shell of the container.”

Inside the kiosk are solar-powered micro-stations that are fitted with easy-to-use renewable energy batteries of various sizes. These batteries serve as an energy well from which locals can access this stored-up electricity to power their phones, lights and any other devices. The batteries can also be bought and taken home to provide instant power to home appliances. When they run out, they can be returned to the kiosk and recharged for a small fee.

“We hope that our energy kiosk businesses will bring light and prosperity to communities that are currently far removed from the grid. These shops create employment and supply locals with a secure place where they can charge their phones and buy energy-efficient products like LED lights. The kiosks are actually designed to cater for the basic electrification needs at high schools. One container can provide the power needed for e-learning and lights and also brings Internet to the community.”

SolarTurtle’s micro-utility franchises in rural and informal settlements are making a tangible difference for those who have been living in the dark. By utilising the sustainability of renewable energy and a simple franchise model, these micro-businesses can be started across the entire sub-Saharan Africa.

“We are trying to give grassroots people a stake in the future. The energy industry is changing: generating electricity for yourself is how it will be done in the future.”