Banging his head against a brick wall for 18 months was time well spent, says the co-founder of a business now going global with a device helping winemakers perfect their next drop.
This is an excerpt from our weekly business newsletter Stocktake.
They’re smiling and drinking wine in the photo you can see above, but this isn’t a story about wine. Or about smiling. Mostly, it’s about three scientists stuck in a Victoria University laboratory on a hill in Wellington. That’s exactly where Brendan Darby, Matthias Meyer and Eric Le Ru were holed up for 18 months, trying to solve a problem that caused them constant headaches.
“I’d been knocking my head against a wall … in the PhD doldrums, wondering why this had all gone wrong,” says Darby. Originally from Ireland, he’d moved to Aotearoa to undertake his PhD, a research project involving a niche area in nanotechnology. In the most basic terms, he was investigating ways to get complex data from murky water samples.
Usually, that’s a very difficult, time-consuming process. Technology at the time wasn’t advanced enough to capture the super accurate readings he was after. “We were really struggling with a measurement [that] had fooled a lot of people for a long time,” says Darby. They were trying to find a way to “get rid of all the noise and … look at that process in a much more sensitive fashion”.
Teamed with Meyer and Le Ru, the trio were literally and figuratively wading their way through murky water. After months of frustration, they finally decided to approach their tests in a different way. “The first time we tried this approach we saw the data come out and it was beautiful,” says Darby. “It was amazing to finally get some clear data. It was clear, unequivocal results.”
Darby can’t be more specific about how they did it because it’s tied up in patents and IP. In the years since their successful test, the trio have turned what they achieved in their small lab into a business that’s now going global. Marama Labs is a spectroscopy company offering CloudSpec, a device about the size of a large laptop that delivers accurate tests of liquids that were previously thought impossible.
Initially, the trio weren’t sure who would want to use their products. Across a three-month period of research, they talked to pharmaceutical companies, wastewater technicians and brewers. That’s when they found their target market: winemakers.
CloudSpec can measure, with specificity, how a wine might taste, says Darby. This gives winemakers the ability to adjust and adapt their wines to suit changing tastes, and to keep a tight grip on quality control. “Is it similar to last year? Is it evolving? Do I need to make some changes?” says Darby. “If you know what the numbers are early in the production stage, they can [decide] how this wine is going to evolve.”
It’s taken off. Since launching CloudSpec three years ago, Marama Labs has signed up a number of local wineries, and a bunch in Australia. The team has grown to seven, Darby has swapped his lab coat for a sales jacket, and a few weeks back he moved back to Ireland to help spearhead moves into US and European markets. He’s targeting America, the world’s biggest wine manufacturers, where 10,000 wineries could use his product. “Things are really taking off in the US,” he says.
To speed this process up, Darby will soon be packing his bags to attend the Silicon Valley showcase TechCrunch Disrupt. With 10,000 attendees, including a who’s who of the tech industry and a number of potential investors, Darby can’t wait. “We’re bringing our New Zealand technology right to the epicentre of things,” he says. “We know we’ve got something world class here and now we’re putting Marama Labs on the world stage … I’m chomping at the bit for it.”