Friday, May 23, 2008

High-Tech Wine Cap Design

A design for a high-tech closure for wine bottles that would allow the wine to breathe much like traditional bark corks won the $15,000 first prize in the annual Big Bang! Business Plan Competition at the University of California, Davis. The contest is run by students in the Graduate School of Management.

The screw-cap concept, which could help prevent some $10 billion worth of wine from being ruined every year by cork taint, will compete next on May 28 at the Draper Fisher Jurvetson Venture Challenge in Palo Alto, Calif. The challenge pits the UC Davis team against the winners of business plan competitions at 15 other top west coast business schools. The prize: $250,000 in start-up funding.

"These students are trying things that more experienced people might say shouldn't be done," said Scott Lenet, managing director of DFJ Frontier and a volunteer judge for this year's Big Bang! Business Plan Competition. "That's why these business plan competitions are so important. These are the people who will create the next Microsoft, the next Amgen."

In addition to the first-prize-winning cork concept, a $5,000 second prize and $3,000 "people's choice" award -- selected by audience vote -- went to the same team: Arcus. Led by second-year MBA candidate Matt Vogel, who has had diabetes since adolescence, the team is developing technology that would allow people with diabetes to test their blood sugar levels by blowing into a small handheld device -- a pain-free alternative to current glucose monitoring, in which patients must prick their fingers to draw a blood sample two to eight times a day.

The Big Bang! competition, founded in 2000 by students at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, is designed to reward innovation at UC Davis and encourage entrepreneurship in the region at large. Previous winners and finalists have gone on to form such companies as Bloo Solar, Instant Effects and Improved Converters.

This year's Big Bang! awards were announced on campus Wednesday evening, following presentations of the five finalists' plans. The event drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 275 people at a ballroom at the Activities and Recreation Center.

The high-tech wine cap was developed by MBA student Tim Keller, a UC Davis viticulture and enology alumnus who worked for 10 years as a winemaker in Sonoma and Napa counties before enrolling in the Graduate School of Management, and his teammates, Kevin Chartrand and Diana Mejia. Chartrand, a fellow MBA candidate with an undergraduate degree in materials science, worked as a thin-film expert at IBM. Mejia, a former engineer for Anheuser-Busch, is earning a master's degree in food engineering at UC Davis.

Their team, Advanced Enological Closures, set out to design a better bottle cap because cork taint, a byproduct of a fungus that infects cork and makes wine smell like moldy mop water or sweaty gym socks, now contaminates the corks of an estimated one in 20 wine bottles on store shelves, ruining billions of dollars of wine annually. Although synthetic corks have been developed in response to the problem, they allow too much oxygen into the bottle, according to Keller. Overly oxidized wine has a shorter shelf life and can develop a fingernail-polish odor. Screw caps -- another alternative to bark corks -- are a viable option for wine white, but do not allow in enough oxygen for fine red wines, Keller said. Without enough oxygen to draw on, red wines start to smell like burned rubber or matchsticks as they age.

The team's design, a "breathing screw cap," has small vent holes and is fitted with a liner made of alternating layers of thin metal and a porous polymer. The liner can be customized to allow optimal oxidation for specific varietals, something that is impossible with bark corks. A patent is pending for the design.

"If you open up lots of bottles of the same wine, you'll notice variability from bottle to bottle because of differences in the amount of oxygen that gets in," Keller said. "With cork, you just never know. Our product will give a level of control that the wine industry has never had."

The cap would sell for 20 cents a unit -- or 10 to 11 cents per unit less than cork-and-foil closures, and only 5 cents more per unit than ordinary screw caps and synthetic corks, according to the team's projections.

UC Davis News