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Purdue-related startup to help wine grape growers battle drought

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Entrepreneurs at a startup that licenses a Purdue University innovation say their company could help grape growers and winemakers to optimize quality and yields in their vineyards while minimizing irrigation water use.

David S. Ebert, co-founder and chief technology officer at VinSense LLC, said grape growers face the challenges of maintaining long-term ecological and economic stability and sustaining product quality and consistency because of several key factors.

"One of the crucial factors is water availability, which also has a multiyear impact on the life of grape vines, which can be productive from 20 years to more than 100. Severe drought conditions and water stress in one season have an effect on fruit quality and vine health for several years," said Ebert, who also is the Silicon Valley Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue and an expert in creating interactive visualization and analysis decision tools. "Another important factor is the soil, all part of the famous wine quality concept of 'terroir,' which is highly varied and complex. Unlike crops grown in the Farm Belt, grapevines go very deep into the soil, sometimes as far as 12 or more feet."

Three Purdue professors have developed integrated technology that can help wine grape growers better understand how the microclimate, including soil temperature, water and nutrient flow and availability, affects the characteristics of their vineyard's high-value crop. The technology was licensed to VinSense by the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. More than 20 startups based on Purdue intellectual property were launched during the 2015 fiscal year. A video about VinSense is available at

The VinSense system comprises two complementary software components. The first set of algorithms generates a novel precision soil map that enables an optimal sensor deployment strategy to collect ultrahigh-resolution information about available moisture in soil profiles across the vineyards. The second assembles the information collected to create visual analytic tools, user-friendly enough for time-strapped farmers to use in the field.

Chief Enologist Christian E. Butzke co-founded the company with Ebert and soil mapping expert Phillip Owens. Butzke, a former winemaker, is the wine and grape quality expert at VinSense.

"We provide vineyard managers with continuous, real-time information about the distribution of soil moisture and temperature through a deep soil profile and across the landscape. The tools are integrated with other environmental data streams that monitor the weather, the plants and spectral imagery," he said. "We use innovative visual analytics to integrate high-volume data flows into actionable decision-making tools that have been collaboratively developed with end-users, growers and vintners. Anybody, these days, can fly drones over their vineyard, but making big data usable for farmers in the field and simplifying their day-to-day operations is crucial for new technology to be successful."

Ebert said VinSense will initially reach out to growers in areas where water availability and quality have become an essential problem, including California, Oregon and Washington. The company currently has several test sites in Napa Valley, California. VinSense plans to expand globally into markets with intensifying water and climate change issues, such as China, Australia, South Africa and Spain. Its technology also is applicable to all water-intensive commodities such as table and raisin grapes, almonds, walnuts and other perennial crops.

"VinSense provides software and data visualization to help growers better manage how climate, weather, irrigation needs, soil variation and their vineyard management decisions through the growing season will impact the value of their grapes," he said. "These can help our clients optimize their harvest decisions, fermentation techniques and blending strategies. We can help them predict, plan and get the logistics in place all based on new data, as well as their own historical data."

For information on other Purdue intellectual property ready for licensing and commercialization, visit For more information about available leadership positions, investing in a Purdue startup or licensing a Purdue innovation, visit