Spoiler alert: Phila. company making wine a little finer

Invisible Sentinel founders Nicholas Siciliano (left) and Benjamin Pascal in their office and lab at University City Science Center, which they expect to expand because of their partnership with Jackson Family Wines.
Invisible Sentinel founders Nicholas Siciliano (left) and Benjamin Pascal in their office and lab at University City Science Center, which they expect to expand because of their partnership with Jackson Family Wines. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 07, 2014

At Invisible Sentinel, a biotech company in West Philadelphia where scientists each day conduct the serious business of trying to ensure a safer food supply, this is a day for raising a celebratory glass.

Wine would be the appropriate libation.

The seven-year-old start-up in University City Science Center is announcing Monday a partnership that will broaden its focus beyond food - to protecting wine from what some consider a taste-spoiler.

The 17-employee company is pairing with Jackson Family Wines in Sonoma County, Calif., to develop a rapid diagnostic to detect brettanomyces, a nemesis to some vintners.

"Exciting for us," Benjamin Pascal, cofounder and chief business officer of Invisible Sentinel, said of the partnership with the wine company, founded in 1982 and best known for its Kendall-Jackson winery.

Jackson Family Wines is also behind nearly three dozen wineries in California, Oregon, France, Italy, Chile, and Australia. Its science director, Torey Arvik, heralded the partnership while acknowledging that, to some winemakers, brettanomyces - a yeast more commonly found in red wine - is an accepted regional marker.

"While some consumers and even wine critics would prefer wineries work to prevent the effect brettanomyces can have now that technology exists to do so, others enjoy that character in their wine and find it typical of a particular wine region," Arvik said in an e-mail. "Regardless of one's preference, technology like Invisible Sentinel can help winemakers identify brett - and then choose to include it or remove it as part of a stylistic decision. It is a powerful tool that only enhances the art and science of making world-class wine."

Actually, brettanomyces isn't the biggest problem. A by-product it excretes is. That's another mouthful - 4-ethylphenol - that causes wine to have a smoky, metallic taste and medicinal aroma.

"The fix is removing the yeast from the wine," said Nicholas Siciliano, Invisible Sentinel's CEO and Pascal's founding partner. Helping accomplish that is his company's new mission.

Invisible Sentinel has developed an easily transportable kit - it fits in a backpack - that allows for detection of brettanomyces without elaborate labs and scientists.

"We can train anyone to use the test in 15 minutes," Siciliano said.

It works much like a pregnancy-test kit, right down to a "test cassette" that displays two red lines when the wine sample is positive for brettanomyces, one line when it's negative.

If the test, priced about $20, proves effective at Jackson Family Wines, "we're going to partner to market it to the entire industry," Siciliano said.

There is sizable market potential domestically and internationally, he said.

"I won't say I've become quite the connoisseur," Siciliano said, estimating he made six or seven trips to California's wine country last year. "But it's amazing how much brettanomyces you can find in red wine."

Speed and ease of detection are the keys, both accomplished by Invisible Sentinel's test.

Currently, winemakers have two options: One involves outsourcing testing to a central laboratory, which typically is expensive (about $100 a test) and involves a wait of three to five days for results, Siciliano said. The other is less costly because it can be conducted at the vineyard, but requires a seven- to 14-day wait for results.

Speed is essential because the faster the yeast, which grows on the skin of grapes, can be detected, the less time it has to produce the taste-destroying compounds.

"Early detection allows for early remediation," Siciliano said.

Invisible Sentinel's test, called Veriflow BRETT, uses proprietary technology. The result of five years of development, Veriflow has been marketed for about a year to food manufacturers and processors and third-party testing labs to aid detection of such problematic microbes as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria.

That's a $1 billion market, fueled in part by implementation of the largest piece of food-safety legislation passed in 75 years, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2012, Siciliano said.

Then, Invisible Sentinel started getting requests for customized detection of spoilage organisms, including from Jackson Family Wines, whose representatives had seen an ad in a trade magazine.

"Brettanomyces can be found in fermented dairy products, artisanal beers, and fruit-based fermentations, because they [yeast] are ubiquitous in nature and can clean up after other primary fermenting microorganisms," said Jackson's Arvik. "However, Brettanomyces bruxellensis can be a global wine-quality threat because its contributions, like 'medicinal' aromas and 'metallic' aftertaste, can damage a good wine experience."

Pascal and Siciliano said Invisible Sentinel expects to reach profitability this year, with $3 million to $5 million in revenue, and to double its workforce, in part because of its wine venture. By summer, it plans to move into a 7,500-square-foot workspace one floor above the 3,000 square feet it occupies at the Science Center.

Though Siciliano, 35, of Marlton, might toast that expansion with a glass of red wine, Pascal, 32, of Philadelphia, might opt for something more amber in color.

"I'm a bourbon guy," he said.


>Inquirer.com

Company CEO Nicholas Siciliano talks about Invisible Sentinel's newest product, which is designed to benefit the wine industry. Go to www.inquirer.com/business


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466

@dmastrull

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