We caught up with Rogério Nunes Nogueira to know more about the spin-off WATGRID, a Portuguese company focused on the development of innovative technological solutions for the digitalization of processes in liquid-related industries. Based on IoT, WATGRID systems are composed of a Visualization Platform, Computing Platform with an Artificial Intelligence Engine, and Hardware (monitoring sensors).
Through the WINEGRID brand, specific for the wine industry, the company has been leading the digital transformation of the sector by delivering proprietary and unique solutions to the market. Its patented state-of-the-art technology enables a proactive and predictive approach to the winemaking process and is already being used by some of the most renowned wine producers worldwide.
The innovative character of the company has already accomplished several innovation awards given by the industry.
- Who’s behind the Watgrid project?
Watgrid was founded by me, Rogério Nunes Nogueira (IT researcher, University of Aveiro), and Lucia Bilro (IT researcher, University of Aveiro) , who was working with me at IT in the field of optical fiber sensors.
- Could you explain to us, in a very simple way, what consists of Watgrid? How was the idea placed initially and how did the idea grow until the enterprise that it is now?
I always had an interest in the process of applied research, that could lead to innovative technological products. With this in mind, I started a learning process: first with the COHiTEC program from North Carolina State University and, a few years later, at MIT Sloan School to learn the basics of technologic transfer and product development. The opportunity appeared in 2013 with an entrepreneurship program from BGI. I challenged Lucia to join me in the program with one of our prototypes for water quality monitoring. We won the program and the prize allowed us to start Watgrid.
As the project evolved, we realized that wine was better than water (how could that happen!). In fact, the wine market was more appealing because the buying decision could be done with less bureaucracy when compared to water utilities. It was the beginning of Winegrid, our brand for the wine sector. At that time, we were pioneers in the vision to fully digitize the process of winemaking, from the grape to the bottle.
- In the time-being of the project, which are the main advances you have registered?
We started first with optical sensors for water monitoring. When we moved to wine production monitoring, we understood that we needed to change to a different technology, because of the harsh conditions of the winemaking process. The new sensors, based on our proprietary Oenosensing technology, started to produce the most accurate measurements of the market. Nowadays, the solutions integrate seamlessly together for a completely remote and real-time monitoring system for different stages of the winemaking process, from pressing, fermentation or maturation.
- Watgrid was awarded several distinctions. Please tell us what is the main innovation brought by Watgrid and in what sectors of industry/society?
In the beginning, we won a few entrepreneurship awards. But the ones that really matter, given by the wine industry to our products, came a few years later. The main innovation we introduced to the wine sector, was our multi-award-winning Fermentation Monitoring System based on our Oenosensing technology. It allows measuring temperature, density, and volume in real-time, during the fermentation process, with state-of-the-art precision and accuracy. More recently, due to the high-quality data we were producing, we added an artificial intelligence engine to detect and predict, for the first time, winemaking events such as the predicted end of fermentation or any anomaly in the process. This was another innovation that was awarded by the wine industry.
- Could you explain to us what are the specific benefits of applying this technology to liquid monitoring: wine or water?
I dare to say that most of the industries benefit from having all processes digitized. By having high-quality data that can be used with advanced algorithms, it is possible to learn a lot about the processes as well as to detect events, predict the evolution of the processes, and reduce the effort in non-skilled activities, such as collecting samples. The data also allows moving from a reactive decision to a proactive one. In winemaking, this also applies. Note that the artist, the winemaker, is still, along with the quality of the grapes, the most important part of making wine. What Winegrid offers to the winemaker is an advanced tool to help them make the best decisions to create the wine exactly as they idealized. As an analogy, it’s like CAD for architects. They are still the same artists, but with better tools.
- Does Watgrid face any direct competition nowadays?
In the beginning, Watgrid didn’t have direct competition. Nowadays we start to see some startups, but also big industry stakeholders to start offering some digitalization solutions for winemaking. This is good for the company in the sense that there are others also explaining the benefits of digitalization.
- How do you figure out the future steps of the project/spin-off?
So many things… very briefly: we intend to continue to grow internationally and to continue to bring innovations to the market. That’s what everyone in the company is focused on.
- What’s the role of IT in the success of Watgrid, if so?
It all started with the applied research mindset that IT has, in general. The experience of doing telecommunications/sensors research for specific applications boosted our ambition to turn research activities into real products. In addition, a close connection between companies, research institutions and/or academia is always beneficial for all sides. The same applies to the relationship IT-Watgrid, where collaboration has happened, for example, when Watgrid subcontracted IT for an important aspect related to secure communications between our sensors and the cloud.
- Besides these points, what other aspects of Watgrid do you think are relevant to highlight?
I would say that the word “Resilience” applies perfectly to Watgrid. We started with fiber optical sensors for water monitoring. Then we needed to change in order to adapt to the needs of the market and turn to different technology and sector, but always with the same focus, which is to bring the best products to the market.