Good things brewing: Ottawa startup uses DNA analysis to tailor coffee to customers' tastes

Beverage Genetics
Ottawa entrepreneur Harry Koundakjian believes he's found the secret to the perfect cup of coffee. Photo courtesy Harry Koundakjian

A self-confessed java junkie, Ottawa entrepreneur Harry Koundakjian believes he’s found the secret to the perfect cuppa joe.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s not just in the beans ​– it’s also in one’s genes.

Koundakjian is the founder of Beverage Genetics, a startup he launched out of Invest Ottawa earlier this year. The company aims to create coffee blends with flavour profiles and caffeination levels tailored to each customer based on individual preferences that are hard-wired into our genetic codes.

It might sound like science fiction, but Koundakjian – who earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Ottawa and spent 13 years in the biotech industry – says there is plenty of well-documented evidence that our love or loathing of certain foods and beverages is baked right into our DNA.

“You know that somebody that hates cilantro (because) it tastes like soap to them?” he asks rhetorically. “(Similarly), my father-in-law hates Brussels sprouts. And I have no problem with them. Why is that?”

The answer, he explains, is based on genetics. 

Koundakjian says research shows, for example, that some people are more genetically predisposed to experiencing bitter flavours than others. In the same vein, he adds, some of us carry genes that allow us to digest and metabolize caffeine easier than others. 

According to Koundakjian, that partly explains the jitters some of us feel after one cup too many – or the shakes others experience when they haven’t had their full daily dose of double-doubles. 

“Based on that, you can really build a coffee that is suitable for someone that can break down more or less caffeine,” he says.

Online survey

The result of that quest for coffee perfection is Beverage Genetics, which plans to deliver customized bean blends to customers based on an analysis of their DNA.

Consumers first complete an online survey about their basic coffee consumption habits and preferences. Beverage Genetics then mails the customer a bag of beans along with a plastic swab to collect a saliva sample. The sample is sent to a local lab, where it’s analyzed to help create an individual taste and caffeine profile for each person.

Based on the genetic and survey data, the company then uses an algorithm to come up with a handful of recommended blends for each customer. All orders are processed online, and the beans are delivered right to the customer’s door. 

Koundakjian says he doesn’t expect every one of his company’s suggestions to be a hit. Customers might request a different mix of beans, and that’s fine by him.

“Your genes won’t change, but your flavour preferences might,” he says.   

“The point of it is to really build that relationship and iterate on the coffee flavour and the caffeination that you really adore. We don’t want to be in a position where we’re telling you, ‘Oh, you’re gonna love this.’ We want it to be a conversation.”

Koundakjian grew up in a family of Armenian heritage, where he says “coffee is a cultural celebration.” For years, he drank coffee made from bitter, mass-produced blends because he didn’t know any better.

“I was drinking it for the buzz, and that was good enough,” he says. “The problem was I was drinking probably the wrong coffee for about the first 15 years I was doing it.”

Once he discovered freshly roasted beans and single-origin coffees, he “realized that there was a whole new world out there in terms of flavour. I thought to myself, there must be a better way. There must be a faster way to link people with the delicious coffee that they can love – that they can really embrace.”

Koundakjian hit on the idea for his company a couple of years ago and completed his business plan in late 2019. Early this year, he took part in an Invest Ottawa mentorship program for health-tech startups, where advisers suggested he apply for the agency’s pre-accelerator program. 

The 10-week program culminated in early April with a rapid-fire pitchfest for a chance to earn free office space and mentorship at the Bayview Yards innovation hub. Although Koundakjian didn’t win best pitch, he did claim a prize almost as rewarding – the crowd favourite award.

The company is still in the testing phase, and Koundakjian is now putting out the call for customers to sign up on his platform. Meanwhile, he’s pounding the pavement looking for extra funding to support the bootstrapped enterprise.

Koundakjian is fully aware of the ultra-competitive nature of Canada’s $6.2-billion coffee industry. But he’s optimistic his customized blends will catch on, and he sees plenty of potential to expand the platform to tea, energy drinks and other beverages.

“There’s lots of things that are caffeinated,” he says. “We’ll definitely do our homework, and we’ll get into a position where we can do the same justice to different products.”