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Jean Van Damme of ESTER: “Entrepreneurship is hard, and sometimes lonely”

One of the hardest parts is that I continuously need to balance my impatience with the things I can’t control. So I have to keep reminding myself that I need to be patient, even though it’s ok to be in a hurry. As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the […]

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One of the hardest parts is that I continuously need to balance my impatience with the things I can’t control. So I have to keep reminding myself that I need to be patient, even though it’s ok to be in a hurry.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Van Damme.

Jean Van Damme, co-founder and CEO of ESTER, found his passion for flavor as a child, which led him to a career in food science and retail innovation. This food engineer-turned-business consultant-turned-retail operations expert partnered up with business school classmate Didier Vanden Broucke, and machine learning engineer Frederik Durant to create ESTER.

ESTER is building the most comprehensive beverage flavor intelligence that exists today, an AI engine to understand flavor on a personalized level. Consumers use ESTER to explore their unique flavor preferences through efficient exploration, while retailers and producers use ESTER to increase customer loyalty and sales.. This integrative technology was launched in Belgium in 2018 by Jean Van Damme, Didier Vanden Broucke, and Frederik Durant, and brought to the American market in 2020. Through academic partnerships with the Verstrepen lab at the University of Leuven and Cornell University, ESTER has grown into a multidisciplinary team of scientists, data engineers, developers, and UX experts on a mission to use the latest science and machine learning technology to deliver innovation to the food system. Learn more at ester.ai.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I distinctly remember the role that flavor and the individuality of flavor always played in my life. As a 5-year-old, I was already very, very outspoken and opinionated about what foods I liked and disliked, and my mother still reminds me of that… My thinking has always been that only I can decide what I like, when I like it, and why. My curiosity about that never went away, and going to college I absolutely wanted to get into flavor and food science. After college I sidetracked into consulting for a while, but then ended up working in R&D for a large European grocery company. It was there that my love for consumer driven innovation really took off.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I definitely think moving to New York is the most interesting thing that happened to me. I didn’t plan for that, it was not necessarily a lifelong ambition of mine, but when I met my wife (she is from the United States) I decided to make that change. It truly inspired me to start ESTER, to take risks, to become an entrepreneur and follow my passion. The energy in New York, and the ‘can-do’ mentality made it an easy, even logical, step.

Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

We live in a time of abundance and choice, which for many people can be anxiety producing. From my background in retail, I saw this problem emerge even more for categories like beer and wine, characterized by an enormous variety. Flavor is both incredibly important and complicated for these products. Because a flavor experience is more than just what happens on your tongue — it’s a combination of senses, biochemistry, and a lot of emotions. We set out to help people navigate these choices, and have built the most cutting edge recommendation engine, backed by science, so people can shop and choose with confidence.

How do you think this might change the world?

The beauty of solving this problem for consumers, is that in one go it offers a ton of opportunity for producers and retailers. They are continuously looking for ways to dazzle their customer with new flavors and innovative products, but they lack the data and insights to make it easy to take risks. The consequence has been that we live in a world of food trends, which everyone is following (a good example of that is the India Pale Ale trend). In a world with ESTER as the independent source of Flavor Intelligence, producers and retailers have the tools and insights at their fingertips that will make it easier and less risky to innovate flavors and products. That will drive the creation of products that tantalize our senses!

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Well, we are especially conscious about how to apply Flavor Intelligence and AI for innovation. The same technology that can be used to drive this positive change, can also be used to drive consumers towards more of the same. I think we should all realize that AI models don’t just exist. They are built by humans, with specific goals in mind. As long as these goals are the right ones (think innovation, supporting small business, responsible consumption, delivering more sensory enjoyment and reward), we are on the right path.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

Doing my college coursework on wine, and gathering and analyzing all the sensory and chemical data points about these products, definitely piqued my interest. But this was 2006, pre-iPhone, pre-cloud technology or most mobile data. The tipping point for me was definitely when I saw data and consumer research about choice anxiety. That was the moment that I fell in love with the problem, which is key for any business. We are not in love with our product, we are in love with solving the problem. My realization that that problem was there, and it was large, motivated me to make the jump.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

We are continuously hungry for data — data about products, consumers and consumers experiencing products. So having producers send us their beer or wine for analysis is tremendously helpful. Having retailers integrating our recommendation API or chatbot in their website or in-store experience is key for our growth. As we gather more consumer and product data, the value of our Flavor Intelligence increases, which will have a significant impact on customer loyalty and make adoption to the rest of the food system more logical.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

We’re focused on independent beverage producers in our Early Adopter Program. Because the craft beer space especially is so conversational and collaborative, our direct-to-consumer marketing strategies are based on relationships that are just as important now as they will be when we scale. While this people-forward approach isn’t anything new, we do feel it differentiates us in the AI space.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been lucky enough to work with and live with some incredibly interesting people. The first person that comes to mind is my wife Alana. Having the full support from your family in this kind of endeavour is just so invaluable. It makes things easier, and keeps me sane and happy. A second person that comes to mind is a leader in my previous company. When I announced that I would move to the US and wanted to start ESTER, he asked me if ESTER is the thing that I wanted to bring into the world, and if I thought it should exist? When I said yes, he told me to just go and do it.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I feel like I should be very humble about my ‘success’ given where we are — maybe that’s my Belgian cultural background showing! I think the key is that we focus on being good to do good. My belief is that by bringing together good people around a positive vision for the world, solving a challenge that can create positive change, is doing our part. I wouldn’t say we’re perfect, but at least we start at a pure place.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

(Please share a story or example for each.)

I can’t reiterate enough: fall in love with the problem, not your product. If I had fallen in love with our first, consumer facing product, I wouldn’t be doing this interview. It was not the right solution, but it was the right problem.

Never delegate understanding (this is a quote by Charles and/or Ray Eames) — I want to understand everything about my business, and want everyone in our team to understand too. This is not a matter of micromanaging or lack of trust, but adding every team member’s personal perspective to the same problem is what we’re looking for.

Entrepreneurship is hard, and sometimes lonely. It’s not always fun, and working on something you’re truly passionate about is about the only way to make it work.

Design matters. We are all technologists and scientists, but the power of good design is so important — it’s not about just being pretty, but also functional. Designing UX/UI for the goal you want to reach, and using it to make your technology and science work better.

One of the hardest parts is that I continuously need to balance my impatience with the things I can’t control. So I have to keep reminding myself that I need to be patient, even though it’s ok to be in a hurry.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I envision a business world where the playing field is more level. So much value is built by small businesses that make amazing products, and do so with passion. They continuously fight an uphill battle because there are a few very large companies with more resources. We intend ESTER’s future role to make some of those resources available to these small businesses, helping them grow and thrive.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that has been relevant to you in your life?

I have for a long time used the quote in Spanish “Pase lo que Pase”, whatever will be will be. It is still helpful to let go of things, to stay sane, to not take things personally, and be positive in the moment.

I keep it in mind when I’m frustrated about something that is not happening even though I push for it with all my energy, or when I haven’t finished everything on my to do list. It reminds me that all that work will still be there in the morning.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

ESTER is the world’s first brand agnostic source for Flavor Intelligence. We combine data from beer and wine consumers, retailers and producers and deliver flavor based insights that empower decisions based on flavor.

With ESTER technology, retailers can improve customer loyalty by providing personalized flavor based recommendations and customer experiences. Producers can test new product ideas with real customer insights powering product development. And, consumers will be empowered to explore wine and beer (one day coffee, chocolate, cheese, and more) with confidence, based on their personal tastes.

Every VC that is interested in data-driven B2B flavor insights supported by sound science, should get in touch. We have an amazing team that is building a technology that has the potential to influence every consumer decision in their buying experience, online and offline. We’ve shown that we can do this, and we have a plan to scale it tremendously!

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