At first glance, there would seem to be little overlap between algorithms developed for genetic research and the ways consumers shop for breakfast cereal, but Affinnova Inc., a Waltham company founded by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhDs, is making that connection.
In a recent press release, the market research technology firm disclosed that it was working on a project for Post Foods, which is known for such cereals as Grape-Nuts and Shredded Wheat, among many others.
The mission: How to redesign supermarket cereal aisles to provide store customers with a better shopping experience — and, of course, to encourage shoppers to buy more Post Raisin Bran and Shredded Wheat.
In the old days, Post might have set up mock cereal aisles and hired consumer focus-groups to weigh in with their opinions. But that was a time-consuming and expensive process.
That’s where the research of Affinnova founders Noubar Afeyan and Kamal Malek comes in. One has an MIT PhD in chemistry and biology, and the other has an MIT PhD in mechanical engineering. Using algorithms devised for life sciences research as a starting point, the two made changes so the algorithms could be used to evaluate consumer-products and consumer shopping habits, as well as to help companies come up with market innovations. Afeyan and Malek’s advances have qualified the new algorithms for six patents, said Affinnova chief marketing officer Jeffrey Henning, and they can also be used to help companies with everything from making decisions about product packaging to devising marketing messages.
(Flagship Ventures, a Cambridge venture capital firm that usually focuses on life sciences and medical device companies, has invested in Affinnova. Affinnova founder Afeyan is also Flagship’s chief executive and managing partner.)
Using its patented algorithms, along with Flash technology, Affinnova developed 384 potential cereal-aisle configurations for Post. Affinnova and Post were then able to simulate the experience of walking through supermarket cereal aisles for consumer focus groups. Consumers were presented with two virtual aisles at one time and asked to pick the one they preferred. By repeating this process over and over again, 384 virtual configurations were quickly winnowed to three, Affinnova said.
Affinnova calls this a “survival of the fittest’’ approach and says it’s similar to tactics used by life sciences researchers.
Affinnova won’t say much about the conclusions of the Post project — it’s all very hush-hush. But companies are interested. Affinnova’s client list includes such giants as Procter & Gamble Co., Pfizer Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Affinnova began the year with 88 employees, Henning said; by the end of 2012, it expects to have hired an additional 105 employees. In 2010, Affinnova reported $22 million in revenues.