Predicting what customers might want - especially if they've never bought it before - is an essential goal of any business. But it often seems more art than science.

Can Big Data finally shift that balance? That's the theory behind two start-ups, whose founders both say the Northeast is a great place to build a Big Data business, but who address the challenge from opposite directions.

Working for marketers, Newtown's Enterra Solutions says it can dive into data on consumers' choices, likes, and dislikes. By teasing out underlying preferences in categories such as taste and aroma, it says, it can enable a partner such as McCormick & Co. to more precisely target its pitches.

Cobrain, a Maryland company founded by a Philadelphia native, offers its analytical services free to consumers, although businesses benefit and pay the bills. Sign up on the Web or via an app, and you'll be invited to let it "discover" your purchase history by mining your e-mail inbox. With that and other data, it promises to be "your second brain" and lead you to products you'll "crave" at hundreds of merchants.

If all this sounds unsettling - perhaps like something out of dystopian science fiction -  you're not alone, but you may have little recourse beyond becoming a technological hermit. As recent disclosures have shown, it's clear that large stores of data will be a magnet for those with the skills to decode them, whether for national defense or profit.

Enterra and Cobrain both promise close attention to privacy as they take Big Data to the consumer marketplace. Each says you might benefit, so let's take a closer look.

Enterra Solutions. Visit the McCormick website, and you'll be invited to sign up for a beta test of FlavorPrint, based in part on Enterra's analytical engine. CEO Stephen DeAngelis says Enterra uses the tools of Big Data and artificial intelligence to draw inferences and make connections that would otherwise be beyond reach.

FlavorPrint starts by asking your likes and dislikes across an array of foods, drinks, and ingredients. Chamomile tea - thumbs up or thumbs down? How about coconut, blue cheese, hot sauce, or fennel and apple salad?

DeAngelis says a product like FlavorPrint can "do for tastes and scents what Pandora does for music listening" - discern broader patterns, perhaps ones you don't recognize, and make predictions of what else you'll enjoy.

DeAngelis says Enterra employs about 32 people, and he expects that to nearly double by the end of next year as more potential partners see the power of its analytics.

With other sources of Big Data on consumers - such as shopping records from retailers' loyalty cards or "likes" voiced via social media - Enterra can help with a wide variety of marketing and business decisions, he says.

"Cognitive-reasoning systems like ours," DeAngelis says, "will be one of the transformational platforms of the next 20 years."

Cobrain. Call Cobrain an analytics company, and you can almost hear founder Rob McGovern bristle. His second start-up - he sold his first, Careerbuilder, for $450 million nearly a decade ago - doesn't sell data. Instead, he says, it aims to "empower consumers" by letting them use Big Data tools.

You can try it at or via an iPhone or iPad app, as McGovern says more than 200,000 users have done since beta testing began Oct. 15. After some basic questions, it promises: "There are over 2 million apparel items sold in the U.S. Your Cobrain will discover the 10 you will love the most."

McGovern says Cobrain already counts more than 300 retail partners. It profits when you purchase an item it recommends, thanks to algorithms that he says learn "who are you, what are you buying, and what other people like you are buying." To avoid bias, it demands the same cut from every merchant.

McGovern, born in Chestnut Hill and a graduate of Neshaminy High, has big aims for Cobrain.

"Our goal," he says, "is to have the entire universe of products."