Shireen Yates was sick of being sick. After countless shifts in diet and lifestyle, she learned she had multiple food allergies and intolerances. Dining out and grocery shopping became daunting chores that eventually motivated her and her 6SensorLabs co-founder Scott Sundvor to develop Nima, a device that rapidly tests food for allergies. Thanks to their prototype, diners can now know what’s in their food in under two minutes and without the stomach ache.
We’re excited to welcome Nima to New York next month for our first ever Food Loves Tech conference. They’ll exhibit alongside other food and tech innovators and thought leaders including José Andrés, Marcus Samuelsson, Gary Vaynerchuk, Google and a whole host of other businesses. Want to see, touch, taste, smell and hear the food future in person? Get $15 off the regular ticket price with the code EDIBLEFLT! Coming in a group? You can also get two tickets for $75 with code FLT2FOR1 and reserve four tickets for $100 with code FLTGROUP4. See you there!
Edible Manhattan: Your company specializes in technology that helps consumers identify potential allergens in their meals. How did you decide to work in this area?
Shireen Yates: Ten years ago, I got really sick and no one knew why. I suffered from intestinal pain but couldn’t pinpoint what it was that was making me ill. Through trial, error and a lot of tests, I was diagnosed with tons of food intolerances. I have to avoid gluten, soy, wheat and dairy. Naturally, I became increasingly aware of the food I was consuming because it was no longer just for fuel but a medicine to what ailed me. I learned to travel with “safe” snacks in my bag because I didn’t really trust what was available outside of my kitchen.
One weekend, I went to a wedding and didn’t bring my usual snack pack with me. When ordering my entree, the waitress asked me “How allergic are you?” and it dawned on me that there has to be a way we can rapidly and discreetly test foods to ensure their allergen safety. Lab tests take weeks, so I wanted to develop a test that a consume can use at a table that takes about two minutes. That’s how our first product, Nima, was born.
EM: What a fantastic idea. I’ve found myself in a similar boat often, not knowing exactly what foods bother me and to what degree. Plus the claim of being allergen free versus the reality is not always aligned.
SY: It’s true! Sometimes restaurants will change purveyors or their distributors may substitute one product for another, not considering what the switch may involve for consumers. The device not only tests food in about two minutes but also uploads the information to a database which users can access if they’re visiting a restaurant and see how recently dishes were tested and if their menu claims match the product.
EM: How does the device work?
SY: The short explanation is it’s like a pregnancy test for food. There are two parts to the device: a sensor and a disposable unit. The disposable unit is essentially a compressed lab; it has all the chemistry in it. The user takes a very small sample of their food and places it in the disposable capsule which is then put into the sensor. From there, the sample is mixed, ground and placed against a strip that tests for antibodies. The device will then tell the user if any gluten is found.
As I mentioned, the device is also connected to a shared database accessible to other Nima users via a mobile app. It’s great for a single user to know in the moment what’s in their food but the opportunity then share this information will create a strong network of eaters and will hold restaurants accountable for how they’re describing their menu items.
EM: It sounds so simple and is hard to imagine a device like this didn’t already exist.
SY: You’re right. I often wonder why now and not earlier? There’s definitely an increased demand among consumers for allergy testing. We’re increasingly aware of how food affects us. There’s also been a 50 percent increase in food allergies and intolerances over the year, partially due to increased prevalence and partially increased awareness. There have been systems and solutions within the market for food manufacturers to check for allergens and we’ve accepted that it’s enough. But now we’re giving consumers the power to check their food quickly. This kind of technology has become faster and less expensive to create.
EM: Aside from knowing results shared by consumers, how can the restaurants benefit from Nima?
SY: We’re not here to Yelp-shame anyone. We know restaurants that say they offer allergen-free items really do put a great deal of care into what they are feeding people. There’s a restaurant in San Francisco that uses the device every time they get new product in or simply to check that a large bag of flour is in fact gluten free. For this particular restaurant, we’ve done third-party testing against our own to ensure the device was up to lab grade standards and to verify our findings. There’s a clear power in information to not only equip consumers with how their health is affected but also for restaurants to see if there’s something wrong with their supply chain.
EM: It’s great to see that restaurants can benefit from Nima and use it to reassure consumers as well. What is next on the horizon for your company?
SY: We’ve already grown so much. We’re now a team of 17 and still hiring. Nima is currently available for pre-order and slated to ship later this year. As for the future, we’re excited to build out our iOS app and then a desktop and Android version.
My dream is to create a device that rapidly diagnoses food allergies or intolerances too as it’s a growing problem. We’re likely not living up to our truest human potential because we don’t know how to nourish ourselves properly.