People who suffer from food allergies now have a possible ally to bring to the table.
MIT graduate Shireen Yates, who suffers from allergies to gluten and other foods, teamed up with a classmate in 2013 to develop a device that can detect food contents that she said “could really ruin my night.”
She said the idea for the device came in a “moment of hangry,” when she found herself at a friend’s wedding without her usual bag of safe snacks.
“At this particular wedding, though, I had forgotten to bring at least some snacks, and these delicious looking appetizers were passed out and I asked the waiter, ‘are these gluten-free?’ And she said ‘how badly do you react?’ And it was at that moment when I said how wonderful would it be if I could just take one sample of this, and have one additional data point to make a better decision.”
Idea To Table
Yates and her business partner Scott Sundvor won MIT’s $100K Accelerate competition with the idea, and used the winnings to co-found a company based in San Francisco. They raised $14 million in venture capital to develop the device, named “Nima,” which finally became available in January.
Consumers can put a pea-sized sample of food into the device, and it signals “safe” or “not safe” depending on whether the sample has levels of protein that are under or over FDA levels for gluten free.
Allergen tests have been available on an industrial level for a long time, but this is the first pocket-sized device of its kind to date.
Yates is careful to point out that it’s not meant to be a perfect lab test and it does have some blind spots, as with foods that contain alcohol or are fermented or hydrolyzed.
Yates said the technology they’ve developed can easily shift to detect other allergy-inducing proteins. A peanut sensor is currently in development, and should be ready to launch this fall, she said. Next on the white board will be dairy and tree-nut sensors.
Beyond its ability to detect gluten levels in the moment, this device connects to a phone app that collects data to share with other users.
Results have been troubling.
She said since the device has been in use, nearly one third of the foods that are labeled gluten-free are testing positive for gluten.
“We want to make sure that every single test becomes a potential data point in this unprecedented network of food transparency that doesn’t exist today.”