For people suffering from gluten intolerance or celiac disease even the pleasure of dining out can become a stressful activity. Even the smallest quantities of protein found in rye, barley or wheat can have harmful reactions.
A new and unique gluten sensor that can verify the safety of food has been developed by Nima. Co-founded by Chief Product Officer Scott Sundvor ’12 and CEO Shireen Yates MBA ’13, Nima is a spinout of MIT. This new sensor is both portable and highly sensitive.
Approximately one percent of the US population, which accounts to about 3 million people, are affected by the autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, reports the National Institutes of Health. When people suffering from the disease consume gluten, it causes damage to their intestines. National Foundation for Celiac Awareness reports that millions of other people may be suffering from nonceliac gluten intolerances.
The new sensor, named after Nima, has disposable capsules and is a triangular device that is 3-inches tall. Small quantities of liquids or food samples the size of a pea can be put inside the capsules, which have to be screwed on the top, by the users. On inserting the loaded capsules into the system, the samples are mixed with a solution that is capable of detecting gluten presence. The presence or absence of gluten in the sample is indicated in the digital display after a period of two or three minutes.
An app, also developed by Nima, receives updates of results every time a sample is tested. The user can enter details about the food, the place from where the food was consumed and the presence of gluten in the app that can be used and viewed by any Nima user.
Sundvor stated that the main objective of the sensor is to create “a peace of mind at mealtime.” The startup intends to offer more information on the food consumed by people by gathering data on food.
Right now, we don’t know what’s in our food, whether it is allergens, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals. There’s not a good way to get that data. We want to give people the ability to understand their food better and how it affects their health.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set the highest concentration for “gluten-free” as 20 parts per million (ppm) or more. Nima’s gluten sensor can detect gluten present at this maximum concentration in foods. The immunoassay, that is the cause of the sensor’s high sensitivity, was created by lead scientist Jingqing Zhang, at Nima. The scientist was a chemical engineering student, who did his SM in the year 2012 and his PhD in 2013, at MIT. The immunoassay developed by Zhang uses custom-made antibodies, which are highly sensitive to gluten particles. If presence of gluten is detected in the food sample, these antibodies merge with the gluten molecules and cause a change of color in the immunoassay. An optical reader present in the device records this color change. Depending upon the presence or absence of gluten the device will show a “gluten found” message and an icon or a smiley face (in case of gluten concentrations less than 20ppm), respectively.
The highly sensitive gluten sensor is capable of detecting gluten in food that are labeled as “gluten-free” if minute quantities of gluten get mixed during the cooking or production processes. For instance, a salad can have small amounts of wheat in it or a steak could have been cooked immediately after a gluten-based item, in the same grill, thus picking up small amounts of gluten. The sensor is capable of detecting even these minute amounts. If a diner touched a piece bread before handling the sample food, the device can detect even this small trace.
It’s the equivalent to finding a breadcrumb in an entire plate of food.
The device very effectively and effortlessly unites mechanics and electronics with chemistry. “We’ve created this grinding, mixing, and extracting system, and together it works really well,” he says.
Filling the Consumer Gap
Yates’s idea of a portable gluten sensor germinated as GlutenTech in the year 2013, when Yates was a student of MIT Sloan School of Management. She sought the aid of Sundvor, who had recently graduated from MIT, to make her dream a reality. Sundvor being had leant product design and mechanical engineering.
Sundvor states that they wanted to fill up “a huge consumer gap” that can be found in food-allergen testing and thus set to work at a new incubator on the MIT campus, at the MIT Beehive that is currently not in operation. Traditional tests for gluten that can be done at home require the use of motar, pestles, pipettes, microscales and test tubes. “You can’t bring test tubes to a restaurant,” he adds.
While Sundvor worked on the prototype in one of MIT’s machine shops, Yates discussed the idea in her classes at MIT Sloan. In one such pricing class the demand models and pricing of the product were discussed by students. “The result of that was that I found there’s a real opportunity here: There’s a need and a willingness to pay,” Yates says.
GlutenTech entered in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in spring 2013 with a proof-of-concept model. It won the Audience Choice Award in the Accelerate contest. The summer of 2013 saw the team enter a 12-week startup program known as the Global Founders Skills Accelerator (GFSA) that was held in the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.
Yates says that entering the $100K competition required the team to prepare a business plan that can be presented to the investors. “It was a testing period to see, if we position ourselves in a certain way, will it resonate with investors?” she says.
The GFSA was incredible. It gave us the opportunity to have a safe space to go full-out on this for three months, have mentors, and have just enough money to squeak by.
The first operating prototypes of GlutenTech, “which were so ugly” notes Sundvor humorously, were ready for the GFSA Demo Day in September.
The prototypes were aluminum tubes that were 9-inches in length, and these tubes “looked like lightsaber handles,” Sundvor says. The device which contained conventional food testing chemicals took 10 minutes to identify gluten. When gluten was detected the device let out a loud alarm while flashing in bright colors. “We got many looks at restaurants,” Sundvor says. “But they worked and got us our first investors.”
GlutenTech left its old headquarters at Boston to move to San Francisco where it’s currently situated, three years ago. It also changed its name to 6SensorLabs, only to be renamed again in 2016 as Nima. Within a short period of three years the startup has profited over $14 million in capital venture funding.
Customers are the first market for Nima and as more people use the product, restaurants can have more information on their food that would help them better serve their customers, Sundvor says. Two restaurants located in San Francisco are already using Nima to verify the gluten presence in their “gluten-free” food.
The startup is planning to launch two new sensors for peanuts and diary in 2017, which Sundvor says is “surprisingly sneaky.” For example, bread could have been fried on a pan that had remnants of butter in it. “A lot of people are getting sick from dairy allergies, so that will be a big market,” Sundvor says.