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New portable sensor tests for gluten in minutes

on February 10, 2016

Martha Benco, an Oakland native, knows what it’s like to rely on the truthfulness of labels and servers when it comes to checking whether there’s gluten in her food. “I have celiac disease,” says Benco, 35, who also has a way to test her food now.

Benco says she’s been lucky so far—though she does experience mental fogginess, exhaustion and intestinal distress, her symptoms aren’t as severe as the sores inside the mouth or vomiting other people report. That’s why, when Benco heard from a friend of a friend about a portable gluten sensor device called Nima that needed beta testing, she knew she had to give it a try.

Nima, created by 6SensorLabs, a San Francisco startup established in 2013, detects gluten in solids and liquids within two minutes. Each user places a ground-up sample of the food or a small amount of the liquid to be tested into a disposable cartridge. The cartridge attaches to the device, which is triangular and about the same size as a highlighter pen. It’s black with a thin turquoise outline and a small button at its front which users push. As a crunching sound starts and a chemical analysis begins, a smiley face, frown or exclamation point appear, indicating whether the drink or meal is safe to consume or needs to be tested again.

Benco enjoyed the perks of using Nima before it hit the market and had the opportunity to place a pre-order for the final product in exchange for sending detailed notes on her experience with it. “I had the Nima sensors and 10 disposable cartridges,” Benco says. “I would take a picture of the result and send the information to 6SensorLabs. Then I’d fill out a little journal describing the process, what foods I tested while out to dinner, or at home, what the results were, and how I felt after I got the results.”

Benco says she found the device “extremely useful” since it allowed her to not only verify “gluten free” claims but also clued her into which local areas have the most gluten-free options at grocery stores and restaurants. “Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley, definitely,” says Benco. “Less so in the South Bay and towards the Central Valley.”

The founders of 6SensorLabs say they developed Nima because dining out, ordering in, attending office parties and grocery shopping are sources of high anxiety for people suffering from gluten intolerance, or digestive difficulties due to the proteins contained in wheat, rye and barley. This affects some 18 million Americans, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Scott Sundvor, cofounder and chief technology officer for the company, says that providing people with a means to keep both their digestive systems and minds at peace comes from personal experience. “My cofounder, Shireen Yates, and I share this bond of perpetual gastrointestinal distress,” Sundvor says. “We both have to deal with various food allergies and intolerances. So we realize that there really is no way right now for people to know what’s in their food before they eat it.”

Yates and Sundvor met through friends while Yates was working on her MBA at MIT Sloan. Sundvor had studied mechanical engineering at MIT and quit his role in early product development at Johnson & Johnson.

The two focused on researching the market for sensor devices and gluten-related technologies while gathering background information and creating prototypes before pitching their idea to MIT’s entrepreneurial center and the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, which prepares entrepreneurial students for the real business world.

“The MIT community is so great. Everyone really wants to help and see each other succeed,” Sundvor says. “We got a ton of intros from people who really understood what we were trying to do and trying to build. And from that, we got a lot of good connections, with a few of them turning into investors and people who are still supporting us today.”

Once Sundvor and Yates finished their academic obligations, they moved to San Francisco, where a newlywed Yates and her husband temporarily moved in with her parents—along with Sundvor—as the two worked on beginning their new lives, raising funds and continuing to develop their company.

“We got with a hardware startup called Lemnos Labs Hardware incubator here in San Francisco, raised some money, and found great partners both on the investment side and advisors, and just people to help us really get the company off the ground,” says Sundvor, adding, “I was also able to get my own apartment, which was great.” 6SensorLabs currently has between 10 and 15 investors, including Upfront Ventures and SoftTech VC.

From there, Sundvor and Yates hired people to make up their 15-person team covering the company’s chemistry, hardware, software, marketing, and business sectors. The duo worked to ensure that their ideas were feasible, meaning that they could deliver on their two-minute gluten testing time claim, and raised a $4 million round of seed funding from investors.

Sundvor says the testing, which began in 2014, included “things like stability testing, temperature testing, drop testing—so just a ton of testing like that to make sure that we understand how the product is going to react after being used for years.” It was also around this time that beta testers like Benco got involved.

“We really believe in testing. Through all that user testing we’ve gotten so much amazing feedback that’s really helped us shape the product into what it is today. The goal is to have this be really user-friendly and really discreet—just something that people can really enjoy using,” says Sundvor.

Sundvor says the product will officially launch in mid-2016 online at a discounted price, and then later at select retailers.

6SensorLabs has started acquiring accolades, like its recent Metal Man Trophy and a $50,000 check from TechCrunch, an online publication that keeps track of technological advances, for having the best pitch and product demonstration out of 14 startups at this year’s TechCrunch Hardware Battle. But Sundvor says the company is just getting started. They are planning their launch, a South by Southwest appearance, an iOS app that will allow users to track the composition of the things they consume, as well as additions for testing for soy, dairy, pathogens and nuts.

“There’s always more that we can do,” says Sundvor.


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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