You can’t always tell what’s in your food just by looking at it, though one startup is attempting to change that.
San Francisco-based Nima is getting ready to ship its first product: a portable device equipped with a sensor that can determine whether or not a meal contains gluten. The company is also developing sensors for peanuts and milk – two of the most common triggers for the nearly 15 million Americans who suffer with food allergies.
“I had never had issues with food and, in college, I found out I had all these issues with gluten, eggs, dairy and soy. I couldn’t eat anything,” says Shireen Yates, co-founder and CEO of Nima, which was formerly called 6SensorLabs. “I found it hard socially. When a waitress at a wedding asked me how gluten allergic I really was, that was my ‘aha’ moment.”
Nima is a portable, chemistry-based sensor that uses the proteins in the food to detect if the avoidable ingredient is present. To get a reading, users drop a sample of the food or drink into the device’s disposable capsule; within roughly two minutes they get their results. With gluten, the sensor is able to detect 20 parts per million. If the food has gluten in it, a frown face will appear on the sensor. If it is gluten free, a smiley face appears. Users can share the results using an accompanying app to help other users with food allergies.
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The product is targeted at anyone who wants to avoid certain food ingredients for whatever reason. “People with food allergies are stressed out when eating, especially when eating out or traveling,” says Yates. “They want that peace of mind at meal time.”
That peace of mind doesn’t come cheap. Nima is selling at $199 for pre-orders but will eventually be sold for $249. The disposable capsules each cost $3.99 and come in packs of 12 if the customer subscribes for monthly orders. An individual capsule sells for around $4.99 and also comes in a 12-pack. While Yates won’t disclose how many preorders the company has received, she said it’s a sizeable number.
In the first stages of the product, Nima will sell capsules for the specific allergy whether its gluten, peanut or milk. In the future, Yates envisions one capsule that can test for whatever food ingredient the customers is trying to avoid. The company has seen strong interest from schools and parents – and it’s no surprise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children are on the rise, increasing about 50% from 1997 through 2011.
Today, Nima announced a $9.2 million Series A round led by Foundry Group, bringing its total funding to $14 million. Brad Feld, managing partner at Foundry Group, says Nima fits into a growing category of seamless body-monitoring technology. “Implanting devices in your body is on one end of the spectrum and on the other end are companies measuring external things,” he says. “Nima is the first company we ran into doing a compelling job with food and measuring information around food prior to ingesting it.”
There isn’t a clear reason why the number of people with food allergies is growing but it does underscore the need for products like Nima, according to Yates. “These food allergies never existed when I went to high school,” says the 32-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan MBA graduate. “We’re seeing an increase in the prevalence of people with food allergies.”