For people with food allergies, Crohn's or celiac disease, a simple dinner out can be pretty complicated. Even those who diligently check food labels, carry meds and alert their waiters can run the risk of accidentally consuming something they shouldn't.
Soon, there may be an extra layer of protection: San Francisco-based startup 6SensorLabs is developing a portable sensor that can detect gluten in food.
The year-old company was founded by CEO Shireen Taleghani Yates and CTO Scott Sundvor. The pair met in 2013 through a mutual friend and their shared alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while Yates was completing her MBA. They began working on business plan competitions in February and devoted themselves full time to the company in June of that year. Prior to launching 6SensorLabs, Yates worked in sales and advertising at Google and YouTube, and Sundvor, a mechanical engineer, worked in product development at Johnson and Johnson.
Yates says she applied to her business program with the intent of starting a venture to help people with food allergies, having dealt with a gluten allergy since her junior year of college." I wanted to create a stress-free way for people to enjoy eating socially… an opportunity to have an extra assist when you go out to eat, to put the control back in your hands," said Yates.
The sensor relies on technology that can quickly detect food proteins, giving future users a lab-quality test that they can stick in their bags or pockets. "Our goal is make something that just looks really beautiful that you would be proud to take out at the dinner table. The size is probably half the size of an iPhone, a little bit thicker. Every day we’re working on shrinking that size and putting some beautiful industrial design around it, so it's something you enjoy using," said Sundvor.
Since launching last summer, the team has been at work on both the sensing technology and hardware development. The plan is to make the sensor available to consumers sometime next year. Yates declined to share current price projections.
While the device is designed to detect only gluten at the moment, Yates expects to expand to other major allergens such as nuts, dairy and shellfish. The team is also exploring how the technology senses pesticides and bacteria that can cause food poisoning. "The big dream would be to do this for everyone who has food sensitivities, but we're starting with gluten. We saw that it was a growing problem and there was a lot of awareness in the market," she says.
The market for gluten-free food has exploded over the last few years due to both an increase in celiac disease diagnoses and the perceived health benefits eating gluten-free. About 24 percent of consumers currently eat gluten-free foods, or have someone in their household who does, according to market research firm Mintel. The gluten-free food and beverage market, now a $10.5 billion industry is expected to grow to $15.6 billion by 2016, Mintel says.
Ahead of building their prototype, Yates and Sundvor spoke with allergists, nutritionists and 20 parents of children with food allergies to understand what was important to them in this type of product. "Almost every week we have people with food allergies just coming through the door and getting feedback about different elements of design," says Sundvor.
They also surveyed 3,000 people to learn about their potential customer base, especially whether the sensor was something that people would use frequently. Yates says the response was a resounding yes. "The 3,000 people were all actively avoiding gluten in their diets. They included a mix of diagnosed Celiac, diagnosed Non Celiac gluten sensitivity, diagnosed wheat allergic folks and people who simply cut gluten out because it makes them feel better."
6SensorLab's plans don't only begin and end with hardware. The company is also building an accompanying app and social community for people with gluten sensitivities -- and later, other food intolerances and allergies -- that will allow people to share notes and advice about their experiences with various food brands and restaurants.
"We would love to be a trusted source," said Yates. "At the end of the day, food should be about joy, and [we want] to bring back the joy of eating."