By Jennifer Iscol
It would have been impossible to do her job without dining out frequently, so for the five years she worked in marketing at Google, Shireen Taleghani Yates developed the ability to function with a certain level of stomach pain. At home, Ms. Yates was in control of her diet and health, but eating out made her vulnerable to cross contamination. For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, dining out safely is one of the most intractable challenges of living with a medically prescribed gluten-free diet.
Embarking on a mission
As it is for many entrepreneurs in the gluten-free sector, necessity is the mother of invention. Ms. Yates needs a way to determine if the food on her plate at a restaurant is safe to eat. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Yates had experienced acute stomach pains, which peaked during a semester in Italy. After three years of illness, an allergist diagnosed Ms. Yates with multiple food allergies, including gluten intolerance.
After her time at Google, Ms. Yates chose to pursue entrepreneurship and entered the MBA program at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ms. Yates was clear on her mission: “My MIT application essays were about helping people with food allergies and intolerances.”
Development at MIT
The idea of a portable gluten sensor came to Ms. Yates at a wedding while hors d’oeuvres were being passed. At the wedding, she connected with Jonathan Kiel, who had received a PhD in chemical engineering and who had thought about a similar idea. Mr. Kiel and Ms. Yates explored their idea further at MIT. Ms. Yates examined the market potential and did a cost benefit analysis while Mr. Kiel did technical research.
Ms. Yates also conducted extensive market research, surveying and interviewing about 700 consumers, a third of whom had celiac disease, a third non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and a third who chose a gluten-free diet for other health reasons. What she found confirmed her own experience: that it was incredibly challenging to maintain a safe gluten-free diet while eating out comfortably and socially. She was astounded to identify one statistic that held up to in-depth analysis: “Most of the people we surveyed felt they got sick from cross contamination about one out every three times they dined out.”
At MIT, Ms. Yates and Mr. Kiel conducted interviews to find a mechanical engineer to help develop the product. They found Scott Sundvor, who had received a degree in mechanical engineering two years prior and specialized in product design and development. Mr. Sundvor, who suffers from gluten sensitivity, joined the team, which was named GlutenTech.
Development of a gluten sensor gained further traction through the yearlong MIT $100k Entrepreneurship Competition, which involves three separate contests: Pitch, Accelerate and Launch. GlutenTech benefited from the mentoring and feedback in all three contests and was a finalist in Accelerate, where it also won the audience choice award.
Transition to San Francisco
The summer after Ms. Yates’ graduation, the GlutenTech team entered the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, a 12-week, intensive startup program held on campus. Ms. Yates and Mr. Sundvor attended the accelerator program, while GlutenTech co-founder Jonathan Kiel transitioned to an advisory role. It was a busy summer, during which Ms. Yates also got married, squeezed in a two-day honeymoon and moved to San Francisco.
Mr. Sundvor also moved to San Francsico and with Ms. Yates founded 6SensorLabs, where they continue to develop the portable gluten sensor as their first product. Mr. Kiel is a scientific advisor. 6SensorLabs joined hardware accelerator Lemnos Labs and raised early seed funding. The company protected its intellectual property by obtaining provisional patents, which are now being converted to utility patents.
The company is working towards its next product development and funding milestones. Jingqing Zhang, who has a PhD in chemical engineering from MIT, recently joined the company as the lead scientist. She had been involved as a friend and informal advisor for years so it was a natural transition to full time employee.
6SensorLabs plans to have the gluten sensor on the market in 2015. Based on the market surveys, Ms. Yates identified key attributes that the gluten sensor will need in order to be useful and marketable. People want the product to be portable, so they can take it with them when dining out, affordable, accurate, as well as discreet, so that they would feel comfortable using it in social situations.
The final key attribute is speed; the product must work quickly to be useful. Ms. Yates explained, “Speed of detection is our greatest technical challenge.” But early testing has proven the team can detect gluten at less than 20 ppm 10 times faster than existing testing kits. Gluten home test kits currently on the market require the food to be ground up and shaken, and use equipment like a mortar and pestle, test tubes, pipettes, solutions or test strips. Even if a diner were willing to lay out a veritable mobile lab on a restaurant table, it would take a good bit of time to perform and produce results.
The gluten sensor under development by 6SensorLabs is an innovation on existing protein sensing technology that is on the market and proven. It is being designed to be compatible with all types of food. A sample of food would be placed in a disposable pod and the pod placed in a sensor. You would turn the device on and in two minutes or less the device would tell you if the sample has gluten in it, using a reading of 20 ppm gluten or more. It could also be used to test any packaged foods.
The product is designed to test a specific section of food on your plate, or a sauce or marinade. It could not catch the “errant crumb” that may be hidden anywhere on your plate. While the product would have its limits in this respect, it would give you the ability to detect gluten in many cases, providing the “sixth sense” to which the 6SensorLabs name alludes.
While the product is in development, the team at 6SensorLabs is very interested in your feedback. Use the contact form on their website or find them on Facebook and Twitter. Whether it is your personal celiac, gluten sensitivity or allergy story or your interest in their product, they would like to hear from you as they design a product that they hope will allow you to enjoy your food and your dining companions in confidence and health.