NIMA Sensor with Shireen Yates
Shireen Yates, a sales and marketing guru had her start at Google and Youtube. With an MBA from MIT Sloan she is the cofounder and inventor of the device that is changing how people with celiac, food sensitivities and specialized diets enjoy food. Nima Sensor is the first portable device that allows you to know whether there is gluten in the food that you’re eating, it is another tool to add to your toolbox to make safe food choices.
How was the idea for NIMA born?
I have food sensitivities to gluten, dairy, egg and soy and it wasn’t until college that I received a diagnosis. The tests came back that all of the intense pain I had been experiencing was being triggered by food. There are a lot of people in my situation, our test results don’t show an IgE response but we suffer with varying physical symptoms.
What was the impetus for NIMA?
After college I started in a sales and marketing role with Google and YouTube. I was constantly on the road and it was really challenging to avoid foods at work dinners and events and exposure to these foods made me feel sub par all the time.
I became interested in personalization of health and wellness around 2010-2011. At a particular wedding I was asking the waitstaff about one of the appetizers and whether it had gluten in it. The waitress replied with, “well how allergic are you?” which was my red flag to walk away since she clearly didn't understand gluten-free! And I thought, what if I just had that one extra data point to help me make a decision?
How did it go from wanting an extra data point to bringing a product to market?
I met two of my first team members who were at MIT with me getting degrees in Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering and we started the team and they started looking at the technology side and they started looking at, how can we extract this information out of food? We talked about different ideas and came up with a potential sensor device.
What did it take to make it happen?
I couldn't stop thinking about the sensor and new it had to exist in the world. I wanted it so badly that I turned down an amazing job offer that I was really excited about and my new husband, my cofounder and I all moved in with my parents so we could start the company.
How often is gluten found in gluten free food?
NPR just published an article about how challenging it is to maintain a gluten free diet. Even those following a strict gluten free diet find that gluten has infiltrated their food in different ways when tested. This is why there is so much stress, because you don’t always have a bodily reaction yet you are still doing intestinal damage. The reality of navigating this is difficult so we want to try and alleviate some of that stress and angst that comes along with deciding which “gluten-free” foods can be deemed safe.
Follow shireen in the Spokin app for her amazing recommendations
We don’t want the response to be, okay I’m never eating out. We’re working on a feedback loop to the restaurant so if we find data that this labeled gluten free item isn't actually gluten free, we would love to assist with what went wrong. Is it the ingredient, is it the preparation is it the communication and help uncover that so ultimately get to a place where you don’t even need NIMA because everything is what it says it is.
When is your peanut sensor going to be available and what will follow that?
This year we will be launching a peanut device. After that we will focus on dairy and tree nut.
What are the differences between a gluten sensing device and an allergen sensing device?
The NIMA Gluten sensor tests the food sample for 20 parts per million of gluten, which is the FDA standard for gluten free. If the sample has more than 20ppm of gluten the NIMA sensor will display "Gluten Found".
For the peanut sensing device the Nima is optimized to detect 10 parts per million of peanut protein, which is the lowest adverse effect level observed by clinical research studies.
For someone with multiple food sensitivities, is it possible to have one device that could alert you to all potential allergens?
One device is possible and eventually it would be ideal. The sensing and tracking mechanism would need to be changed and time and investment would be the driver of how quickly that can be made available.
If I test a portion of the meal can I assume the whole plate is safe?
The NIMA sensor is meant to be an extra data point. This is for testing something you were going to eat anyway and now you have an opportunity to know what is in your food. If you get the 'gluten found' result you will know not to eat it. The one data point alone is more than you would have had.
With our app there is a shared data component that allows for a community feel and camaraderie. To know we are all sitting at the same table supporting each other providing shared experiences with each other is unique.
Tell us more about the NIMA app?
The app is designed to show you what is local to you, who has tested food from different restaurants in your area as well as food products. There is a premium data subscription to access a broader range of data for $9.99 a month. You don’t just get access to your tests, you get access to the 10,000 other tests that are going on from people all over the country at restaurants and on packaged foods.
Packaged foods that are most commonly tested in the NIMA app include Kirkland and Trader Joe’s.
You have traveled extensively throughout your career, do you have any advice for the perpetual traveler?
Advocate for yourself. That could mean communicating restrictions and also feeling free to ask for things off menu, people are generally really receptive. Sides are my best friend—they are safer, less prone to cross-contamination and often on their own plate. And of course, always come prepared with bars.
We want to know more about your wedding. Was it all gluten free?
Our wedding was at my cousin’s home in Sonoma. We had it catered by a company we knew well who owns a restaurant we frequent and have NIMA tested on a regular basis. We hired a dedicated gluten free bakery to make our cake.
Top Tested Restaurant in the NIMA app?
The top tested restaurant in the app is P.F. Changs.
Aykadeh (Persian restaurant in San Francisco)
Favorite restaurant in your travels?
Any taqueria in Mexico, especially if it's oceanside!
Salty or sweet?
Definitely salty. I didn’t even eat my own wedding cake!