Small Food Comes of Age Mary Ellen Kuhn | September 2017, Volume 71, No.9

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Shireen YatesScott SundvorShireen Yates: Sensing a Market Opportunity
Is the market ready for a sophisticated but expensive portable test kit for consumers with gluten allergies? Shireen Yates and Scott Sundvor, the founders of San Francisco–based start-up Nima Labs are betting that the answer to that question is yes.

Yates, 33, and Sundvor, 26, met at MIT, where Yates was pursuing her MBA and Sundvor was studying engineering. Both suffered from food allergies and sensitivities and were intrigued by the idea of trying to build a company that would address the digestive challenges that plagued them. “We wanted to make a sensor that is focused on consumer use,” says Yates.

They devoted a year to researching the market potential for such a device and concluded that it was a viable concept. “It was a personal motivation to start with,” says Yates, “but we did a lot of research [to determine] if this is something that people are willing to pay for.”

After winning the audience choice award at the MIT $100K Accelerate Competition in 2013, the fledgling entrepreneurs relocated to San Francisco to raise venture money and launch the company. Working with a team of engineers, they spent two years developing the technology and began selling the test kit directly from their website about a year ago. Nima has raised $14 million to date, primarily from venture capital groups, but the company has also received funding from the National Institutes of Health, Yates says. The device has received some high-profile recognition: Time magazine categorized it as among the Best Inventions of 2015, and Popular Science included it on a list of Most Important Health Innovations of 2016.

Nima gluten-sensing deviceThe system is pricey—$279 for a starter kit that includes three test capsules, but a close-up look at the proprietary science and engineering technology that went into developing it helps to explain the price point. The system is built around a pair of highly specific and sensitive gluten-detecting antibodies developed by the Nima team. Each Nima capsule includes a test strip preloaded with the antibodies. When gluten is detected in food that the test kit user inserts into the capsule, antibodies on the strip bind to the gluten proteins and deliver a signal change on the strip. A sensor detects that signal and delivers the results in a consumer-friendly way; a wheat symbol appears if gluten has been detected, and a smiley face means that the food sample contains less than 20 ppm gluten. It all happens in about three minutes or less.

The company has also developed a Nima app that allows users to share their test results, thus contributing to a database of restaurants and packaged foods and allowing those with gluten allergies to make more informed choices about where they dine out or the foods they purchase. “We really encourage our users to share their experiences,” says Yates. She adds that data from the app show that about 30% of foods labeled gluten-free test positive for gluten.

Before starting Nima, Yates worked in sales and marketing at Google, and she says the experience she gained there has been invaluable for her entrepreneurial journey. “It really taught me to think big and how to align yourself with people that are smarter than you,” she observes.

The Nima team is continuing to think big. A sensor for peanut allergens will be available later this year followed by tests for milk, tree nuts, and other allergens. Yates envisions a future where Nima devices can test for just about anything, including sugar and salt. “We want to get to the point where whatever you care about, we can give you that information in the palm of your hand,” she says.

Essential Entrepreneurial Skills: “Resilience and flexibility—the resilience to be able to get back up when you get knocked down because you will get knocked down and flexibility because things aren’t going to go as planned.”

Surprising Realization: “I was really surprised by how many people are willing to go out of their way to help you.” Yates says she’s discovered a strong, unspoken bond among entrepreneurs and has found that they often are willing to share their time and what they’ve learned.

Given the Chance for a Do Over: “Maybe [I would] have articulated our culture earlier on.”