arrowCreated with Sketch.arrowCreated with Sketch.Page 1Created with Sketch.arrowCreated with Sketch.arrowCreated with Sketch.close-icondia-arrowFill 1Created with Sketch.follogo_exsitereadPage 1Created with Sketch.Fill 1Created with Sketch.

Shireen Yates

CEO & Cofounder, Nima

For folks with a gluten intolerance, sensitivity or Celiac disease, restaurants are as volatile as a Donald Trump press conference—you never know what you’re going to get. Waiters misappropriate the nuance of your affliction; kitchen chaos creates cross contamination; and there’s always that rogue tablespoon of soy sauce lurking somewhere in the marinade. It’s a wonder we’re not sick everyday.

18M Americans should avoid gluten, but the lifestyle can be totally overwhelming,” explains entrepreneur Shireen Yates, who is allergic to the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. “The power lies entirely with the restaurant or manufacturer, and you’re at their mercy—forced to either trust the food or starve.”

Add on that 25% of items marked safe actually contain the allergen in question, and it’s clear there’s something wrong with this equation.

“I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a gluten test—something that could sample your food and tell instantly if it contains the allergen,” she remembers. “So, we went ahead and made one.”

The Nima, which is currently pre-selling for $199, hits the market this Fall. It functions like a “pregnancy test for gluten,” wherein a pea-sized sample of food is inserted into the sleek, portable device and, two to three minutes later, displays whether it has gluten. And, according to beta testing, it’s accurate 99.5% of the time. Game changer.

A "pregnancy test" for gluten

For Yates, inspiration struck at a wedding.

“I usually carry these terribly uncool snack packs with me to events—it’s very glamorous,” she laughs. “But somehow that day I’d forgotten.”

When she asked a nearby waiter if the appetizers were gluten free, however, they stared blankly. “How severe is your allergy,” came the less-than-confidence-inducing response.

Yates’ choice was simple: Either starve, or eat the risotto ball in question (and spend the rest of the night worrying every stomach pain implied future devastation). Neither seemed like a great option.

“It all comes down to trust ,” says Nicole Cogan, gluten free influencer and founder of NOBREAD. “Because you, the diner, have no way of knowing what actually goes into a dish. That’s why so many people with allergies—whether gluten or not—end up eating in the same, routine restaurants… they want that peace of mind.”

Anyone with a food allergy can relate to that feeling of helplessness—something Yates wasn’t ready to accept. Then a student at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, she began ruminating on the idea of a portable device that could instantly detect gluten. Her goal? Determine whether consumers would not only shell out for such a product, but if they would be willing to test their food in public.

Conceiving The Idea

The diner [has] no way of knowing what actually goes into a dish.”
They had all these reasons why it wouldn’t work.”

“I INSTANTLY KNEW HOW POWERFUL IT COULD BE,” says lead scientist Jingqing Zhang, who was pursuing her Ph.D. in chemistry at MIT when she saw Yates pitch the idea on campus. “But when I approached Shireen afterward and asked where I could buy one for my husband, she laughed and said, ‘You would have to build it.”

Zhang and co-founder Scott Sundvor, also an MIT student, jumped at the chance.

“But committing to a startup is a big decision,” Yates remembers. “Business school has an inherent opportunity cost, so, if I was going to pursue this full-time, I needed the painpoint to be visceral—a 10 out of 10 in every consideration.”

Was the opportunity large enough for the threesome to forsake other jobs? And if so, why hadn’t anyone pursued it before? What could three students offer the world that the entire biomedical industry couldn’t?

“Sometimes, I think experience can actually be limiting,” Yates pontificates. “Because when we asked scientists and researchers around school whether they thought our idea was possible, they had all these reasons why it wouldn’t work: It would take too long to develop the science; the product would be too bulky or expensive for anyone to use… They’d accepted failure without even trying.”

Analyzing The Painpoint

Committing to a startup is a big decision.”

YATES, ZHANG AND SUNDVOR, funded by MIT and other science grants, were able to develop a product in two years. And now, after a year of testing, it’s about to hit the market.

“Much like the strip of a pregnancy test reacts to a certain hormone, our proprietary chemistry reacts to gluten,” explains Yates. “When the tiniest amount of the allergen is present in food, the antibodies in our device bind to and identify it.”

It’s as simple as this: Fill a disposable capsule ($5/ea) with a pea-sized sample of your food, screw the lid shut to grind the food, insert into the sensor and wait two to three minutes for the result to be displayed on Nima’s digital display.

“And now that we have that proprietary science, it can be extrapolated to just about any protein-based dietary restriction,” she finishes. “We have plans to release capsules that detect nuts, dairy… eventually, we’ll even have ones custom tailored to individual diets—say, a capsule looking for asparagus, nuts and salt.”

Creating A Product

Now that we have that proprietary science, it can be extrapolated to just about any protein-based dietary restriction.”

A FINAL FEATURE OF NOTE, Nima also has a proprietary app that allows users to automatically upload their results to a community-run map.

“So, even if you haven’t tested a dish, you can see if someone else has,” Yates finishes. “We’re collecting results and data all the time.”

For more on Nima, visit their website.


Facebook Twitter

You May Also Like


Mario Batali

Chef, Entrepreneur

June Oven

Cofounders Matt Van Horn and Nikhil Bhogal
Andrew Zimmern - Host of Bizarre Foods

Andrew Zimmern

Chef, Entrepreneur, TV Personality
Share: Facebook Twitter