Normally the focus here is on games (and occasionally martial arts movies or other media). I sometimes do interviews as well, but with game designers and artists. Today I am going to do something a bit different and post an interview I conducted with the people from 6SensorLabs who are working on a portable allergen detector. While this piece of technology may be of interest to gamers running modern or near future campaigns, my primary reason for conducting the interview is a for people with celiac disease because their first attempt to produce an allergen detector is a device that detects the presence of gluten.
I have also celiac disease, which means basically I have to avoid gluten or trace amounts of gluten, otherwise my body doesn't absorb nutrients correctly. It is a fairly easy condition to correct, you just need to follow a strict gluten free diet. The only problem is, gluten is in so much of what we eat and produce, that it can be difficult to completely eliminate all traces of it from your diet. Just a tiny bit is enough to set off the disease and it can last 5-10 days after an exposure. Even if you are very careful some foods that are supposed to be gluten free, aren't. So an affordable gluten detection device is a godsend for celiacs, making strict adherence to the diet that much easier to maintain.
When I heard that 6SensorLabs was developing a portable gluten detection device called Nima I was interested in learning more so I spoke with their co-founder and CTO, Scott Sundvor for a brief interview.
Brendan Davis: What will the 6SensorLabs portable allergen detector be able to do when it is ready and how will it work?
Scott Sundvor: Nima is the name of our portable allergen detector. Nima provides the only rapid and user-friendly way for consumers to test their food for allergens.
You can test quickly (in 2 minutes or less) and discreetly (our product is small enough to fit in your pocket).
Nima provides chemistry based evidence that food has 20 ppm or more of gluten, with more allergens to come over time.
Using the product is simple.
1) Insert a sample of food in the disposable pod and screw on the lid
2) Place the pod in the Nima and turn on the device.
3) Receive results on the Nima and to your iOS app. Share the results with the Nima community!
We’ve put all the hard work in to make this easy for you. While you sit back, the sample is tested for the presence of gluten. You’ll see a sad face if we detect gluten at 20ppm or above.* If less than that, the sensor will show a happy face. You can make a determination from there if you feel comfortable eating the food.
*20ppm is the US FDA standard for foods to qualify as gluten free.
So this also could serve to help the community build a database of tested products?
Yes, this could help a community build a database but with a nuance. The app will show results in places. Since restaurant menus change so frequently, it'd be hard to ensure an item was always available. So each restaurant would build up a body of results, along with some other information such as ratings on how knowledgeable the staff is about allergens, and how good the food was in the end. Many people have told us that even if a place has multiple tests, they'd still want to test again, so we should be able to trend data over time too, which would be helpful.
BD: What is your design philosophy?
SS: Design is core to everything we do at 6SensorLabs. There is a huge amount of of chemistry, electronics, mechanical design, and software behind our device, but our design is how our users experience our products. Through our entire development process, we’ve been very cognizant of design, and how decisions impact our user experience.
We have a design philosophy document that everyone on the team shares. When making any feature or design decision, we like to look at six main pillars of our philosophy. The design must be:
It looks like your first device is for gluten detection, why did you select this allergen for your initial product?
Both Shireen and Scott have to watch for gluten on a daily basis, so there’s a personal reason for starting with gluten. There’s also a very practical reason: we can help the most people of all the food sensitivities. There are 3 million people with Celiac Disease in the US and the number of diagnoses has been rising over time. There are almost 20 million people with a gluten allergy or intolerance. When you add in that nearly a third of the US follows some sort of reduced or no-gluten diet, it’s evident that this is the largest audience of people who really want to avoid feeling stressed when they go to eat.
We know that other allergens are important and can be difficult to avoid. You think something like shellfish is easy to avoid, until you begin looking at sauces and dressing. You talk to people with egg allergies and realize how much people have wonder about when they eat outside the home. The same can be said of so many of the allergies people email us or tell us about at expos.
BD: What are some of the challenges you faced in the development of your portable detector?
SS: More than you can imagine! Designing and building any consumer electronic product to be mass manufactured is very difficult and has huge hurdles to overcome. We took that challenge and added chemistry and microfluidics to it.
Many of the challenges we face are due to the Nima being a consumer product, not a lab product or a medical device. In order for our product to be successful, we had to make huge innovations on speed of the chemistry process while still maintaining the accuracy of a lab-grade product. This has to be combined that into an easy to use, elegant, and friendly product while still keeping the cost low enough to be appealing to the every-day user. We’re now on the doorstep of beginning testing in an actual manufacturing environment, and getting here took a huge amount of innovation, ingenuity, invention, and dedication by our amazing engineering team.
BD: What does the development process entail?
SS: This is a difficult question to answer in one paragraph. Hardware development is a long process of finding out what your customers want, determining what you can build, and then designing, building and testing. We’ve gone through probably 5-10 iterations on most parts of the product. For some specific portions that were more squirrely, we’ve done close to 40 or 50 iterations. Now we’re nearing the part of development where we finish design and enter pre-production. That means working with our Contract Manufacturer to build actual units on the manufacturing line, test them, re-design to fix problems, build new units, and test them again. When we release our product, we want it to be 99% accurate.
How do you see consumers using such devices in the future, will they be primarily for people with allergies and medical conditions, or do you foresee them being used more broadly (for example would it be possible to create something that detects bacteria or viruses)?
It's bigger than this! The long term vision is food transparency. We want to give people information on their food so that they can make informed decisions about how they're nourishing their bodies. I would say the short term plan is to add allergens. (The team is already at work on peanut and dairy!) Then later we'll add pesticides, bacteria, viruses, GMOs, and eventually get to the point where we can show the full nutrient composition of food.
When you say bacteria and viruses, you mean you could screen food for things like salmonella before eating it?
The types of things we'd want to test for are still up in the air, but that's the idea. We haven't done our due diligence on all of these, so we'll share more when this hits our actual planning.
BD: What stage are you in development?
SS: We’ve wrapped up a lot of the work in chemistry, and we’re working on finalizing design. We’ll then enter pre-production builds and testing with our Contract Manufacturer, and once the manufacturing process is proven out, we’ll ramp up to Mass Production. Nima will be available for pre-purchase this fall (2015) and in people’s hands next spring (2016).
BD: How can people learn more about the portable allergen detector?
SS: The best way to keep abreast of what we’re up to with Nima is to sign up for our email list at nimasensor.com, as this group will be the first to know when it goes on sale. We also have an active presence on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest -- all under the name Nima Sensor. Key blog posts about product development are shared across all of these, and we provide additional customized content in each of these.
BD: What do you expect the final retail price to be?
SS: The device itself will be under $200* and the disposable capsules will be about $3 each. You have to use a fresh capsule with each test.
You can learn more at the 6SensorLabs website: 6sensorlabs.com