“Watch out for the fried chicken.”
That was the word circulating at a gluten-free happy hour at SXSW Interactive on Monday. The event was put on to showcase Nima, a new gadget that consumers can use to quickly test food for gluten at restaurants, dinner parties, and wherever else they eat. While all the snacks at the event were meant to be free of the problematic protein (found in wheat and related grains), a test of the fried chicken had returned a frowny face.
“I was excited to try it, too,” says Scott Sundvor, one of the cofounders of 6Sensor Labs, the San Francisco startup behind Nima. He says the restaurant probably tried to make its chicken gluten-free by using some altenative breading, but made the mistake of frying it in oil used for regular fried chicken, allowing for cross-contamination. For people with celiac disease or other digestive conditions aggravated by gluten, such a mistake can be a big deal.
The 6Sensor crew is very aware that gluten-free is also a dietary trend that some happy bread- and pasta-eaters find highly annoying. But the company doesn’t get involved in the discussion. Says Shireen Yates, the company’s other cofounder: “We don’t question people’s motivations. If gluten makes them feel bad, then we want to give them the information to avoid it.”
Sundvor demoed the Nima testing process at the SXSW happy hour. First he placed a morsel of the dastardly chicken in a capsule and twisted the cap shut, which has the effect of grinding the food inside and releasing a solution to extract the protein. He then inserted the capsule into the triangular Nima, triggering the release of a chemical that reacts to gluten and creates marks on a paper test strip. That chemistry step takes about two minutes. Finally, a tiny optical sensor inside the device checked the strip and translated the information into a simple binary result: a smiley face or a frowny face.
The company is now taking pre-orders, and hopes to begin shipping product this summer. Customers will have to buy the Nima (US $199 right now), and also sign up for a subscription service to get a steady supply of the single-use capsules. Yates wouldn’t disclose sales figures so far, but said they’ve been “very encouraging.”
The chemistry and the technology here is impressive: Nima is a pocket-sized lab that does its test in a few minutes, while similar tests in labs typically take 15 minutes or so.
But will it succeed as a product? That answer probably depends on consumers’ comfort with whipping out a gadget at the table. At a restaurant with friends, will a diner stick a noodle into the device while everyone watches? And will he send the dish back if the frowny face appears? At a dinner party, will a guest risk offending her hosts by testing the food they serve?
Yates says she uses it every time she eats out. She has to avoid a number of foods (gluten, dairy, etc.), and came up for the idea for Nima at a wedding when she was once again fretting about what she could eat. Such events had become “pain points,” she says. “It was really challenging to eat socially.” She thinks that the payoff of feeling good will convince gluten-free consumers to use her device. “If the choice is between staying healthy and offending someone, a lot of people will choose health.”
What’s more, Yates says, the Nima is small enough to be operated discreetly under the table.
The company will also offer an app that collects users’ test data and allows them to tag restaurants with the results, Sundvor explained after his demo. “Then everyone knows, ‘Hey, I tested the fried chicken at Max’s and it wasn’t safe, but the lamb lollypops were good to go,” he says.
One happy hour guest said that such info would definitely be useful to her. April White, who blogs about gluten-free Austin, says the gluten-free community “is really strong.” Restaurants would be wise to pay attention to their online Nima scores, she says: “If I find that a dish isn’t safe, I’m going to tell all my friends and all my followers.”
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.