I’m at a Whole Foods in Palo Alto with Dror Sharon, cofounder and CEO of Consumer Physics, based in San Francisco and Israel. Sharon is holding his smartphone and a tiny handheld device he calls SCiO, which is about the size of a TicTac box. We are browsing around the produce department, checking out the Brix level of various items. The Brix number represents the sugar content of a solution and, for fruits, is an indicator of whether or not a particular fruit has much flavor. The tomatoes, according to the SCiO’s accompanying smartphone app, are horrible; not a big surprise in March. The apples are mixed, there is only one variety Sharon would buy right now. The mangos, he proclaims, are just perfect, and contemplates filling a bag before we go.
Testing the SCiO portable analyzer at the Whole Foods dairy case Photo: Tekla Perry
We move onto the dairy case, where the labels of cellophane-wrapped cheeses provided only price and name. Sharon’s smartphone app popped up all sorts of additional information as he pointed the SCiO gadget at different chunks (still in their wrapping), including fat content, calories per gram, and protein content.
On the way to Whole Foods, we stopped outside a restaurant where two women were having brunch, and asked them if we could scan their food before they ate it. Sharon told them the strawberries would be excellent (they women agreed they were), but the whipped cream would be abnormally sweet, there was so much sugar in it wasn’t recognizable as dairy (it was).
It was all pretty magical, pointing a gadget at food and getting an instant analysis. To be fair, I can’t verify the accuracy of what I was seeing on the screen; I didn’t take the fruits and cheeses back to a laboratory to confirm the analysis using more traditional technology. But it certainly seemed real, real enough that I would be pretty excited to have this kind of technology built into my smart phone, given I have my phone out anyway when I’m grocery shopping to scan shelf tags in order to download coupons. And Sharon promises it is indeed coming into phones—as soon as the third quarter of this year in China, fourth quarter in the United States.
Here’s how SCiO works—and why it exists.
These apples should be pretty good Photo: Tekla Perry
The gadget uses standard infrared spectroscopy; it measures the absorption of infrared light. It may not be as accurate as a benchtop spectrometer used in a laboratory environment, but Sharon says it makes up for this with its algorithms. The user starts out by simplifying the problem a bit by identifying the category of the item to be examined—it’s not “What fruit is this,” but, “This is an apple, is it any good?” Consumer Physics’ cloud-based software then taps into its knowledge base, for an apple, it defines “good” as “sweet” (hence the Brix measurement), and considers an apple’s typical range of sweetness based on thousands of scans. A graphic on the phone then places the apple on a quality range.
Besides having data on most fruits and vegetables, the system also knows about dairy products; for those, it provides information on calories and fat content. And it knows about the cocoa content of chocolate, the amount of alcohol in drinks, and the protein, fat, and calories in raw fish, poultry, beef, and pork. And while, to date, the focus has been on food, Sharon stresses that the technology works with all sorts of materials. The company has started holding workshops for people who want to develop their own databases.
Sharon had been wanting this kind of gadget for a long time before he finally set out to build one. He grew up on a farm in Israel; he was used to eating produce that hadn’t been shipped further than across the property. So, when he moved to Massachusetts for business school at MIT (his bachelor’s degree is in electrical engineering), he was surprised by just how tasteless he found the produce at local groceries. “The food just didn’t taste the same. And when I saw that I was buying grapes from Chile, I was sure something was not right about them.”
He decided that he should get himself something to determine whether or not the food in the stores was any good before he bought it, so he logged onto Amazon and searched for such a gadget. He didn’t find one. Disappointed, he resigned himself to occasionally buying tasteless produce or traveling 30 miles to a grocer he discovered that he could trust.
But about five years later, in 2010, after a few years working in the U.S. and then moving back to Israel, he came back to the idea. There ought to be a scanner that could give you useful information about the food you are about to buy, he insisted. He teamed up with Damian Goldring, a friend from his undergraduate days with a PhD in silicon photonics, and the two started investigating sensing technologies that, potentially, could be built into a phone. They landed on infrared spectrometry, and, in 2011, started Consumer Physics. In mid-2012, they rented one of those expensive, luggable, commercial spectrometers for a day and demonstrated to a large cellular service provider that the technology could be used to analyze food, doing a demo on chocolate mixtures that looked the same, but had different substances mixed in, like regular butter and peanut butter. “We’re going to put this into a phone,” Sharon said. (The company didn’t fund them.)
Don’t buy these tomatoes Photo: Tekla Perry
Sharon and Goldring may not have convinced that company, but they had convinced themselves, and began working on the technology, first on their own dime, and then with a little money from angel investors and crowd-sourced funding from OurCrowd. In early 2014, they were convinced enough that they could deliver the technology as a small Bluetooth peripheral—not inside a phone quite yet, but pretty close—to launch a Kickstarter campaign, pitching a $200 portable infrared spectrometer. Some 13,000 people signed up, ponying up about $2.7 million.
Things from Kickstarter funding to shipped product were not exactly smooth sailing. Come September of 2016, we reported that only 5000 of the Kickstarter backers had received products, far later than originally estimated, and many of the remaining backers were angry. To make things worse, the backers could no longer communicate with the company via Kickstarter, the page had been taken down in a trademark dispute over the name “SCiO”.
What happened? Sharon says the delays were due to manufacturing challenges, as well as a redesign to improve sensitivity, resistance to ambient light, and penetration depth. And the company has now fulfilled almost all of its Kickstarter orders, with the exception of customers who haven’t yet provided shipping addresses, have unique shipping requirements, or are choosing to wait for a Special Edition version of the gadget—that’s fewer than 10 percent of the backers, Sharon says.
But while the Kickstarter rollout was more than normally bumpy, the company’s efforts to get venture funding have born, well, fruit. After picking up some funding from angel investors and people using crowdfunding platform OurCrowd, Consumer Physics closed a round of venture investment led by Khosla Ventures. To date, Sharon said, funding totals over $25 million.
Thanks to Analog Devices, the SCiO technology can now fit inside a smart phone Photo: Tekla Perry
The company also lined up some critical partnerships: with Analog Devices, which worked with the company to reduce the size of the sensor package into something that will easily fit into smartphones and is manufacturing this version of the device; and with Chinese phone manufacturer Changhong, which will be incorporating the technology in the Changhong H2 smartphone starting in China in the third quarter of this year and in the U.S. towards the end of 2017. Consumers in China, Sharon points out, are particularly interested in checking food safety, given the history of problems with the food supply. Sharon hopes other smartphone manufacturers will follow, turning using a phone to scan food as common a practice as using one to photograph food.
Consumer Physics now has about 100 employees, with corporate offices in San Francisco, a sales team based in the Midwestern United States, and a development team in Israel. Dozens of people are scanning food 24/7, Sharon said, to increase the kinds of food that can be analyzed as well as the accuracy of the analysis.
While the initial applications surround food, Sharon says that the technology is not just for checking out food freshness and nutritional information; it’s good at analyzing body fat, and distinguishing real pharmaceuticals from their fake counterparts. “We’ve done a demo that distinguishes real Viagra from fake Viagra,” says Sharon. “That’s the most commonly counterfeited drug.”
Consumer Physics has, to date, shipped more than 3000 developer kits, and is hoping some interesting consumer applications will emerge. One such in the works by French company Terallion, Sharon said, is a kitchen scale, intended for diabetics, that can use SCiO’s analysis to allow it to give users accurate information about protein and carbohydrate content of the food they are about to eat. The company is also working directly with industrial partners, in particular, with those working to develop tools for digital agriculture.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.