Last March, I went to Whole Foods with Consumer Physics founder Dror Sharon to test SCiO, a tiny handheld device that, used with a smartphone, can evaluate the quality and nutritional content of food. We checked out the sweetness of a few fruits and the fat content of cheese. Readers at the time thought the technology would be great if it actually works, though were a little skeptical that it could be broadly implemented.
In the past year, Sharon has plowed ahead despite such skepticism. He says Chinese smartphone maker Changhong still has plans to integrate the SCiO sensor into phones soon, though it didn’t happen last year as he had hoped. And he says he has a more significant smartphone maker interested, though not to the point of announcing a product. The company has meanwhile shipped thousands of developer kits and filled its 13,000 Kickstarter preorders for the handheld gadget.
Progress, it seems, but I’m not expecting to be able to scan apples with my next smartphone—maybe the one after that, though.
That’s OK with Sharon for now. Because in fine Silicon Valley fashion, he pivoted—setting his sights higher up the food chain, where food is produced, not sold to the consumer. And here he’s got a success story to tell. Consumer Physics has been working with Cargill to market the technology to dairy farms. Cargill calls the service “Reveal.”
Consumer Physics’ and Cargill’s first app for dairy farmers, for analysis of silage (including corn, hay, and alfalfa) for dairy cattle, came out last summer. It won an innovation award at the World Dairy Expo.
Last month the partnership added a second app for dairy farmers—this one analyzes the fat, protein, and total solids in the milk fed to calves.
Cargill is charging farmers US $499 for the basic SCiO gadget, $65 for an accessory needed for dipping into the milk. The company requires buyers to sign up for a 12-month service contract at $180 a month.
Sharon grew up on a farm, so he’s not exactly a stranger to agriculture. Initially, he says, his aim in developing SCiO was to help consumers get the same quality of food he was used to as a child. Moving to working with farmers is a different way of achieving the same goal, he says. “The value chain in the food industry starts with the feed provider who harvests row crops. These go to processors who turn it into animal feed, which goes to another farmer, which in turn move the food to large food companies, and in the end, to the retailers and restaurants. At every point in that supply chain, we can see a need for our product.”
So Consumer Physics carries on, though not as a mainstream consumer product just yet. I do wonder how many of those dairy farmers will be taking SCiO out of the barn to help them with their grocery shopping.
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 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.