A few years ago, Shireen Taleghani MBA ‘13, who is gluten sensitive, had an idea to make her life and the lives of others easier. She wanted to develop a sensor device that could help identify foods with the sometimes-troublesome protein gluten.
“I was at a wedding and asked the waitress if the appetizers were gluten free,” she explains. “The waitress responded by asking ‘How allergic are you?’ I thought then how much easier it would be if I just had a way of knowing what was really in my food,” she remembers.
To turn her idea into reality, Taleghani needed help. “I knew what I wanted to do required a great deal of chemical and mechanical engineering knowledge,” she says. Taleghani reached out to a friend at MIT Sloan who connected her with Scott Sundvor ‘12, an undergrad student studying mechanical engineering, who also happened to have a gluten sensitivity.
Sundvor and Taleghani began working together on their company glutenTech—now 6SensorLabs—in advance of the MIT 100k Competition, where they walked away with two wins—the audience choice award and meeting Jingqing Zhang SM '12, PhD '13, who would become the lead scientist for the company. To further develop their idea, Taleghani and Sundvor worked with MIT Global Founders' Skills Accelerator (GFSA) as well as MIT’S Venture Mentoring Service. “Every resource we could possibly use, we used,” Taleghani says.
The sensor, named Nima, is a small triangle with an opening for a “consumable,” a food sample placed in a cartridge. After sliding the sample into the sensor, it takes just a few minutes for Nima to deem a food as safe or unsafe by displaying a smiley or frowny face on the display. Foods are considered unsafe if they contain more than 20 parts per millions of gluten. The sensor identifies the gluten by detecting an antibody—a type of test many may be familiar with. “It’s like a pregnancy test for gluten,” Taleghani says.
Currently the sensor only tests for gluten, but 6SensorLabs plans to expand the device’s capability to detect peanuts, dairy, and much more, giving people more power when it come to their food choices. “We want people to be able to know what’s in their food, whether that’s sugar, salt, whatever. We want to be able to look at consumption and what you’re putting in your body far beyond calorie counting,” she says.