By Henry Ehrlich
Abigail Barnes has lived with food allergies her entire life. An avid traveler, she continually confronts uncertainty about the contents of her food when dining in restaurants around the world. Her travels include a year in China, where despite her fluency in Mandarin, she found it difficult to effectively communicative her food allergies to wait staff. One semester short of finishing her graduate studies and receiving her JD and Master’s degrees, she felt compelled to take some time off to develop and promote her brainchild, the Allergy Amulet, a device to test for the presence of food allergens and decorative enough to be worn as a piece of jewelry. We met Abigail recently at a fundraiser for End Allergies Together (E.A.T.) and again at the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference. She agreed to answer some questions about the Amulet.
AAC: Thanks, Abigail. Can you tell us how you conceived of the Allergy Amulet?
Abigail Barnes: Of course, and thank you for taking the time to learn about Allergy Amulet.
The idea came out of my experiences living with food allergies and the challenges I regularly confront when eating foods prepared by others. Anyone with a food allergy who dines out regularly or has traveled to a foreign country knows that there is a certain strategy to survival. For me, this strategy is avoiding certain restaurants, always reading labels, and steering clear of particular dishes on the menu.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of close calls after wait staff incorrectly informed me as to the safety of my food. Despite their best intentions and efforts, they do not always know whether your food is allergen-free. I’ve learned this the hard way.
These experiences led to the idea for Allergy Amulet: a portable food allergen detection device that can be used rapidly test foods a for certain target ingredients. Currently, no such device exists, and we are looking to change that.
AAC: We have encountered a number of young inventors and entrepreneurs with ideas akin to yours, but they usually don’t get anywhere. Can you tell us about your technology and the people doing the science? I know from your website that your partner, Dr. Joseph BelBruno, is not only an expert in the science but has food allergies himself. Our readers are not afraid of technical details.
Abigail Barnes: This idea almost didn’t go anywhere, and it was largely because of a fortuitous encounter with my co-founder, Dr. Joseph BelBruno, that the company is where it is today. I met Dr. BelBruno, a chemistry professor at Dartmouth College, while in law school in Vermont. We both saw the benefit such a device could hold for food allergy sufferers – we both have severe food allergies – and decided to make it a reality. Before that time, this idea was little more than a distant entrepreneurial dream.
As far as the science, we are leveraging an existing and validated technology that Dr. BelBruno has successfully applied to detect a variety of molecules at concentrations as low as parts-per-trillion within one minute. Dr. BelBruno has also successfully commercialized the technology’s application to nicotine and marijuana detection, for which his other start-up – FreshAir Sensor – has developed sensors. These sensors are currently on the market and will be widely available to the public in January 2016. We are applying this technology to a new field: food allergens. Our first device will detect for peanuts, future devices will detect for other common food allergens and ingredients (e.g. milk, tree nuts, gluten).
AAC: As I have heard inventors discuss devices that would on their face compete with yours, I have wondered how you can get an accurate reading from one stab at, say, a plate of spaghetti. Why do you think you will succeed where others fail?
Abigail Barnes: Our team considered a variety of foods in designing our device. Because our first device requires physical contact, the Allergy Amulet will test food at the point of contact and so it is a representative reading. Accordingly, this device – and any device of this kind – will necessarily act as a supplement, not a substitute, for the standard precautionary measures individuals would otherwise take when eating foods prepared by others. The Allergy Amulet is effectively an additional layer of safety so that individuals can feel safer about the foods they eat.
AAC: Do you have a particular protocol in mind for Amulet customers when they order food? This doesn’t absolve them of the obligation to order specially and question servers and chefs closely, does it? It’s not like sending a steak back to the kitchen when you order it rare and it arrives well done.
Abigail Barnes: We have a general protocol in mind, based on customer feedback, but this protocol will likely vary between individuals. For me, the Allergy Amulet will act as a third line of defense when dining out or eating foods prepared by others. Here’s the four-step process I will follow using the Allergy Amulet:
1. Inform the wait staff or kitchen of one’s food allergies
2. Visually assesses the dish when it arrives for the target food(s)
3. Insert the Allergy Amulet sterile disposable component into the food(s)
4. Ingest a small amount of the food(s) and wait to see if symptoms occur
AAC: Where are you on the development scale? What are the business, technical, and regulatory steps that lie ahead? And do you have a timetable?
Abigail Barnes: We are in the prototyping stage and, assuming we reach our funding goals, we expect to launch in 2017. As for regulatory steps, we have consulted with Food and Drug Administration experts and it is the company’s understanding that this is not an FDA-regulated device. Accordingly, we will not be seeking FDA approval at this time.
If you are interested in this device, please take time to fill in this survey.
Abigail Barnes is the Co-Founder and CEO of Allergy Amulet. She is a joint-degree student at Vermont Law School and Yale University. The company was a 2014 Yale Venture Challenge Finalist and 2015 MassChallenge Finalist. Allergy Amulet has showcased at the Harvard Innovation Lounge and MIT Venture Capital & Innovation Conference. Ms. Barnes has also written extensively on legal and social issues and her work has been published in the Atlantic, Forbes, Vermont Law Review, Idaho Law Review, chinadialogue, and the Wilson Center for International Scholars. Her work has also been cited in the Economist.