Food Sensor InnovationBy Angela Rolls
TellSpec is a handheld device that uses spectroscopy, the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation, to determine the ingredients and calories in food. Basically, pointing its near infrared beam at a sample allows some of the sample's low energy photons to be reflected back to the scanner. The scanner then sorts the photons by wavelength and identifies them as chemical compounds.
Some have claimed that the technology the device promises is impossible and its founder, Isabel Hoffmann, is a scam artist, but this innovative technology shouldn't be dismissed before knowing a little more of the story.
In January 2011, Hoffmann moved her family from Europe to North America. Shortly after Hoffmann's thirteen year old daughter became ill with constant various allergic symptoms. She ended up going from a grade ahead in school to not being able to go to school at all and was bedridden for over seven months before being diagnosed with severe allergies to certain foods and mycotoxins. Hoffmann met others who had similar issues and soon realized that there was very little help available.
"The idea started there. There was a huge need to understand at the molecular level, not label level, what's in our foods. I realized that labels were very different from country to country... this is a really complex thing and we are not informed," Hoffmann recounted. "I come from a technology background, so my thinking about the Internet of Things was obvious, but where is the Internet of Things when the things are food? I noticed nobody was doing this and it was an obvious thing. With such progression, we will have 50 billion devices connected by 2020, we don't have something to tell us what's in the food."
Hoffmann decided to create a handheld scanner device that was sensitive enough to identify the parts per million needed to detect allergens and pesticides. She did research, created a plan, put together a team, and designed a website containing a video with a 3D printed prototype of what she had envisioned the device to look like.
The technology background Hoffmann refers to started in the late 1980s, when she started a string of start-up companies focused on technology and gaming. After the dotcom bubble burst, she turned her focus to health. Hoffmann had also earned a PhD in mathematics and had taught university courses on topics such as entrepreneurship, innovation and leadership, mathematics, computer science and the commercialization of technology.
"I had a lot of students in the [commercialization of technology] course that had created technology but had no idea how to commercialize it," Hoffmann said. "They would come up with something and they were brilliant but they really didn't understand the needs of the industry. I learned a lot from teaching that course." Commercialization is almost as important as the product itself.
Hoffmann likely learned a lot from commercializing TellSpec. She stated that the product was not mature enough to raise money from other sources initially, so she approached KickStarter, a large reaching crowd-funding website. Kickstarter denied her campaign though, considering TellSpec a medical device. Hoffman didn't give up there. She turned next to Indiegogo, another crowdfunding website and launched a campaign.
Prior to the campaign, the company had developed the software for TellSpec. They used existing spectrometers to create an algorithm for the software but had not created an actual working device. Current industry spectrometers do not detect multiple ingredients but instead detect one or two clean raw materials.
"We used other people's spectrometers and we created the algorithm – the software for the interpretation... we then did the Indiegogo campaign… we were a bit naïve when we did the campaign," Hoffmann confessed. "We thought, you know, hardware is hardware… but it's not exactly like that."
Hoffmann and her team quickly realized that hardware is not just hardware. The Indiegogo campaign raised over $386,000 in just two months and had 1,765 supporters. It turned out that TellSpec couldn't exactly deliver to them as originally described though. At least not with Raman spectroscopy, the technology originally promoted in the Indiegogo campaign and on TellSpec.com. Also, instead of sporting the sleek handheld design originally described, the first prototype turned out to be closer to the size of a guinea pig.
When word got out, the voices of opposition, even if few in number, were quite loud. The website Pando featured two articles about TellSpec, accusing Hoffmann of being a con artist, stating that TellSpec claimed they had successfully tested a working prototype.
An article in Engadget featured the device with a brief explanation of the product and a link to the Indiegogo campaign, but the comment section of the page was littered with those doubting the feasibility of using Raman spectroscopy with the product.
There was a disclaimer on the Indiegogo page noting that the device shown was a 3D model, not the completed product. "The software is not tangible," Hoffmann said. She went on to explain that people mistook the 3D example as the actual working device.
When they discovered that hardware is not just hardware, the TellSpec team realized that in order to accomplish their goals, they needed to transition from Raman spectroscopy to near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy. Although this addressed the issues mentioned in the Engadet article comments, doing so resulted in a slight uproar amongst some of their Indiegogo campaign funders. Some asked for a refund, mainly stating that they were not willing to wait any longer for the beta product to arrive.
Hoffmann and team reacted by answering supporters' questions and comments, providing requested refunds and posting timeline updates. Their Indiegogo campaign site was also updated to use the words, "What will TellSpec do," and "How will it work," instead of, "What can TellSpec do" and "How does it work."
Instead of shipping in late 2014, beta products began to ship in the spring of 2015. The product worked as originally described, with the exception of using NIR spectroscopy. The device can help people track what they eat; it gives readings on sugars, carbs and fat content, can identify gluten and is marketed as "an added feature" for those who have allergies. It's focused on helping diabetic and pre-diabetic people, and people trying to track or be cautious of what's in their food.
TellSpec is not considered a medical device, though it may be one day. It cannot (yet) detect with 100% accuracy (it has about 96.4% accuracy on average) the parts per million of a substance required for those trying to avoid an allergen. TellSpec is also not able to detect pesticides, but the team is continuing to work towards these goals. They're currently experimenting with the most common pesticides found in wheat products and predict to have a model ready within a year.
Hoffmann and her team are also continuing to work towards the miniaturization of TellSpec. The most current version is not as thin as the 3D prototype, but it is handheld. "It fits in a purse, but not yet a pocket," Hoffmann claimed.
For now, Hoffmann knows that her device is helping others and has a devoted following. There was no "food scan database," when TellSpec was created so they've created their own from the millions of scans received from beta users and the TellSpec team. The database "for the people, by the people," as Hoffmann refers to it, will continue to grow as users continue to scan.
What can be learned from the story of TellSpec? Hoffmann doesn't hesitate to provide advice about what to do when faced with adversity and challenges. What is most important is not to give up.
"Don't quit. Know that there [will be] times when you think you're just going the wrong route... you need to accept the fact that you can be wrong and start again... go a different route."
She also joked about drinking lots of coffee and the importance of returning phone calls and emails. "Don't expect it to be a sea of roses," she continued. "It won't be a sea of roses." Creating an innovative device is a lot of work. Persistence and perseverance are two key factors, and "even when it looks impossible," they can pay off in the end.
Tell us your thoughts on TellSpec. Have you developed and commercialized a device? What challenges did you face along the way? Share your story at [email protected].
Angela Rolls holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication Studies from Grand Valley State University. Her interests include animals, traveling, writing, science and photography.