Isabel Hoffmann says "You should get some food," as soon as we meet at Starbucks. "We need something to scan." I buy lemon loaf.
Hoffmann is the co-founder and CEO of Tellspec, a Toronto company bent on being first to market with a consumer handheld device that can scan and analyze food at the molecular level and reveal what's inside – starting with calories, fat, fibre, gluten and sugars.
It's a tall order, and the company has its share of skeptics. It also has stiff competition – the other players in this global race are an Israeli-based startup and an MIT spinoff, both backed by Silicon Valley money. "The area is exploding," says Hoffmann – miniaturization has struck again. A conventional optical spectrometer is a tabletop machine like the ones found in a university lab. The devices shine a beam into a substance and measure how light bounces back. Each molecule in the substance absorbs and reflects light differently, meaning different substances will have unique optical signatures.
Tellspec, like rivals Consumer Physics and 6SensorLabs, wants to put that power into the hands of every smartphone-toting foodie and calorie-counter. "It's the Internet of Things," says Hoffmann. "Everybody is going for the sensors, and what better sensor is there than a spectrometer?"
I take my lemon loaf out of the bag. Hoffmann launches the Tellspec app on her smartphone and syncs it with the food scanner, which I nudge gently into the cake. It briefly shines a red light into the loaf. She tells me the resulting data is sent wirelessly to a database in the cloud for analysis. In a matter of seconds, a breakdown of the food's ingredients is displayed on the phone's screen.
Later, at home, I compare the results to the nutritional breakdown I find on Starbucks' website. Tellspec got the gluten right. The calorie count and estimates of protein and fibre are all in the ballpark. The values for carbs and sugar seem way off, until I realize we didn't scan the icing on the cake. Harder to explain is the fat count, which is nearly double what Starbucks reports.
"The difficulty here is that it depends on what you scan. The user has to be educated," says Hoffmann. In other words, the scanner-wielding consumer faced with a food item with different parts has to estimate each one's relative size. Tellspec eventually wants to test for allergens or toxins, but there, too, effectiveness would depend on the area scanned being representative of the entire item or dish. "For allergies, we don't want people to see this as a medical device," says Hoffmann. Rather, it's a diet tracker.
Spectrometry expert Olga Pawluczyk of P&P Optica in Waterloo, Ont., says such a device will have serious limitations. "To a certain degree, it will work, no doubt," she says. "I haven't seen any convincing scientific articles saying these devices can provide much more than basic information."
But basic information is a start, especially when someone's health depends on it. In 2011, Hoffmann's daughter, 12 at the time, got sick. Doctors couldn't explain what was causing her low blood pressure, anemia and hives. After eight months of tests, she was found to be pre-diabetic and suffering from celiac disease (an intolerance to gluten) and other food allergies. It required a dramatic change in lifestyle. "It was really a nightmare," Hoffmann says.
True to form for a serial entrepreneur, Hoffmann got to work, partnering with friend Stephen Watson, a mathematics professor at York University. The two investigated what it would take to shrink a spectro-meter to the size of a computer mouse, interpret the data and then display the results intuitively through a smartphone app. (Watson is no longer with the company and the two appear to be locked in a legal dispute that neither will discuss.)
Tellspec was incorporated in February, 2013. Hoffmann, in search of start-up funding, turned to the popular crowdfunding site Indiegogo with the goal of raising $100,000 (U.S.). The campaign raised nearly four times its goal, but it also became a target of Pando-Daily, a Silicon Valley news site and self-appointed crowdfunding watchdog. What followed was a bizarre series of accusations and denials that damaged the company's credibility.
Hoffmann admits that Tellspec promised too much, too early. It had yet to develop the product shown in its demonstration video, and only now are some backers of the campaign getting (bulkier) beta units of the device – 20 months later than expected. "We should have had the technology more advanced before we did the crowdfunding," says Hoffmann. "It took a hell of a lot from our group. We froze."
Hoffmann is trying to put it behind her. As beta units ship, the 16-person company continues to work out bugs. Her technology patent has been awarded and she has an agreement with Texas Instruments to supply the chip for the scanner. She has hopes of having Tellspec's technology directly integrated one day into smartphones.
I ask her if she ever feels like the underdog. "What's an underdog?" she asks. "The more challenges we have, the better we get."
CV: Isabel Hoffmann
Raised in Portugal and Switzerland. Immigrated to Canada ca. 1978 and earned a PhD at University of Toronto.
Launched computer gaming company, and in 1997 bought Corel Corp.'s struggling multimedia division, making it the basis of Nikolai.com, a children's learning and entertainment portal that grew, and then crashed, with the dot-com bubble.
2002 to 2011: Ran and co-owned a preventative medicine company in Los Angeles; then, in Portugal, founded a genetics-testing firm and taught MBA courses on entrepreneurship.
After a couple of peripatetic years, returned to Toronto in 2013 and then founded Tellspec.