Every three minutes, a severe food allergy reaction rushes someone to the emergency room, for a grand total of about 300,000 emergency visits per year, according to The U.S. Center for Disease Control. That’s a statistic Abigail Barnes, founder and CEO of the Allergy Amulet, wants to change.
The Yale graduate, along with Dartmouth professor Dr. Joseph BelBruno, plans to revolutionize the way people deal with their severe allergies—all in the guise disguise of a sleek and simple accessory.
The Allergy Amulet is a portable food allergen detector that utilizes proprietary polymer film technology to detect chemical reactions, specifically for peanuts.
Despite the complex technology, the way the Allergy Amulet works is very straightforward. Users will wear the reader as a necklace device encasement, which Barnes explained is currently in the process of being finalized. They will separately purchase disposable strips to test their meals. The strips would then be inserted into the reader, which would subsequently light up, beep, and turn colors to alert users to any presence of allergens.
Barnes has lived with life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish since her childhood, and she is all too familiar with the hazards of food allergies. Barnes explained that she has experienced 10 to 20 serious food allergy scares in her lifetime, and a seemingly miniscule mistake—like eating French fries cooked in peanut oil—has been enough to send her to the hospital six times.
Barnes claims that having these near-death experiences is what has inspired her to make her dream a reality. Extraordinarily, her body has effectively trained itself to react as its own emergency alarm system.
“Whenever I go out to eat, I always take a really small bite out of food, and within a minute or so, I’ll know if the dish has anything I’m allergic to,” Barnes said. “Effectively, I function as an Allergy Amulet—I use my body to test my food.”
With an innovative idea and personal drive to back it, all Barnes needed to create the Allergy Amulet was the technology, which is where BelBruno came in—who is a sensory technology expert and, coincidentally, long-time sufferer from food allergies. The duo has been working together for over two years to develop sensor technology that can be applied to allergens to detect various molecules, particularly carbohydrates, vitamins, amino acids, and environmental toxins.
Since then, the startup has taken off. The Allergy Amulet was recently named the “2015 Tech Company to Watch” by the Connecticut Innovation Summit, and was a finalist in the 2014 Yale Venture Challenge.
“Effectively, I function as an Allergy Amulet—I use my body to test my food.”
The company was also selected to participate in Refinery Accelerator, a Connecticut-based organization supporting female entrepreneurs. To top it all off, Barnes has recently been awarded with the Victoria Hilliard Donovan Award for female women entrepreneurs.
Currently, the company is actively seeking funding and depends on prize money and support from friends and family. The startup is also a current finalist in MassChallenge—a nonprofit-startup accelerator that selects up to 128 new companies every year to engage in its four-month program. Providing services that range from access to mentors, media resources, and funding opportunities, the program offers a grand prize of $1 million in grants to its top contenders.
Despite the nonprofit’s branding as a “challenge,” Barnes joked that her experience as part of the startup accelerator has been nothing short of humbling.
“What I told my friend the other day was one of the companies just saved a baby in Africa, and the other developed a solution that un-shrinks clothes,” she laughed. “There’s just so much talent there—it’s really incredible.” Furthermore, the opportunity has granted the company a chance to grow its board of advisors and make connections vital to any startup’s expansion.
While the company has run into a number of obstacles thus far, seeing the pieces of her vision fall together makes Barnes optimistic for the company’s growth.
With an endless array of different food allergies to tackle, such as tree nuts, gluten, dairy, shellfish, and soy that affect up to 15 million Americans, the company is already focused on the future. Barnes envisions designing charm bracelets for young girls, as well as tailored boys’ bracelets, and a FitBit-like bracelet for men. Even farther down the road, she hopes to market colored test strips that will be customly tailored to an individual’s personal allergy profile.
But for now, the young entrepreneur’s main goal is to reduce food anxiety, especially for young children, so that they can feel safer about the foods they eat.
“Right now, I’m all in,” Barnes said “My hopes are to get this company off the ground.”
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic