How one entrepreneur is revolutionizing the food industry


Photo Courtesty of TellSpec Indiegogo

Passion doesn’t just drive entrepreneurs, it often leads them to their highest, best opportunities.

In the late 1990s, Isabel Hoffmann, a mathematician and University of Toronto professor, was winning awards as president of her own high tech company, Hoffman & Associates. Her best-selling educational CD-ROM game Nikolai’s Trains was developed for (and with) her young son Nikolai.

Hoffmann had distribution deals with the likes of AOL, Apple and CBS, but at the urging of investors, she paused to convert her business on to the Internet. That delay proved fateful. By the time Hoffmann was ready to go public, in April 2000 — one month into the dot-com implosion — the financial community was no longer returning calls.

Now, Hoffmann is back, with a technology service that could revolutionize the food industry and change people’s eating habits. This time, the passion comes from a life-changing experience she shared with her daughter.

Hoffmann’s company, TellSpec, is developing a laser-driven, handheld spectrometer that analyzes the food on your plate, in your fridge, or at the supermarket for chemicals, gluten, dyes, allergens, neurotoxins, moulds and bacteria. The scanner sends its findings through your smartphone to TellSpec’s cloud-based service, which examines your results and compares them to its pre-existing food database. The service then tells you what that scan found in your food, and what other scans found in the same food.

A single scan, probing only the surface of your apple or mashed potatoes, might not locate every ingredient and additive. But as TellSpec accumulates data from all its users, it will be able to warn of numerous potential problems — a boon to the allergic, the weight-conscious, vegetarians and others on selective diets, and anyone concerned about what they’re eating.

Hoffmann unveiled the service earlier this month with a crowdfunding campaign on By the end of last week, TellSpec had raised US$64,000 toward its US$100,000 goal, but cash is not the point. Every donor of $150 or more will receive the first scanners by mid-2014. TellSpec is building an army of early adopters eager to begin scanning foods and expanding its database. She has already heard from one fan who can’t wait to started scanning ice creams, while another will focus on pills and supplements.

For such an ambitious company, TellSpec has homely roots. After living in Lisbon with her two children following the tech meltdown, Hoffmann returned to Toronto in 2011 with her then 15-year-old daughter. In the past decade, Hoffmann had focused on the medical industry, studying genetics, co-founding a preventive-medicine clinic in Beverly Hills, and then heading up several chapters of the World Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.

In Canada, Hoffmann began working on a startup, but resigned when her daughter became gravely ill. Suffering from rashes and hives, she had dropped out of high school and was bed-ridden for months. “I thought I was going to lose her,” Hoffmann says. Canadian doctors, unable to diagnose her condition, attributed the problem to Lyme disease.

But Hoffmann wouldn’t settle for guesswork. Scouring the world for answers, she found a California physician who specializes in complex, chronic cases. He discovered her daughter was severely allergic to a type of mould found in her Toronto home — along with gluten and certain food dyes.

After a move to a new house and a change of diet, her daughter quickly recovered. But Hoffmann wondered why there wasn’t an easier way for people to test their environment. Why couldn’t we all have scanners that could detect mould in our homes or chemicals in our food? Last fall, over dinner with a former colleague, York University math professor Stephen Watson, Hoffmann described her vision of a handheld food scanner. Watson said it couldn’t be done — until Hoffmann found a Toronto firm that make spectroscopic scanners the size of a computer chip.

If the hardware was easy, the software was not: Hoffmann needed a database that could accept multiple inputs and learn as it grew. So Watson joined as a co-founder, drawing on his unpublished mathematics work to create the patented “learning algorithm” that is the heart of TellSpec. “Our invention is not the device, it’s the algorithm,” Hoffmann says.

TellSpec has many decisions to make in the next few months: the design of the scanner, and where it will be manufactured (likely in Asia); how the product will be distributed (likely through telecom companies, although Hoffmann doesn’t discount a retail channel, perhaps through supermarkets such as Whole Foods); and how the revenue model will work. Hoffmann hopes to sell the scanner for a modest amount, and make its money from scanning charges — perhaps 5¢ a scan, or $7.99 a month. (Asked how she came to that price, Hoffmann replies, “Netflix.”)

In its spare time, TellSpec is also looking for capital. Raising $3-million to $5-million would help the company get to market sooner and, as Hoffmann notes, provide some protection from the concerns of a wary food industry that is often reluctant to tell consumers what they’re eating.

“When we go into a supermarket, we don’t know what we’re getting,” she says. “TellSpec will face a lot of heat. But I absolutely think this is the right thing to do.”

[Source: Rick Spence @ The Financial Post]

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