Fashion amulet

Allergy Amulet is gearing up to battle food allergies.
Startup Issue 1
Photograph by M.O.D. Media Productions

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Food allergies can be deadly and create a lifelong fear of food.

That’s what happened to Abi Barnes, 32, co-founder and CEO of Allergy Amulet. She suffered a near-fatal anaphylactic event as a child in what was supposed to be a nut-free cafeteria.

“When the food that sustains you can also kill you, eating can be less of an enjoyable experience,” she states on the company website.

Consider these statistics: 32 million people in the United States have food allergies, and according to the results of a 2015–2016 survey by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), about 5.6 million (or one in 13) are children.

There are more than 170 foods that have been found to cause allergies, but the so-called “big-eight” are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (hard-shelled nuts that grow on trees), wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. Sesame may soon become number nine, but chocolate is not among them.

Eventually, Allergy Amulet will test for all eight of these, plus gluten, Barnes explains, but its first device will specifically target peanuts.

Abi's story

“When the food that sustains you can also kill you, eating can be less of an enjoyable experience.”
— Abi Barnes, co-founder/CEO, Allergy Amulet

Raised in the suburbs of New York City, Barnes was allergic to dozens of foods, and every time she visited a restaurant, she’d glance up at the waiter or waitress and recite: “Peanuts. Tree nuts. Shellfish.”

But the fact is, she later realized, waitstaffs are not experts.

“Between 1996 and 2006, restaurants were responsible for over half of all food allergy fatalities,” Barnes notes, “and over half of all allergic reactions to food occur outside the home.”

Something had to give, she decided.

Barnes pursued a career in environmental/energy law at Yale and Vermont Law School while trying to figure out a way for people with food allergies to better manage their risks in a world where no preventative solutions existed, other than avoidance or a quick shot of epinephrine. That’s where she met Dr. Joseph BelBruno, a distinguised chemistry professor at Dartmouth College.

BelBruno’s name is on 20 patents and he was developing sensor technologies and diagnostic tests to detect biological molecules such as amino acids and proteins, and environmental contaminants such as marijuana and nicotine.

It just so happened that he was also allergic to tree nuts.

Barnes recognized she had an incredible opportunity to turn an idea she’d had for years into reality. “That’s how Allergy Amulet first took root,” she relates.

Not long after, BelBruno joined on as the company’s co-founder and scientific advisor.

Tale of two cities

The Allergy Amulet lab is located in Boston, but the company is headquartered in Madison. That’s because in 2015 and 2016, it was accepted into both the MassChallenge accelerator in Boston and Milwaukee-based gener8tor.

Through those network partnerships, the company secured funding for lab space on the east coast, and office space just off the Capitol Square in Madison.

The offices may consolidate one day, but for now this tale-of-two-cities arrangement is working. “Madison is a great city to start a company,” Barnes says. “I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem.”

Allergy Amulet has seven salaried employees and a host of consultants, attorneys, and partners working behind the scenes. It is still in the pre-launch phase.

Testing devices have been around for years, but the Allergy Amulet is not only small and portable, it is designed as a wearable — worn as a necklace (as Abi sports on the facing page), a keychain, or a small case that fits into a child’s backpack. Best of all, Barnes says it’s simple to use and can detect the presence of an allergen in 60 to 90 seconds.

A person simply inserts a disposable test strip into their food to collect particles, then inserts the strip into a small sheath. The sheath snaps into the amulet, and within 2 minutes the device indicates whether or not peanuts, for example, have been detected.

The technology is designed to supplement, not substitute standard precautionary measures food-allergic people take before eating foods prepared by others.

It does not detect airborne allergens.

“Our test can only identify the presence or absence of the allergenic ingredient in that collected sample,” Barnes notes. “We also recommend testing multiple areas of the dish in question (e.g., a salad) to ensure they capture a solid representative sample of the overall dish.”

Each amulet will come with a charger and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Initial prices will range from $150 for a basic model to $250 from the company’s premium jewelry line.

Disposable test strips will cost $3 each.

Regarding insurance, Barnes says the company priced its product to be affordable. “However, we are exploring different insurance-related options. Medical set-aside or flexible spending options are a likely possibility in the short term.”

The company will launch a beta test soon, and until it does, Barnes is holding off on pre-orders. “I don’t want to keep customers waiting for more than a year,” she notes.

If all goes as anticipated, Allergy Amulet will hit the market in 2021.

Copycats and sharks

Barnes’ company has one issued patent and has filed several other applications.

Its two main competitors are Nima Sensor and DOTS Devices, but Barnes isn’t overly concerned about copycats.

“Even if a competing company were to steal some of our procedures, it would take them a long time to replicate — if at all — without our team’s institutional knowledge and that of my co-founder, Dr. BelBruno.”

Besides that, she explains, chemists experienced in the product’s unique technology known as molecularly imprinted polymers, or MIPs, are extremely rare in the job market.

Has she ever considered pitching the idea to Shark Tank?

“We get asked that a lot!” Barnes responds. “We’re probably too far along, given our valuation and the amount of capital we’ve raised. They have reached out to us, though!

Shark Tank is perfect for companies that have largely bootstrapped their product, are already on the market, and are looking for institutional capital or ‘sharks’ to help them scale.”

Others, she notes, may just be looking for the public exposure that comes with being on the show.

Some companies have been successful, Barnes adds, like Allergy Amulet’s friends at Ready, Set, Food! who were featured on Shark Tank and recently secured a deal from Mark Cuban. “They’re on the market now and helping prevent childhood food allergies,” she reports.

Among Barnes’ other accomplishments: She’s licensed to practice law in Wisconsin, and she’s lived in China and speaks Mandarin. So, what more could she learn from the startup journey she’s on?

“Being kind goes a long way,” Barnes answers. “As one friend recently reminded me, ‘We’re all flawed human beings, so leading from a place of realness is authentic and appreciated.’

“There’s a lot of hubris in the startup space.”

Allergy Amulet

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