Spring 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Series: Intake
Brian Bender is Cofounder of Intake, a digital health company developing next-generation diet-tracking technologies. Using advanced biosensors and wireless technologies, the company has developed a tool that eliminates the need for food diaries and journaling. Instead, Intake’s technology enables instant discovery of an entire day’s worth of calories, fat, protein, carbs, sugar, and calcium intake.
What is your background in the tech startup industry?
I’m an engineer by training. As an undergrad, I studied materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University. After graduation, I worked for a few years as a materials engineer.
Once I realized that I wanted to work on medical-related technologies, I went back to grad school at UCLA for biomedical engineering. It was there that I really became interested in the startup world. At that time, entrepreneurship was attracting a lot of interest on campus. A lot of entrepreneurship groups were formed.
How did you learn about biotechnology commercialization?
At UCLA, I took a class called “From Bench to Bedside: How to Develop and Commercialize New Products”, which teaches students about the process of commercializing biotechnology, from going through FDA trials to acquiring hospital buy-in. This really piqued my interest in biotechnology commercialization.
Then I went on to do a 2-quarter long course, called “Advancing Bioengineering Innovations — Unmet Needs”. It was an interdisciplinary course involving engineering, computer science, MBA, and law students. We created interdisciplinary teams around various unmet medical needs. The goal by the end of the course was to create a prototype and get something spun out.
After the course, my team wanted to keep building on the prototype, so we joined a summer accelerator at UCLA, called Startup UCLA. It was fun, and just increased my interest in biotechnology startups more and more. The accelerator held a lot of fireside chats with startup and VC leaders in the Los Angeles area, who’d come in and talk about different aspects of building a startup. We even had Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snapchat, come in and talk to us. It was a roomful of about 15 students, so we had the opportunity to ask a lot of questions.
What happened to your team’s project at UCLA?
Unfortunately, the project (which was heavily involved in the augmented reality space) came to an end. One of my computer scientists got a job at Yahoo!, and the other one got a job at Google. I couldn’t hold them back. I guess that’s the first lesson in being a startup CEO. To keep your team focused on the vision, it’s important to really sell it to them to make other opportunities less appealing. I was pretty novice at doing so at the time.
After your team’s project ended, how were you able to use your biotechnology commercialization experience?
I got involved with UCLA Office of Intellectual Property, which allowed me to see the new science and technology coming out of the university and assess it for commercialization potential. We did market research and similar things of that nature. After I graduated from UCLA, I worked there briefly before starting Intake.
How would you describe the experience of building a startup in the health tech industry to founders interested in getting into that space?
It’s a monumental feat to get into the health tech industry. Not only do you have the governmental regulations, but traditionally in a lot of healthcare areas — whether it’s medical device, diagnostics, or drug development — the upfront costs are huge to get started. It’s not really the “coding in your garage” style startup.
Why did you create Intake?
I started Intake because I felt the timing was right. Technologically, the components that I’m incorporating into this product are aligning at the right time.
The market is prime for this kind of product as well. A lot of the nutrition sciences are starting to converge around the idea of personalization, the need for better diet tracking technologies, and better data to quantify dietary intake. And, I felt that this was a great time in my own life to build a startup.
The more I research nutrition, the more I realize that it doesn’t get a lot of credit. When I was at UCLA, the focus was on medical devices and biotech drugs. The diseases caused by poor nutrition are some of the biggest health challenges the world is facing. We can attack these diseases from the reactive end, like trying to create drugs to cure diabetes or cardiovascular disease — which is still very important — but we can avoid having to do that in the long term by focusing more on the preventative end.
Intake is a great opportunity to improve the preventative end through simpler data collection.
How do you think fad diets will be affected by the advancements in technology and nutrition that you have observed?
Living here in Los Angeles, I feel like I’m at the epicenter of fad diets. In some respects, that partially drove me to create Intake as well.
I think most people realize nutrition is important, but I think for the general population it’s extremely confusing. I see news reports come out all the time contradicting each other. There are so many diets claiming that this method works, that that method works. I think the main reason for this confusion is a huge lack of data. We don’t know what our diet and nutritional needs are at any given time.
It’s becoming more evident that nutrition intake metrics need to be more personalized to account for an individual’s genetics, gut microbiome, metabolism, and other variations among the population. We’re now at a point in our technological progress that we should be able to monitor our own health and nutrition data, and move forward accordingly.
How did you hear about the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
I heard about the academy through Wasabi Ventures. I took part in the Wasabi Ventures Academy’s online startup education program last year, which is how I met Wasabi Ventures’ founders TK Kuegler and Chris Yeh virtually. Through discussions with them, TK suggested that the AFRL Commercialization Academy might be a good fit for me.
What motivated you to participate in the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
Two of the greatest benefits I gained from the Wasabi Ventures Academy was mentorship and one-on-one sessions with TK and Chris. One of the reasons I joined the AFRL Commercialization Academy is to continue getting mentorship from them. As I continue to develop Intake, TK and Chris have been extremely helpful.
Due to my work at UCLA’s Office of Intellectual Property, I find the intellectual property process interesting. I thought the Commercialization Academy would be a great opportunity to see if there are any patent opportunities I can incorporate into Intake.
What are you anticipating about the Spring 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day?
I’m always looking for more reactions to our idea, so it’ll be great to get feedback from attendees while networking before and after the event. I also look forward to having a platform to give a quick pitch.
I spend a lot of time talking with nutritionists and fitness trainers — who are my intended market and there’s a lot of interest among them — but I’d also like to talk with the general population. There’s a lot of interest among the general population regarding diet tracking. It will be beneficial to find out what everybody’s thinking.
Pitching at Demo Day will also be good practice. To better sell the company to an audience, it’s always beneficial to get up on stage and exercise the pitching skills I’ve learned.
Are there any companies you would be interested in collaborating with in the future?
Meal delivery services, custom supplement manufacturers, fitness centers, and non-profits.
We’re looking to incorporate gamification into our business model to help promote healthy behaviors and habit formation, while tying various health metrics to charitable donations. For example, if you’re tracking your sugar intake and eat less than the recommended daily maximum allowance, then you could earn points that would be directly tied to donations to an organization such as the American Diabetes Association. Or, perhaps you meet the national average of daily calcium intake. The calcium points could be used as donations to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Are you interested in fitness and nutritional tracking? Meet Brian and his team at the Spring 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day on Thursday, June 29, 2017. Then watch them pitch to compete for the chance to win either the Judges’ Vote of $15,000 or the live Audience Vote of $5,000 at Mohawk Valley Community College’s new campus at 1101 Floyd Avenue, in Rome, New York!