Scott Sundvor, Co-Founder & CTO of 6SensorLabs on Changing the Food Transparency Landscape

By Lingling Chen

Food Innovation Circle recently had an opportunity to have Scott Sundvor, Co-Founder & CTO of NIMA to speak at our Founder Q&A series at their San Francisco office.

Scott Sundvor. Photo source: NIMA website

NIMA is a discreet and portable device that allows consumers to test their meals for gluten in about two minutes. Recently named one of TIME magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2015”, and the Winner of 2016 CES Hardware Battlefield, Nima has been called a life-changing product that will revolutionize the dining experience for millions. 6SensorLabs is backed by the most prestigious hardware VCs, including Upfront Ventures, SoftTech VC, SK Ventures, Mitch Kapor and Lemnos Labs.

Check out our interview below to find out how Scott and his co-founder Shireen Yates started NIMA and the food issues he cares about.

First of all, why 6SensorLabs and why Nima?

Scott: Well there are five senses, and we think that’s not enough to know what’s in your food, so we want to create that additional sense to help people (laugh). As for our gluten-free sensing device Nima, the name means fair and justified in Persian — we want to give everyone a fair chance at eating safely. My co-founder Shireen is also Persian.

(note: the company has changed from 6SensorLabs to Nima.)

A few years back, you were at MIT, you did a summer internship at Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company. However, you jumped into the start-up world immediately. How did you make that decision?

Scott: Honestly… it’s because it was too slow for me. People there create millions of products but there wasn’t that spark of innovation that I was looking for. There were a lot of hesitancy to be on the cutting edge and to take risks. I’m not the type of person that can work a 9–5 job, so of course I went the opposite direction. And here we are today!

Your co-founder Shireen was completing her MBA at that time. How did the connection started?

Scott: We didn’t know each other at school at all. But I’ve been interested in health and well-being. Plus I have a handful of food issues so I had been paying attention to this field. On her side, Shireen was getting her MBA, and she was really focused on people with food allergies. She had the early idea of what has now become 6SensorLabs. A friend we have in common introduced us, and we bonded over shared intestinal distress. And what was supposed to be a half-hour coffee meeting, turned into a four-hour meeting!

We started to work part-time together, so that was like a trial period. A few months later, we got into an MIT summer start-up program. Then we went full-time from there!

As co-founders, do you have similar or rather complementary personalities?

Scott: Well, we are very different. Shireen is really the spiritual leader of the company. She is always very energized and excited. On the contrast, I am very analytical so you couldn’t really tell my emotions. Her background is in sales and marketing. She worked at Google and YouTube. My background is engineering, and I also did a lot of work design work. We have very different personalities, but we really complement each other, which works out very well because we have different skill sets.

You’re not selling Nima yet. If I want to buy it, I will need to get on the waiting list. How do you get funding from investors if you don’t really have the revenue?

Scott: As a hardware company it’s really difficult to raise money when you’re still early on. We really asked ourselves: “what small things can we prove?” So at the time, we were really focusing on selling the long-term vision, and the idea that we as founders were the people who could lead that to success. Then after we raised that small amount of money, it became more focused on the product. So we had to prove that we could make the product cheaper and work faster than the usual process. We built a prototype. And again, it was still about the vision. The further along we were, the more we were focusing on the product, the metrics and sales. An even today, something that is still important every time we talk to investors, is that they understand how our team is the one that can make this long-term vision happen.

You talked a lot about vision. Can you elaborate on that vision a little bit more?

Scott: In the food realm, I feel there are so many interesting areas and so many challenges to be solved. We talk a lot internally that we want give back to people that freedom when they are eating out. I also read that one-third of the American population has some sort of form of chronic disease, 80 percent of which could be treated simply with diet and exercise. That’s incredible. It means there are 80 million people in America who aren’t healthy but could be, if they focused more on diet and exercise. There are a lot of companies that focus on exercise and activity tracking, but there aren’t a lot yet that are focusing on the food side of it. So that’s why we think that we can really add a lot of value — in creating the awareness, and then helping people understand the link between what you eat, what is actually in the food and how that is impacting our health.

Are there any other food companies that you admire?

Scott: Yes, and it’s really exciting to see that many innovations are happening in the food industry. I admire companies that do good to the society via business. For example, Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat who are trying to create new protein sources. People don’t realize that cows are the second largest cause of greenhouse gases in America, only after power plants. Hence creating new sources of essentially, sustainable meat, I think is incredible. Food waste, is another huge area, too. Companies like Imperfect Produce or Ugly Fruits & Veg are fighting hard to end food waste, which I admire.

Even larger corporations are getting more involved in these areas. Disney is having a really great focus on allergens and making that data open to people. It’s great to see startups but also larger corporations that are attacking this food problem, but in very different ways.

I noticed that it is trend for large companies to work with start-ups. Is there any big food companies talking to you right now?

Scott: Yes! We talked to General Mills, that has spent millions of dollars creating a gluten-free facility and various other food management companies like Compass Group, that are interested in being able to provide more data to their consumers. We are a company that can provide that data so large companies are interested in seeing how they can work with us. There is definitely a lot of potential here.

When you look back, is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

Scott: (Laugh) There is no perfect path to success and you will always make tons of mistakes.I think the key here is to always learn your lessons and move forward instead of getting bitten by mistakes.

FIC: We have a lot of foodies and techies here today. Even though not everybody works in the food industry, we all want to contribute something to a good food turue. What is something that you think everyone of us can make to have a make impact for the better future of food?

Scott: I think everyone can make an impact by just starting the conversation, talking about issues and food just like what we are doing here today. If you read an interesting article, just bring it with you to your next diner with friends. Right now there isn’t that much awareness around those big issues, about how much food waste or how many food allergies there are. So talk to your friends about food and get people more educated about that!

Written and edited by Lingling Chen. Special thanks to Food Innovation Circle member Mahaut Launay ( @MahautLaunay) for taking notes of the Q&A session.

Food Innovation Circle is a San Francisco Bay Area based meetup community dedicated to exploring the intersection between food, design, technology, public policy and new business models. Follow us Food Innovation Circle.