For those who suffer from food allergies, the only effective treatment is to avoid certain foods altogether. But even this approach is far from foolproof: mislabeling, cross-contamination, and misinformed waitstaff are just some of the hazards that make avoidance alone a risky strategy in the medical playbook.
Abigail Barnes, a Yale graduate student and entrepreneur, is developing a product that would substantially reduce these risks. She describes her brainchild—the Allergy Amulet—as a portable, reliable, point-of-consumption device that could detect allergens in foods (at a level of parts per trillion) in a minute or less.
The concept is one that is close to Barnes’s heart. She has been allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish for most of her life, and was also allergic to everyday goodies—chocolate and strawberries among them—as a small child. Barnes has been hospitalized due to allergic reactions six times, and nearly all of these reactions occurred while she was eating outside her home. “My experiences have taught me that I can’t rely on waitstaff, and sometimes it’s hard to trust even close friends and family,” she confesses.
At a young age, Barnes decided to take matters into her own hands. She had always articulated her dietary restrictions when placing her order at restaurants, but now she keeps her guard up even after her dish arrives. She takes a cautious nibble at her food—not unlike a shy mouse with a piece of cheese—and then waits a minute or so to see how her body responds. Most of the time, a relatively mild reaction alerts her to push the plate aside. Once in a while, though, even this second line of defense can break down: if Barnes accidentally eats too much, or if the small bite has too many allergens in it, she can end up in the hospital.
Given these sporadic episodes, Barnes has never felt completely at peace treating her own body as a litmus test for allergens in her food. “I found myself wishing that I could rely on a technological device that would essentially do for me what my body does naturally. I remember looking online to see if a portable allergen detection device existed and discovered that there were none,” she explains.
Barnes ultimately took it upon herself to address this unmet need. While a student at law school, she learned of a Dartmouth chemistry professor, Dr. Joseph BelBruno, who works on cutting-edge sensor technologies. Barnes approached him to see if he could apply his research to detecting allergens in foods. BelBruno himself is allergic to tree nuts, which may have fueled his interest in helping Barnes create the Allergy Amulet: a wearable device—think jewelry FitBit—that would detect allergens in foods within one minute of contact.
The first Amulet, which is currently in the prototyping stage, will test for peanuts. Future Amulets will test for other common food allergens and ingredients like tree nuts, dairy, shellfish, and gluten. Barnes is also planning to work with allergists at Stanford and Johns Hopkins to ensure that the device can detect allergens at levels that would normally trigger reactions, even among highly sensitive individuals.
She shared with us designs of the first signature necklace and test strips, which will be showcased for the first time at the upcoming Harvard Innovation Lounge event on October 30th. The images reveal a stylish necklace, which conceals a detachable device that users remove to test their food. While the technology is complicated, the device is pretty easy to use: remove it from the necklace, insert a disposable test probe, place the probe in the food, and then wait a minute or so for the probe to indicate whether allergens are present. Barnes’ team is also in the process of designing a variety of other device encasements, including armbands for men, charm bracelets for kids, and non-wearable alternatives for those who want to carry the device in their pocket or purse.
As for price, Barnes has conducted internal market research, studied her competitors, and looked to comparable allergy-related products like the Epi-Pen. Her current price structure ($200 for the device and $20 for a box of 30 strips) effectively allows users to spend less than a dollar a day to protect themselves from a potentially fatal allergic reaction. The Amulet, like the Epi-Pen, provides a cost-effective alternative to an expensive trip to the hospital.
Like many entrepreneurs, Barnes took a nonlinear track to become the founder of her own company. Planning to become an environmental attorney, she attended Vermont Law School and later enrolled at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (FES). While at FES, Barnes also signed up for courses at the Yale School of Management (SOM), and ultimately decided to turn her Master’s into a unique hybrid degree. “I realized that my future might be with this business, so I started taking advantage of the opportunities that SOM offers to budding entrepreneurs.”
Barnes ended her first year as a finalist in the Yale Venture Challenge Innovation Summit, a competition that recognizes Yale’s top student-led companies. Since then, she has proven the value of her product to an elite group of entrepreneurial experts. Barnes participated in Top Gun, an accelerator based in Portland, Maine, last spring, and was more recently a MassChallenge finalist. She is also working with The Refinery, a Connecticut-based accelerator that supports female entrepreneurs. Her company has also been chosen by MIT Sloan School of Management to bring a few MBA students on board as part of a student-industry collaborative effort.
While Allergy Amulet has led Barnes down a different career trajectory than she initially planned, she has not let go of her passion for the environment since entering the startup scene. She plans to incorporate elements of sustainability into her company’s business model and product line. She says this is consistent with her belief that businesses can be profitable while also sustainable and socially responsible.
“I want to build a mission-driven company,” she explains, referencing a recent subscription of Inc. that discusses how female entrepreneurs in particular tend to be interested in the “long game” for their businesses. “It was a bit of an ‘Aha’ moment, reading about entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Holmes who all shared my vision for creating a company built to last.”
And it will last. Food allergies currently send someone in the U.S. to the emergency room every three minutes. In other words, two people have been hospitalized due to allergen exposure since you started reading this article. But it’s only a matter of time: Allergy Amulet’s fashionable devices are soon to put this unnerving statistic out of style.
 “Food Allergy Facts and Statistics for the U.S.” Food Allergy Research & Education. Accessed 22 Oct. 2015.