TellSpec is a hand-held device that will tell you the contents of your food — from macronutrients to specific ingredients. The idea for the device came when Founder and CEO Isabel Hoffmann asked herself how she could help others after her daughter fell ill. After coming up with the technology for the device, Isabel and her Co-Founder Dr Stephen Watson, a mathematics professor at York University, ran an Indiegogo campaign where they raised $386,392. We sat down with Isabel Hoffmann to discuss the technology behind the device, the mistakes they made in their crowdfunding campaign, and the life changing events that lead to the device’s invention.
TellSpec is currently a three part system which scans your food and communicates the information scanned to our server in the cloud. The server does the analysis of that scan and sends data via an APP to a smart device with the information about what’s in your food. This information contains things like the calorie information, the micro nutrients—such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins—as well as specific details of the ingredients found in the food, like gluten, types of fats and types of sugar.
But TellSpec goes beyond just giving the information, because once you see the ingredient you can actually click on the it and understand what that ingredient is derived from and its health implications. Often when we read labels we come across ingredients which we don’t really know what they are, or if there are any health concerns regarding that ingredient — either positive or negative.
TellSpec is bringing this device into the market so that we can create a clean food revolution. A revolution where people actually start understanding what they eat, and start realizing that if they eat better they will feel better and they will be healthier. I believe that the reason people today don’t eat better and feel healthier is because they don’t actually know that much about what’s in their food.
We don’t believe that people actually want their food to contain neurotoxins or carcinogens; I think they are just not informed. TellSpec is also an educational tool.
TellSpec is not a medical device, because it is hard for us to detect very small parts per million, and also because people may not scan an area where the allergen is found. So people can’t rely 100% on the device, but they can use it as an add-on to the precautions they already have. TellSpec is ideal for people who want to know more about the food they’re eating, like those who are trying to lose weight, want to count calories, or need to count carbohydrates or even want to avoid certain chemicals.
In the ’90s, I was the CEO of several technology companies — software and Internet companies. After 2001, I changed my interest from technology to health and managed two health clinics in genetics and preventative medicine, one in Beverly Hills and one in Cascais. I moved back to Canada in January 2011, and my 13 year old daughter got very sick three months after we arrived in Toronto.
In the beginning of her illness my daughter had hives all over her body, but as time went on she got worse with angioedema and eventually with anemia. Even SickKids Hospital was not able to do much for her. Every time we went to SickKids we were told, “it’s very likely some viral injection. Go home, lots of rest and she will get better.” But she never did get better. She had to dropped out of school and I stopped all the work I was doing to take care of her because at one point her blood pressure was so low that she couldn’t even walk from her bedroom to the bathroom.
It took eight months to understand what was wrong with her. All the doctors she saw in Toronto were unable to confirm a diagnosis; they could tell us what she didn’t have, but they couldn’t tell us what she actually had, and it became extremely frustrating. Because I had been in the field of health and preventative medicine, I took matters into my own hands and researched and spoke with doctors I already had connections with.
I came across a book by a M.D. named Neil Nathan in Santa Rosa, California. In the book, Dr. Nathan gave hope to those whom the medical system had not been able to help.
I took my daughter to see him, and she was diagnosed with severe penicillin allergy and an array of other food allergies. My daughter was submitted to a series of treatments which included intravenous vitamins injections. When she did her treatments I got to meet a lot of people that were afflicted with similar illnesses, and I developed an immense compassion for these people because I saw that suffering in my daughter. Once my daughter got well, I asked myself, “how can I help these people like my daughter?”
That experience with my daughter and question I asked myself was the inspiration for TellSpec. I shared the idea with my business partner Stephen and we started looking into it about a year and a half ago.
We decided to incorporate in the beginning of February when we actually had some idea of how we would go about it, and some idea of how the algorithm would work. We filed for a patent on August 5th, 2013.
In October, 2013, we launched our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. The people at Indiegogo were absolutely fabulous. They were always there to help and guide us when we need them. The experience has been absolutely fantastic and exciting.
I always recommend Indiegogo to people who are looking to bring an idea to market. A platform like Indiegogo allows you to have a voice. We would never be where we are today unless we did something like this. Where would the funding come from? Where would the media come from? Where would the distribution requests come from? It all came from our crowdfunding campaign.
When Stephen and I were first discussing it at dinner, I said, “I want to help people like my daughter, and I’m going to come up with a handheld device that you can point to food and it tells you what’s in the food and you point at the wall and it tells you what mold is in the wall, and you point at the furniture and tells you what toxins are in there, and you point at the air and can give you the pollution indexes.”
Stephen said, “Well, that’s completely impossible. How would you do that?”
My answer to him was, “With a spectrometer, of course.”
The next issue was that spectrometers are huge. You never really find them in small, hand sized devices that I was thinking of. But I wasn’t going to use a spectrometer from 30 years ago, I was going to find a modern day one. Stephen dared me to find one that was small enough to work.
Within a few days, I had found a company in Toronto, of all places, that produced small spectrometers.
Once we understood what the current software for spectrometers does, he saw that there was an opportunity with Stephen’s knowledge of mathematics in the field of Model Theory to analyze the spectrum in a different way. That’s exactly what he did. He picked up some of his knowledge of mathematics and the field of model theory and topology, and came up with fairly complex algorithms. It took nine months to come up with this algorithm — like a baby!
He kept on saying to me, “it’s not quite there. Let’s test more things.” So we tested a lot of foods until one day Stephen actually smiled and said “Isabel, do you see what you get when you insist that something can be done?”
“The direction that I want to head in is truly personalized medicine.”
The exciting thing about our algorithm is that is completely agnostic. It doesn’t matter if it’s food, blood, urine or pollution. Down the road we see TellSpec not just helping people with diabetes or losing weight, but also being able to count bacteria and viruses so that outbreaks of E. coli could be avoided. Food and meats that are damaged by bacteria can be avoided. Tellspec can have many applications that are not food based; like blood analysis or even urine analysis. The direction that I want to head in is truly personalized medicine.
We aren’t focused on manufacturing because we don’t want to turn into a manufacturing company. We hate the idea of inventories, warehouses, processing orders and shipping.
I’ve been there and I don’t want to do it again. Unfortunately we have to, because there is no such scanner currently, but it isn’t our focus. Our focus will be on making TellSpec better in terms of food and blood. From there, we want to start building in the genomes and microbiomes, and help correlate the food that we eat with the prognosis, diagnosis and the therapy for each person.
It was a nightmare. I originally had to convince Stephen to do a crowdfunding campaign, because he wasn’t convinced. I started talking to people about us doing a campaign, and everyone told me, “oh yeah, I know a guy who did it.” Everybody knew someone. But when I start asking, “can you introduce me to these people?” It was a friend of a friend of a friend. The friend never existed. I never managed to actually speak to a person in Toronto who said to me, “I did a crowdfunding, and this is what I did wrong or right.”
I couldn’t find people who had done it before, so we had to push forward. We said to ourselves, “If we make mistakes, we make mistakes.” We did make a lot of mistakes.
The first mistake was that we didn’t engage a public relation firm months before we started. We engaged the public relation firm on the same day we went live. The publicity came many weeks later, so we basically wasted a month.
The second mistake that we made was making our funding goal flexible. Everybody thought we were a scam — that we just wanted to take the money and run with it. We could never change that. You really shouldn’t make your funding goal flexible.
Even with all the mistakes, I loved every minute of it. I was in Paris raising money and a senior partner of an equity firm who was helping us raise money said, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen anyone addicted to their phone; you look at your phone every 10 minutes!” I said, “No, I’m not. I’m addicted to Indiegogo.” On that day alone we raised over $100,000.
“A company cannot be run on democracy, it has to be run on a vision.”
The first company that I started was in 1988. My friend’s father was a millionaire and was, at the time, the only person that I knew who was a millionaire. I asked my friend, “Please introduce me to your father. I would like to show your father our project and maybe have him invest.”
I had lunch with his father and I explained my new project. He looked at me and said, “Isabel, I’m not going to invest in your company if that’s what you want, but I’m going to give you a piece of advice that will stick with you for the rest of your life. You won’t know if this advice is good advice, but you will remember it.”
So he told me, “Never hesitate. When you run a business, you always make decisions as a leader. Hesitation is the death of business. Make a decision. If you understand that the decision was wrong, admit to the wrong and redo it. But never hesitate. Never give the idea to the people that work with you that you cannot make a decision.”
When I got out of that lunch I thought, “What a waste of time!”
But today, his advice is still with me; he was right.
When we first started there was so much stuff to do, and there were so many people asking questions, but I couldn’t stop. I went at it in a consistent way — answering, deciding, “Okay, we do this. We don’t do this. We do this.”
Even if I was wrong, I still did it, and it was a lifesaver, because it showed that there was leadership. It showed that there was a direction. It showed that I had a vision, and I think this is a really important message.
When people run a company, they often times will listen to one person and then listen to another and they get conflicting messages. Forget it. Decide. You’re the leader. A company cannot be run on democracy, it has to be run on a vision.
What’s your current state of mind?
Curious, interested, eager to know, active, filled with energy.
What is your greatest fear?
That my children are not well physically and I cannot help them.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
To have helped my daughter get well from her long and strange illness.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Which talent would you most like to have?
Which living person do you most admire?
What is your greatest regret?
That my second marriage did not workout.
What’s your favorite quote?
“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” —Gandhi
What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?
What book are you reading right now?
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
True rapid prototyping is possible in areas that are well known and commodities, but not in areas that are not well known. If you add a chip or Bluetooth to something, that’s a commodity, but when you go to actually manufacture a spectrometer, it’s not so simple.
What question would you pose to our next interviewee?
What advice do you use when making decisions in such an uncertain climate?