Whenever Shireen Yates attends events where meals are offered, she brings snack packs of food because she can hardly eat anything offered — Yates is allergic to gluten, dairy, soy, and eggs.
One evening several years ago, she was at a wedding, but she forgot to bring anything. She was starving, so when a waitress came up to her with some delicious-looking risotto balls, Yates asked if they were gluten free.
“Well, how allergic are you?” the woman asked.
“And that question — maybe I was really hangry in the moment, but I was so tired of that question,” she said. Yates was worried that if she took a chance without knowing if the appetizer had gluten in it, the repercussions would be a week of feeling bad.
She turned to her friend John, a chemical engineer, who was standing next to her, and asked how hard it would be to test a sample of the food. She wanted that data.
That was the spark for 6SensorLabs, the startup Yates co-founded to build products that tell people what’s in their food. It’s designed for people with food allergies, dietary restrictions, or curiosity about what makes up food. The company’s first product is a gluten sensor.
The food allergen landscape has a lot of noise. It’s trendy, especially regarding gluten. But ultimately, Yates said, there’s three million people with celiac disease in the US, and a core population that takes food allergies seriously because their health depends on it.
“What that means for us is building credibility and being very data driven about what we’re offering to the population,” she said. “And also creating a brand that is accessible for people who may try to follow dietary restrictions, whatever their motivations are.”
Yates grew up in the Bay Area, coming from a family of entrepreneurs. She is a first generation immigrant — her parents are from Iran, and when they came to the US, they started their own software tech company. Her uncle owned a restaurant, and from an early age, she was interested in food.
“In my family, food is religion,” she said. “Everything revolves around food and that’s how you connect with people, so it was a pretty big adjustment to my lifestyle cutting those foods out.”
She attended the University of Pennsylvania for college, where she studied international relations. But throughout college, she always had the idea in the back of her head to start her own company. It was also in college when she found out she had severe food allergies after nearly three years of feeling perpetually sick.
After she graduated, Yates went to Google, leveraging some experience she had in online marketing by joining their online sales division and connecting small businesses to consumers. At Google, she was constantly eating out with clients and going on trips where she had to eat at restaurants. She was constantly exposed to the foods, especially gluten, that she was allergic to.
Around that time, however, awareness about gluten intolerance was growing, and Yates wanted to do something to alleviate that pain point for herself and other people. She wanted to bring back the joy of eating and being healthy.
During her five years at Google, Yates volunteered for the Women’s Initiative, which helped low income, high opportunity women start their own companies. Yates helped them figure out how to use Google tools to start their businesses.
“I was just so inspired by these women who just went after it,” she said. “They weren’t afraid to seize the opportunity to start things they were passionate about.”
So she decided to go for it. In 2011, she went to MIT to get her MBA. That was where she started to vet her idea for 6SensorLabs. She wanted to make something that was easy to use at a restaurant, where it would be most beneficial to customers.
Yates and her co-founder, Scott Sundvor, who she met through mutual friends, did a year-long business competition to test their chemistry. Then, they were accepted into a summer accelerator at MIT, where they received funding to start prototyping, and further tested their relationship as co-founders during that program.
At the end of the summer, they both had full-time job offers, but they felt confident enough to take the plunge. They decided to move out to the Bay Area to start their company. In the meantime, Yates got married, and then she and her husband and Scott moved in with her parents for a month to get their bearings.
“My mom was like ‘wow, you got married, got your MBA, and then moved back home with not one, but two men,'” she said.
It was a whirlwind, but 6SensorLabs launched in 2014 and currently has a waitlist for the product. Yates said that when starting the company, she took a lot of things from Google, which she added her own flavor to. She has tried to create a culture of transparency, collaboration, and fun by hiring people who are excited to contribute to a huge mission, she said. She has also tried to hire the most diverse team possible, both in demographics and skillsets.
Originally, Yates said she thought that culture would happen organically, but has had to take on a lot of it herself to make it the kind of company she is proud of. And as they grow and scale, that culture shifts.
“I didn’t realize how deliberate you have to be about setting that tone,” she said. “That’s why hiring is so important.”
The goal is to have the gluten-testing product available for sale by the end of 2015, and they plan on shipping in early 2016. They have 15 employees and, yes, they’re in their own office — far away from her parents’ house.
In her own words…
How do you unplug?
“I am very dependent on exercise and I used to play a lot of sports. Exercise to me is like a 60 minute soccer game or a four or five mile run, but my lifestyle with work doesn’t really allow for that time commitment. So I’ve lowered my standard of what exercise means, but as long as I’m active 15 or 20 minutes a day, exercise is huge. Biking to work and back, or getting a run in, just getting some fresh air, goes a long way. Also I play the piano. Lately, I’ve been replacing my late-night reading with a little piano playing. It’s been so great to tap into that creative side.”
How long have you played piano?
“I have played since I was six or seven. I played pretty seriously all the way through mid-high school and it dropped off when I didn’t have as much access to a piano in college. I was playing all these classical pieces, pretty heavy pieces, and now I feel like I’m playing a new instrument because i’m like, I can play whatever I want. I listen to a song and look up the notes online and try to recreate that, which is really nice.”
What is some advice you would give others?
“Asking why until you’re satisfied, and don’t easily be satisfied is something I would share with people. Through this search for the solution, what we’re doing right now, when I was in that information, data-gathering stage, I kept asking what was on the market and why can’t we speed this up, and I was told no, you can’t. And I was like, well, why? I think that often times we take that first answer as that’s it, and there’s a huge opportunity to dig deeper to get to the core of why, and there’s room to navigate and create an outcome you want that’s achievable.”