Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Airo Promises to Monitor Food Intake With a Spectroscopic Wristband — Theoretically

Despite their recent popularity, one of the bigger failings of wearable activity trackers and fitness wristbands is that none of them have any idea what you’re eating.

Manual entry, calorie counting, ingredient weighing and picture taking are among the extremely inexact ways to track food. And you have to admit that it’s kind of silly to monitor output if you have little idea what you’re putting into your body.

So that’s why a tiny Canadian startup called Airo Health, which is still a year away from putting a product on the market, might be interesting. Airo says it has figured out how to measure food consumption by shining tiny LEDs on the underside of a wristband to detect metabolites in the bloodstream.

The company aims to use spectroscopy to detect sugar, protein, salt and carb intake, explained Airo co-founder and CEO Abhilash Jayakumar in a recent interview at a coffee shop in San Francisco.

Airo will also measure heart-rate variability to detect stress levels, and track exercise and sleep, like other fitness wristbands.

Jayakumar, who graduated from University of Waterloo last year, came to our meeting armed with multiple models of Airos, which were wide silver plastic cuffs with a layer of soft padding underneath. He explained that his team of four, based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, expected to have a working device by December.

The reason Jayakumar wanted to meet is to get attention for Airo, which as of today is accepting preorders of its wristband for $149. For now, the startup is operating on $85,000 from Canadian and Waterloo grants.

Airo’s three founders are recent University of Waterloo engineering graduates. Jayakumar is on the right.

Jayakumar, who was in the Bay Area for a quantified-self conference, told me that, the day before we met, he had taken the bus to Caltrain to reach Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road to try to see venture capitalists interested in investing in wearables.

He didn’t have appointments, so he tried to charm and pitch receptionists. It was a long, hot slog that resulted in a few email addresses, though one of them was — not terrifically promising.

Over coffee, I asked Jayakumar whether he could show me what he personally had eaten that morning. He said he couldn’t, as the Airo app hadn’t been built yet.

So I had to wonder … was I being punked? Jayakumar had no working prototype, no working app or even a hack to show how his product worked, and no investors who would attest to his acumen or hustle or seriousness.

In his defense, Jayakumar insisted that he was a terrible liar, and I’d be able to tell if this was all a joke.

Well, fine. I agreed to believe that he, at least, was for real — even if the wristband was not. A great demo is no guarantee of success, either. And the idea that someone could make a breakthrough in wearable food-tracking is tantalizing.

If all goes well, Airo will be released in the fall of 2014, Jayakumar said. So we’ll have to check back in next year.

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