An upset tummy may lead to €8bn market for FoodMarble

Wanting to help his girlfriend led to an invention with global possibilities, Dr Aonghus Shortt tells Trish Dromey.

Wanting to help his girlfriend led to an invention with global possibilities, Dr Aonghus Shortt tells Trish Dromey.

In a grand romantic gesture of a most unusual kind, Dublin entrepreneur Aonghus Shortt did much more than go get antacids for his girlfriend when she had digestive problems — he invented the world’s first personal digestive tracker and set up a company to produce it.

Three years on, the company — called FoodMarble — has a staff of four. It is taking pre-orders for the device which is scheduled for release in August, and Dr Shortt is working on raising €1m to develop the business internationally.

In 2014, he was finishing a PhD in electrical engineering when his girlfriend’s concern about digestive issues led him to research digestive problems and the type of technology being used to diagnose them.

“I discovered that gastroenterologists were using large expensive machines which analysed breath to determine which food components individuals had difficulty digesting,” said Dr Shortt, explaining that Aire, the handheld device he developed, is a miniature version of this.

He began tinkering casually with the technology at the kitchen table but six months on, he realised that the project had commercial potential. 

Research showed him that one in eight people worldwide has highly disruptive digestive disorders caused by difficulties in digesting food components, mainly lactose and fructose.

Dr Shortt identified huge global opportunities for a company able to develop the first handheld consumer device, which individuals could use to identify the foodstuffs causing their problems and reduce or eliminate them from their diet.

By the end of 2015, he had a working prototype as well as an app which is used in conjunction with the device. Establishing FoodMarble in Dublin in early 2016, he recruited a team of five and secured a place on the HAX accelerator programme in China — the largest hardware accelerator programme in the world.

“This allowed me to advance the prototype, build a business model, and think about routes to market. It also brought in $100,000 in funding,”he said, adding that he carried out small-scale testing at the start of the year and had the Aire ready for market by July.

In September, Dr Shortt launched the company’s first pre-order campaign which lasted ten days.

“We pre-sold 500 units valued at €50,000 — mainly in the US and also in Canada, the UK, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand.”

To achieve this level of pre-sales, the company relied totally on social media advertising. Dr Shortt says that pre-sales were helped by the company’s participation in the HAX Accelerator programme, as it gave an enormous boost to the company’s credibility.

In December, FoodMarble again opened up its website for pre-orders and is continuing to pre-sell them for €109 each and has since sold another 1,000 units with a value of €100,000.

The company started this year with a visit to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas which has helped raise its profile.

It also won the Dublin South Local Enterprise Office Best Start up award securing €15,000 in prize money and a place in the regional final of the Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur competition.

Identified by Enterprise Ireland as a High Potential Start up, FoodMarble is now in discussions with manufacturers in Asia and Eastern Europe and will select one this month.

“In March, we will start large-scale user testing. In April, we plan to grow the team, and in August, we plan to start shipping out preorders,” said Dr Shortt.

In order to build the team and market Aire, the company has initiated discussions with a number of VC companies and private investors with a view to raising €1m.

While the priority now is to get the devices manufactured and delivered on time, the company plans at the end of 2017 to seek recognition for Aire to be used as a medical device in the US.

With the launch of the new device, Dr Shortt is aiming both to improve his girlfriend’s digestive problems and also to target an addressable market he estimates to be worth €8bn.


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