The Israeli Startup That Knows What You’re Eating

Nutrino, recently sold to Medtronic, uses your cellphone to analyze your diet and create a personalized eating plan

File photo: Nutrino founders Dr. Yaron Hadad and Jonathan Lipnik and CEO Yael Glassman
Nutrino Health Ltd

The offices of Nutrino Health in Tel Aviv have a spacious kitchen, with fresh produce laid out on a table and jars of nuts and dried fruit on shelves. There’s also a bottle of Champagne, left over from last month’s celebration when the medical device giant Medtronic announced that it was acquiring the Israeli startup after a successful two-year collaboration.

Medtronic, a company with a market cap of $125 billion, didn’t reveal what it paid for Nutrino because the amount wasn’t big enough to require it. But the estimates are around $80 million, eight times the capital invested in the startup since it was founded a decade ago.

Nutrino’s guiding principle is that food affects people differently, and cookie-cutter diets aren’t sufficient. Its first product was a free app for creating a personalized food plan. It offered menu plans based on each user’s personal goals — such as eating more healtful foods, losing weight or building muscle — and taking into account each user’s physical activity and medical profile.

Over time, Nutrino assembled a valuable database for medical device companies on the links between diet, personal habits and physiology. The other half of its database comes from 400 information sources — academic papers, information from food companies, data from wearable devices such as insulin pumps.

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Another top source is photographs of the food eaten by users and stored on their cellphones.

"We needed to document food. It could be in speech or writing, but in practice we discovered that people like to photograph their food," says Yael Glassman, Nutrino’s CEO. “It’s easier for users and it also adds a personal context — you don’t even have to open the app when you take pictures. You can add the pictures afterward and important data such as where and when you eat. We automatically extract data about your diet from the images on your device.”

Nutrino’s algorithms rate the foods that were photographed according to how the user’s body has reacted to eating them.

The company established partnerships not only with Medtronic but also with Abbot Laboratories and Dexcom. The goal of the cooperation with Medtronic was particularly ambitious: the development of an artificial pancreas for people with Type 1 diabetes — formerly called juvenile diabetes — by monitoring blood sugar levels and introducing insulin as needed.

Today, people with Type 2 diabetes typically use an insulin pump to supply fixed amounts on a continual basis. The drawback is that users have to test their blood sugar levels throughout the day and the pumps can’t adjust themselves automatically to the body’s changing demand for insulin.

Buying Nutrino will give Medtronic’s artificial pancreas the ability to know what foods the user is eating and adjust insulin levels automatically. Apart from that, Medtronic is interested in helping health care systems to reduce patient care costs, a task that information and artificial intelligence companies such as Nutrino can help achieve.

“Food is something that interests the employees here, even when they are out of the office,” says Glassman. “Among our employees we have vegans, diabetics and athletes, and it’s one of the things that helps us to recruit staff — mission-driven companies that create an emotional connection can be more competitive.”

Diet is also personally important to Nutrino’s two founders. Yaron Hadad, its chief scientist, was one of the first recruits to win recognition as a vegan by the Israel Defense Forces. Jonathan Lipnik, Nutrino’s president, has his own family history.

“My grandparents didn’t reach a ripe old age because of heart problems; I’ve been taking blood pressure medication since the age of 30 and have been under the supervision of a nutritionist since I was 8, so the topic is close to my heart,” he said.

Hadad and Lipnik met in the army, where they served in the research unit of the personnel division and first encountered the world of statistics. They won an award for helping to cut the drop-out rate for combat troops by 50% by their statistical research on what candidates make the best soldier.

When they founded Nutrino in 2011 it was with the idea of using those same kind of methods in the realm of diet. Glassman, who joined as CEO in 2015, brings business experience to the venture after a career at various U.S. startups and an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was Glassman who brought Nutrino to Medtronic three years ago.

Nutrino made the transition from a consumer app for wellness to a digital health company that provides data to medical devices with a focus on chronic diseases, diabetes in particular.

“The idea and the product behind Nutrino could have been adapted to all kinds of purposes, like dieting, for example,” Glassman said. “But in the end you have to decide on a route and a goal that are commercially viable.”