Bowl Season: Raleigh’s Intake Tackles Preventive Health In Innovative Way

Intake CEO Michael Bender celebrates with RIoT's championship belt after winning the RIoT Accelerator Program Pitch Night last Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Durham's Hayti Heritage Center.

Imagine that monitoring your health was as easy as sitting down on—or standing at—the toilet to pee.

Now it can be. With Raleigh-based startup Intake’s in-toilet sensor that tests your urine to monitor your diet and other biological markers, there will be a more seamless way to reduce chronic disease.

Brothers Brian and Michael Bender founded Intake in 2016. Just having earned a PhD from UCLA in bioengineering, Brian Bender knew he wanted to work in healthcare in hopes of making a big impact. He kept coming back to preventive healthcare.

“That’s such a good return on effort that’s put in if you can fix something before the problem arises,” said Brian Bender, “and sort of everything kept leading back to dietary problems. Even in my own life, realizing that there was no good way to understand what my diet was at any given time. So when I started looking into it, urine tests kept coming up for a variety of measures, and I realized that there’s no good way to do that on a routine basis.”

Naturally, Brian got his brother Michael, who had been involved in entrepreneurship, on board. Now Michael is Intake’s CEO and Brian the CTO.

The Intake product hangs on the edge of the toilet similar to an air freshener, but there’s a tube going into the bowl, taking a small sample. With disposable biosensors that look like little plastic strips, Intake can detect many things from the sample but right now focuses on measuring sodium and potassium. This is to help people manage their blood pressure naturally in the hopes that they can get off blood pressure medication—which could lead to a significant savings for patients and insurance companies alike.

The device is cellular-connected and currently sends its data to the cloud, where users can access and analyze it. But as the startup goes through customer discovery with its late-stage prototype, Intake hopes to eventually enable users to read their health information like a scale, with a display on the device itself.

“While we can measure thousands of diet biomarkers,” Michael Bender said, “as a startup, I think it’s important to increase our odds of getting to market that we lower our technical risks and our regulatory overhead. But you have this mission that whatever we work on, we want it to have a significant positive global health impact.”

Intake startup hopes to officially launch its product by late next year and is currently focused on finding partners to execute clinical studies on Intake’s data and gain acceptance in the clinical community.

“It’s really important for us to be rooted in medical-grade quality,” Michael Bender said. “We don’t want to be looked at as a consumer wellness device. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I think our technology has such potential to really be clinical decision input. We’re measuring sodium today, but we can move into diagnostics screening and management of chronic conditions like chronic kidney disease, diabetes, mental health and just a whole plethora of things. So we want to make sure we start off as clinical data and want to be validated in a very medically rigorous way.”

A prototype of the Intake device

Intake is bootstrapped, but grants from the National Institute of Health for $145K and $245K from the National Science Foundation helped expand the startup to a four-person company, Michael Bender said. Intake also took home the top prize at RIoT’s most recent pitch event on Nov. 19 after completing the RIoT Accelerator Program, as well as an Innovate UK grant valued at $80K.

As an early distribution strategy, Michael Bender wants to target self-insured companies that strive to keep their employees healthier and more productive. After proving the concept, the hope would then be to approach larger insurance companies.

According to the World Health Organzation, at least 80% of all heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes can be prevented. Preventive devices like Intake are leading this charge by allowing people to be more aware of their diet—and how it affects their health—on a daily basis.

“With our customer discovery, it’s pretty enlightening,” Michael Bender said. “So we’re talking to people with hypertension and trying to figure out, does managing sodium help these people? And we’re getting calls very easily for people saying, ‘Yes, I would love this today. This would help me so much.’”

Industry expert George Bakris, the Director of the American Heart Association’s Comprehensive Hypertension Center, even gave his stamp of approval to Intake.

“We connected with him and when he tells you, ‘I think your solution will help millions of people get off of blood pressure medications,’ it’s pretty reinvigorating that you’re working on the right thing,” Michael Bender said. “Ultimately I think we want to get one of these devices in everybody’s hand to be preventive care. If we can significantly drive down the rates globally of chronic conditions, that would be pretty awesome to help hundreds of millions of people live more fulfilling, productive lives. I think our technology can do that.”

About Suzanne Blake 362 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.