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The Right Stuff

USC Marshall startup pushes a new solution to childhood food allergies

February 14, 2019
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“Peanuts are scary and babies seem delicate.”

It was that insight that led Daniel Zakowski, CEO of Ready, Set, Food! and his team of Marshall alumni, physicians, scientists and parents to solve the problem of childhood food allergies.

Food allergies remain one of the thorniest issues in parenting. They represent an almost perfect storm of parental concerns and anxieties centered on “Am I accidentally doing something that might harm my child” coupled with “How can I teach—or start to teach—some independence and resilience without doing harm?”

According to new guidelines from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there is clear evidence that small, measureable, increasing amounts of possible allergens—think eggs, milk, and nuts in particular—can prepare very young children for those foods without triggering allergic reactions.

Zakowski started the company called Ready, Set, Food! to address that anxiety. His drive was born of an experience his brother-in-law and co-founder, Andrew Leitner M.D., had with his son Abe. The new research on food allergy prevention pointed to the importance of introducing allergenic foods early—during a critical immune window that appears as early as 4 months of age—to  help reduce the risk of developing food allergies by up to 80 percent.

However, after Dr. Leitner waited to introduce peanuts when Abe was ready for solid foods at 6 months of age, Abe suffered a severe allergic reaction. After his son’s experience, Dr. Leitner was convinced that they missed a critical immune window for Abe even at 6 months, simply because there wasn’t a better solution to introducing peanuts as early as 4 months.

The result was that Abe now suffers from multiple food allergies, including peanut, egg, and dairy.

The Easy Introduction

Food allergies, it turns out, do have food-based solutions, when introduced in a controlled, pre-set way.

But there is one very obvious hold up when trying to get kids to do anything “controlled” or “pre-set.”

“Every parent knows that babies don’t eat perfectly measurable, replicable amounts of food,” said Zakowski. “Many babies aren’t able to because they’re not developmentally ready, and others because they don’t like the texture or taste.

“We went looking for a solution to make it easy for all parents to give their babies the best chance at an allergy-free future, and for us that meant making early and sustained food allergen introduction easy.”

Backed by Science

The science on the issue is largely settled, in fact. According to new guidelines from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there is clear evidence that small, measureable, increasing amounts of possible allergens—think eggs, milk, and nuts in particular—can prepare very young children for those foods without triggering allergic reactions.

But, as Dr. Leitner experienced, trying to expose kids to potential allergens in a responsible way can take long enough that the allergies develop anyway. Ready, Set, Food! came up with the solution—quite  literally—of creating  powders of common allergens that can be mixed with either breast milk or formula to start children early on the path to avoiding food allergies.

Both pediatricians and the marketplace see promise in the approach. Ready, Set, Food! has more than 200 pediatricians, allergists and physicians to validate its solutions.

And while Zakowski himself may be a Bruin, the company does have deep Trojan roots, with Marshall alumni representing half of his team, and working closely with the leadership of Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

“I’m excited to work with the Ready, Set, Food! team because their product is so innovative and their goal of eliminating common food allergies is so important and needed, now more than ever,” said Helena Yli-Renko, director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, holder of the Orfalea Director's Chair in Entrepreneurship and professor of clinical entrepreneurship at Marshall.