Ashley Dombkowski was 12 years old when she landed her first job at a cardiologist’s office in Los Angeles. Dombkowski’s in? Her grandmother, Sally Cody, was a nurse technician there.
Dombkowski was drawn to how they used analytical data to better understand cardiovascular disease.
Her fascination with data and science at a young age guided much of her career. She earned a PhD in mathematics, invested in major biotechnology companies and spent two years as the chief business officer of 23andMe, a human genome company best known for helping people explore their ancestry through DNA tests.
They recently launched SpoonfulOne, a daily dietary supplement powder designed to help a child’s immune system get to know the foods responsible for 90 percent of food allergies.
SpoonfulOne contains Vitamin D and extremely small portions of 16 food proteins, including peanuts, milk, eggs and soy. When a child is between four and six months old, a parent can begin mixing the supplement into the baby’s food once a day. SpoonfulOne is not for children who have already been diagnosed with a food allergy. The mix-in is a way for parents to expose their babies to a wide range of foods in a simple way.
“Trying to get all of those foods into your house and then into the diet so consistently” is almost impossibly difficult to do, she said.
The idea behind SpoonfulOne lies in the mantra “early and often.” If a child is introduced to potentially allergenic foods early on, research suggests it might help prevent allergies.
Dombkowski’s two daughters don’t have food allergies, but she’s seen their friends battle the condition, along with her nephew.
“We have food allergies all around us, and I never remember seeing it when I was a kid in school,” Dombkowski said. The data backs her up.
From 1997–1999 to 2009–2011, food allergy prevalence among children has increased by 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There is something going on in the environment that is disrupting our immune system,” Dombkowski said. “We have [almost] six million children in the U.S. with a food allergy now. Some food allergies have been doubling in the past decade … That can’t be explained by genetics alone. It has to be environmental.”
Although there is no definitive reason why food allergies are on the rise among children in the U.S., some researchers point to changes in food processing, particularly when it comes to peanuts. The hygiene hypothesis is also a popular theory. Essentially, the hypothesis states, our environments are too clean. Kids aren’t being exposed to enough germs, and their immune systems “can’t tell the difference between harmless and harmful irritants.”
Dombkowski’s nephew is allergic to tree nuts and dairy, and there wasn’t a family history. Seeing him struggle really impacted her.
“It could have just as easily been my kids because there was no reason to think it could have been my nephew,” she said. “And when I saw as a scientist and a biotech entrepreneur that I could bring all that expertise and thinking to a new generation of families, I had to do it.”
Dombkowski met Nadeau, an expert in adult and pediatric allergy and asthma, at Stanford about seven years ago. While a lot of immunology research focuses on “turning up” the immune system to fight diseases like cancer, Nadeau’s thought was to “turn the system down,” so it didn’t overreact to things, like food. (At the time, Nadeau was working on the formula that would pave the way for SpoonfulOne.) This impressed Dombkowski.
She saw the potential for a consumer “preservation product.”
“You’ve got this healthy young baby, and let’s keep it that way,” Dombkowski said. Rather than reacting to a food allergy and attempting to treat it, the product they envisioned would preserve non-allergic babies.
In 2015, Dombkowski and Nadeau decided to go into business together. But before Dombkowski quit her job at a life sciences venture capital firm, the two women sat down to make sure they were on the same page.
They agreed on four words: Intelligently, creatively, responsibly and urgently.
SpoonfulOne’s cheapest subscription option is $900 for a year’s worth of product. Since SpoonfulOne is for children who don’t already have allergies, it’s an extra cost for parents who are already on limited budgets.
“I think that regardless of your household income, parents aren’t trying to [figure out] whether getting a food allergy is cost-effective or not,” Dombkowski said. “They just don’t want their kids to have one.”