A CONVERSATION WITH TAMIR BARZILAI, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO OF HONEYCOMB

Honeycomb is a revolutionary AI technology helping empower individuals with dietary restrictions in the U.S, Canada and Australia and we’re thrilled to be the first business in the UK to offer it to JERMS customers in our London cafe.

Honeycomb was born out of your own experience living with the digestive condition Ulcerative Colitis – can you share with us the backstory and how that led you to create what Honeycomb is today?

In 2013 I went on my first flight across the Atlantic. Halfway through the flight I knew something was wrong with me – for those who suffer from IBS/IBD, they’ll know exactly what I mean when I say I was very busy going back and forth, up and down the aisles.

To make a long story short, that was the beginning of a mega flare-up – a flare up that put me in the hospital back in Vancouver just over a month later when I got back, 25 pounds lighter than when I left. My mom couldn’t recognize me at the airport, things weren’t looking up!

To fast forward, I had multiple meetings with dietitians to come up with a diet that could get me into remission. Low-FODMAP elimination diet was what I started with, but ultimately it was a tumultuous three-year journey to finally get to the autoimmune nirvana, the magic word called “remission”.

At the time, I was running another company and would frequently have meetings in downtown Vancouver. After every meeting around lunch, I’d end up at Subway. Why Subway? Because despite the negatives, I could at least pick out which ingredients they put in my food. I felt I had some control. 

However, going to Subway everyday wasn’t sustainable for my palette, even though it was indeed reliable. Here we see a problem: I’m in downtown Vancouver, and there are dozens of amazing restaurants and cafes offering so many delicious meals. However, I didn’t know how to discover suitable items without having to call or visit the restaurant and share my dietary needs. 

Not only is it a tedious process, it’s also at times embarrassing to have to play ingredient-tetris with strangers in order to simply find eat lunch. 

At that point I decided to create Honeycomb. What if there was a mobile application that could profile my exact dietary needs, has access to a database of nearby restaurant menu items, and could simply match me up with items suitable for me to eat? So I teamed up with my friend who’s a computer engineer and we got to work!

Developing Artificial Intelligence to help diners with food allergies and specific diets select suitable items from restaurant menus is no mean feat! What were some of the main challenges you initially faced from a technology and development perspective?

From a restaurant perspective, operators don’t have time to manually annotate and fill out super detailed allergen guides and dietary information. Our AI tool saves restaurants hours of grunt work by using our predictive ingredient/diet labelling feature to help annotate their menu items with the valuable dietary information.

For customers, our AI tool works like what you might expect Netflix or YouTube to do when it comes to making personalized recommendations. Honeycomb services both sides of the experience, therefore making it viable to provide an amazing experience for the end user, only recommending food that explicitly suits their dietary needs and preferences, including intolerances and more allergies.

Alright, let’s talk gut health! At JERMS we’re super passionate about normalising the discussion around our bodily functions. As a young guy suffering with a chronic digestive condition, did you ever feel any isolation or embarrassment around it and, if so, how did you deal with it?

Honestly, at first I never wanted to tell anyone because they might see me as weak or inferior in some way. Having gut issues can indeed be very embarrassing.

I would have trouble going out with friends without knowing the plan in advance (I’d have to map out the washrooms) and camping/travelling/hiking was a huge NO for me, which is particularly bad here in British Columbia where everyone wants to hit the outdoors. 

Now that my baseline is pretty much remission, I find it less severe and therefore my social life has recovered to a relatively normal level where I’m not afraid of the consequences. Thankfully, the people around me are supportive and I can be pretty transparent about everything!

Apart from your diet are there any other lifestyle changes you’ve made that have helped you manage your Ulcerative Colitis? 

Yes! It’s always a combination for me. The perfect storm for a flare up is always multi-factored. High stress, not taking medication, not sleeping enough, and having some cheat meals here and there will all contribute to an imminent flare up.

To keep my gut-health in check, I make sure I get enough sleep, mitigate any cheat meals, stay away from alcohol, and get some exercise in at least 3 to 4 times a week to keep the stress down. I always go by the concept of “Eat. Move. Sleep” as a strategy to stay healthy.

And finally, as the founder of a successful start-up, what 3 points of advice would you give to aspiring founders? 

  1. Keep your mission – your grandest vision – as your North Star. Be unshakeable in your dedication to it, and understand that accomplishing it is going to be monumentally difficult. Knowing that will keep you in the game longer.
  2. Be careful who you take advice from. Keep advisors close, listen to the words of your investors, but ultimately, test each idea with rigorous logic and reasoning and do your best to keep bias and ego from creeping in. Do you want to win or do you want to be right?
  3. Be kind to everyone, even if they piss you off. Sometimes people might say the wrong thing or back down from promises they have made. Keep a trail of kindness behind you everywhere you go – don’t burn bridges!  

To learn more about Honeycomb visit www.honeycomb.ai or follow them on socials @honeycomb_app