Growing up in Edison, New Jersey, Dennis Ai scarfed down potato skins and beef jerky by the bagful. The junk diet packed on the pounds, and with the weight came all the social anxiety, ridicule, and isolation of growing up heavy. “The kids at my school made fun of me,” recalls Ai. “And once when I asked a girl out, she said she didn’t want a fat boyfriend.”
Ai eventually conquered his weight problem with exercise and healthy eating, but the painful memories of those years never left him. Out of them grew the idea for a business that could help other kids avoid what he had suffered. Why not, he wondered, create a video game that encouraged healthy eating habits?
The idea was still rattling around when he left for Northwestern University in September 2009 and met fellow student and software engineer Chris Yenko, 19, and Tribeca Flashpoint Academy students Hailey Schmidt, 20, a game artist, Nathan Wangler, 21, a game designer, and serial entrepreneur Tom Denison, 49.
The company’s first mobile game, Jungo takes 6 to 11 year olds through a series of levels and challenges to retrieve a sacred tome of culinary secrets from the evil Mertle the Turtle. Along the way, they need to gather healthy foods and create recipes to earn upgrades for their characters, which include an apple-loving bear named Hugo and Aki, a monkey who is addicted to almonds. Some of the ingredients exist in the game world, while others only exist in the real world. Consequently, in order to complete the recipe, players need to collect an apple (or some other healthy treat) in their own home or at the supermarket, photograph it, and upload the photo into the game as a virtual apple. Players can download the game for free; Ai's business model assumes that they'll eventually want to unlock additional characters and other props for a fee.
“It’s really difficult to preach to kids about eating a nutritious diet, but through this role-playing game, finding and eating healthy food becomes fun,” says Ai. “Plus, the game will encourage parents to have these foods around where their children can find it.”
Even though it is still in prototpe, the game is already getting noticed. Just recently JiveHealth took first place in a competition hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge. The win garnered Ai a $10,000 cash prize, along with expert mentoring from senior executives at Edelman, McKinsey & Company, and Startup Health. The company is also a Top 15 team in Microsoft's Imagine Cup Accelerator.
Matthew Corrin, founder and CEO of healthy food chain Freshii, sits on the JiveHealth board and thinks the company has the right strategy at the right time for the fight against childhood obesity.
“I think it’s timely--especially with Michelle Obama promoting her Let’s Move! campaign--because the government is behind the initiative,” says Corrin. “I think it will come down to how engaging the games are. If they aren’t fun then it won’t work. But if they are, JiveHealth has a great shot at reaching its goals to educate kids about nutrition and combat this epidemic.“
The next phase: Ai has been testing the prototype on children in a neighborhood church. “The first step is to make sure we have a game that kids love playing,” says Ai. The next testing phase will aim to determine whether the game can actually trigger better behavior. “That will be more difficult,” admits Ai.
JiveHealth plans to put the game on the market this summer, starting on the iPhone, with Android and Windows versions to follow. Ai, whose initial capital totalled a less than lofty $1,000, also hopes to attract some investors by then. He has temporarily dropped out of school to get the business up and running, but believes he will have enough credits to graduate in June 2013.
“I love the challenge of going after this epidemic,” says Ai. “I wake up at 7 a.m. and go to sleep at midnight, and I don’t do anything else in between but this.”
Coolest College Start-ups: JiveHealth
Former video game (and junk food) addict Dennis Ai of Northwestern created a game that teaches kids about nutrition. Michele Obama is a big fan.