Food Techies Commence: Insights from Branchfood’s November Panel

by Micaela Young

Perkins + Will, an architecture firm in downtown Boston, was the unlikely gathering place of health and food innovators on Wednesday, November 16. The event? Friedman alum and Branchfood founder Lauren Abda hosted an evening entitled “Innovators in Food Tech & Health,” a panel discussion and product tasting event showcasing startups and companies creating new solutions to age old problems of behavior change. Discussed was everything from the potential for food tech as a tool in preventative health, to how innovative start-up apps are using new ways to promote healthy eating and exercising.

At networking events, I am usually the awkward person standing in the periphery, deeply enveloped in conversations that I am actually not a part of. (Sigh.) But that was not the case at Branchfood’s November event. Geeking out about food with innovators, including students at Harvard developing solutions to refugee access to fresh produce, and the founder of a small, New Hampshire based fermented food company, MicroMama’s, this Friedmanite fit right in.

These start-ups were all brought together by Lauren Abda, a Friedman alum who is herself an innovator. After graduating from the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program in 2012, she worked at the World Trade Organization in Geneva for two years as a Fellow in the Agriculture and Commodities Division. Ready for a change of scenery, Lauren came back to Boston and worked for a tech company called Litmus. Noticing that food tech and start-ups were fragmented, that there was poor flow and knowledge sharing between entrepreneurs in Boston—a hub for innovation—and that new companies needed support, Lauren started a meet-up group that eventually became Branchfood, which now offers monthly events, panels, classes, newsletters, networking meet-ups, and office hours for people looking to launch ventures in a slightly more informed way. Branchfood also leases space in their downtown Boston office to budding creatives and companies in need of a place to plant their seeds.

Branchfood’s November 2016 panel discussion took place at Perkins + Will, a global architecture firm with a number of projects focused on health and wellness. David Dymecki, the Sports and Recreation Global Market Leader, explained in his kick-off welcome speech that not only is the firm seeing a growing trend in active design, but that food is an important part of office culture. “The next best thing about eating good food,” Dymecki noted, “is talking about good food.” I certainly can’t argue with that!

Janelle Nanos, an esteemed reporter at the Boston Globe who covers tech and innovation, as well as the business of food (she interviewed our own Tim Griffin for a story on hydroponics in November), began by having the panelists introduce themselves:

In the first seat was Jake Cacciapaglia, VP of Media at Runkeeper, a mobile running app that helps runners, from weekending warriors to seasoned marathoners. With over 50 million users, the app was recently acquired by Asics in March, presenting a new challenge for Cacciapaglia and his team in learning how to find balance between the app and its users, the marketing and selling of shoes and apparel, and helping Asics be more relevant in the digital world. The app incorporates nutrition guidance by partnering with apps like LoseIt! and MyFitnessPal.

Next up was Kyle Cahill, the Director of Sustainability and Environmental Health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Cahill’s biggest focus is on understanding how environmental factors influence society’s health.

The fourth panelist was Tara McCarthy, chief dietitian and co-founder of Kindrdfood, an app bringing focus to people who need to change their diet—for medical reasons—and bringing her expertise into their homes. McCarthy has also worked at Boston Children’s Hospital part-time since 2001.

Last but not least was Ian Brady, the Chief Executive of AVA, an app providing personalized nutritional guidance. Using their technology that is a combo plate of human intelligence (dietitians), plus robots, AVA is able to use client’s goals and food preferences to provide real-time recommendations that adapt “on the fly.” Oh—and AVA can tell you the macronutrient composition of a meal with just a photo! (Cue animated mind exploding clip.)

Nanos: What is your target audience? 

Cacciapaglia noted that most of their users are just trying to make running a part of the lifestyle, with a primary goal of weight loss. But the app isn’t just for helping weekend warriors form habits, or guiding experienced runners through harder training plans and race goals.  The ultimate target, Cacciapaglia says, are those who aren’t motivated, who aren’t likely to hit download in the first place.

Turns out this was a major theme of the night: amotivation.

Our health is multifactorial, noted Cahill, driven by our genes, our choices, and our environments, yet most of our resourceso to treating people once they are sick. “Food is cross cutting…the availability and quality of food, as well as where you live plays a significant role in food choices.” At Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cahill and colleagues bring an ecologic model to thinking about health, from individual choices to food system decisions.

Kindrdfood, McCarthy explained, targets anyone with health conditions, anyone who needs to change the way they eat. McCarthy then eloquently described the “care gap” between physician instructions (eat these foods; these foods are off limits) and what is actually put on the table, or taken to school in a lunchbox. Targeting all ages—although she admitted adults follow instructions better when the change is for their children—Kindrdfood attracts those who have just been diagnosed and are motivated to seek help. “The uphill battle,” said McCarthy, “is reaching those who do not think they need to change.”

Brady added that the common thread of why AVA users sign on is convenience, for real-time instant access (the “just tell me what to eat” folks). But the app also helps users manage conditions and link well-being with food. AVA targets those who want to change, but want help doing so.

Nanos: What do you see technology doing for your company?

Cahill took this question first, explaining that Blue Cross has an investment arm, called Zaffre, that is involved in helping local start-ups. One example in their portfolio is Zest Health, a platform for helping people access and navigate healthcare benefits, medical information and provider options more efficiently. But Zaffre’s investments are not just for linking patients to providers technologically, Cahill noted. They also prop up those who are using technology on the preventative side. For this, Cahill gave the example of Ovuline, a fertility trackernd health guidance app that follows women from preconception through child raising.

McCarthy then spoke of how telehealth, or video chatting with clients, is Kindrdfood’s only way of reaching clients. Why? Because it’s easy for families, McCarthy explained, and practitioners are able to be in their living rooms with them. “I get a lot more out of a visit when I am in their house. Being in their house, seeing how comfortable they are, seeing their actual food, seeing that they don’t have a table, seeing that the baby or child eats on the floor…that piece is huge.” McCarthy also explained that video chatting enables her to reach multiple caregivers, whereas in a traditional hospital or appointment setting you may not. And patients usually request more frequent visits than would normally be recommended. Telehealth adds an element of convenience inpatient appointments cannot come close to. However, the broken piece, she said, is connecting healthcare to use all of these technologies in sync.

Cacciapaglia echoed that telehealth is a great tool technology can offer, but noted that he has observed that maintaining app use and behavior change after these conversations was hard for clients even though the quality of time spent with the dietitian was great. But he was hopeful. “Having a nutritionist seems out of reach,” Cacciapaglia said. “It is expensive to have a one-on-one session and is hard to find the time, but it is now becoming more accessible.”

Because Brady and his team at AVA did not explicitly tell clients whether their recommendations and dietary information was coming from a person or a robot—keeping it vague—he has found that clients share more information than they might one-on-one with a dietitian. “People don’t have to look at someone through a video chat interface and share the bad thing they just did.” Instead, they can send it over text. This personal distance, whether good or bad, seems to be working for AVA, who sees the technology moving into forecasting, making proactive recommendations to clients to help them make the right choice—before they have to make it. How? Well, Brady explained that the technology uses natural language processing that attempts to tailor the response based on the question. The technical piece, however, is made up of a “backbone” of dietitians.

Nanos: What do you think the data you are pulling now could potentially do? What could we learn?

Cahill sees that the data he and his colleagues are pulling could be used on the population level. His vision is the creation of robust mapping tools that could integrate their data with public data sets around things that impact health, including where someone lives, the food environment, and access to medical clinics. Blue Cross Blue Shield could then zero-in to better work with employers on healthcare and interventions. Cahill explained that he would also like to use their data to promote a more holistic view in healthcare that includes nutrition habits, someone’s income, and other social issues that impact health. As an example, Cahill noted that he’s a vegetarian, “but my doctor’s never asked me that. May be nice to know—maybe not.”

AVA is looking for data to help fuel client’s motivation, to keep them accountable. Brady said that they leverage Myers-Briggs profiles, which he believes helps AVA take note of how an individual typically behaves and converses in order to best match responses, tailoring the conversation to the users’ level. Brady explained that if you speak formally, AVA wants to “speak” formally. And vice versa. “We often describe internally that we have ‘Ava’ who is sort-of middle of the road, then we have an ‘Emma’ version who is very supportive and will never yell at you for what you eat,” Brady said. “And then we have an ‘Olga’ version, who is very direct—you will not like the feedback you are going to get. I tried Olga, but I had to switch.”

Maybe Isaac Asimov was on to something…

Cacciapaglia sees the data as adding value to the customer experience, while making the app more relevant in runners’ lives. “Not only are we trying to figure out who is most valuable to us as a customer,” he said, “but we want to try and map out the journey of each of the members and be more relevant in that journey. For example, you can serve ads to someone on Facebook or in whatever app you are in, but if it’s not the right time or it doesn’t speak to you, we’re like ‘get out of my face’ with that stuff.”

Nanos: Where would you love to see the technology advance to?

McCarthy was eager to answer Nanos’ last question of the night. “I would love to see that we are not talking so much about medicine and talking more about prevention.” Her vision: “When you pull up someone’s e-medical records, a food button is there. We want that to be a focus, so it’s not an afterthought—it’s not skipped. A future where everyone is trained in food, everyone talks about food. I feel that it is a part that gets missed…these are big things.” To bring the point home, McCarthy recounts a time when a child’s healthcare team thought she was having a GI bleed. It turns out that the red fluid in the child’s tube was not blood at all, but beets that the child had eaten earlier in the day!

Then Brady took the floor. “Our ultimate goal is to help people fall in love with food again.” He aims for AVA to help clients be able to sit down and enjoy the experience—before, during, and after eating. “Our goal is to help people find that connection again.”

Cahill explained that he envisions technology helping to fix our broken food system, whether that means people’s appreciation of food, or if it means the process of getting food from field to table. “More money now goes into getting people to eat junk food that they shouldn’t eat than the other way around.”

In the last comment of the night, Cacciapaglia topped us off by reminding everyone that it is really hard to make healthy decisions all the time. (I hear you loud and clear, Jake!) “One thing that is really frustrating,” Cacciapaglia said, “is that I’m in my 30s and I still don’t understand what happens when I put something in my body and what my body is doing with that thing. Our education system doesn’t do a good job—unless you do a specific track to get that knowledge—we don’t really know.” He noted that we are left to discern media messages and advertisement intentions on our own. “Even with great effort on my part, I still have the question: ‘So what should I do?’ Technology can be powerful in making this journey a lot easier for an individual to take action, avoid temptation, and shape the environment in a way to do so.”

 

Branchfood’s November event was an interesting look into a side of the industry we don’t often talk about in classes at Friedman. Behavior change and motivation issues, however, are a constant topic of conversation. It seems that while technology can be a powerful tool to evoke change in those who are motivated, it is not yet the magic bullet of prevention. Only time will tell.

I encourage Sprout readers to check out Branchfood’s upcoming events HERE.

Micaela Young is a second-year Nutrition Communication student trying to soak up as much of Boston life as she can before graduation. First on her Boston bucket list is attending more Branchfood events!

 

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