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Students Tackle Childhood Obesity Through Game App

The group hopes to present to First Lady Michelle Obama at a summit in March

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January 15, 2013 | by Brendan Cosgrove

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A group of entrepreneurs led by two Northwestern University students is  vying for a chance to win $10,000 in seed money, have face time with influential business leaders and meet First Lady Michelle Obama.

It’s all in an effort to combat childhood obesity through the Partnership for a Healthier America’s End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge.

The group’s company, JiveHealth, is developing a video game app for smartphones that promotes healthy eating behaviors by incorporating what kids eat in the real world into the game itself.

“The game works the way most role-playing games do,” said Dennis Ai, the company’s founder and a Northwestern senior majoring in computer science and economics. “Players progress through levels, challenging opponents of increasing size and strength. With each new level, the player’s own character needs to be upgraded.”

To upgrade characters, the game sends players on real-world missions to hunt down healthy, tasty foods. Kids then submit photos of those healthy foods that, when recognized by the app, boost the game characters, Ai said.

Christian Yenko, a Northwestern sophomore also majoring in computer science and economics, is the company’s software engineer.

JiveHealth is currently one of ten semifinalists in the challenge. The top three, as determined by voting on Facebook, will travel to Washington in March to present their innovations at a PHA summit.

Ai said traveling to the summit and winning the competition would offer his company a leg up as they continue to fine-tune their product.

“Establishing partnerships with health insurers, employers, and food companies and national exposure from winning the competition would help raise a first round of funding,” he said.

In addition to the two Northwestern students, the JiveHealth team consists of game designer Nathan Wangler and game artist Hailey Schmidt, both students at Chicago’s Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, and Tom Denison, vice president of marketing and business development.

“We’re not trying to force kids to eat broccoli or celery or foods that they don’t like,” Ai said. “Rather, JiveHealth is about helping kids help themselves to find healthier alternatives that they love to eat, and will continue to eat for the rest of their lives.”

To vote in the PHA End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge, click here.