Summer 2013

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Senior Dennis Ai presents at the End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge in Washington, D.C. © Doug Van Sant Photography/Courtesy Of Dennis Ai

Startup Takes on Obesity

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Senior Dennis Ai has a personal interest in promoting healthful eating.

With little public speaking experience, senior Dennis Ai donned an oversized T-shirt that sagged around his shoulders and stepped in front of Michelle Obama, Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker and a thousand other audience members in Washington, D.C., in early March to talk about his innovation to end childhood obesity. Eight minutes later they gave the former junk food junkie a standing ovation.

Ai, a senior computer science and economics major from Edison, N.J., and his team created JiveHealth, an Evanston-based company that makes video game apps to encourage healthful eating. The team — which includes the company’s software engineer, Northwestern sophomore Chris Yenko, and two students from Chicago’s Tribeca Flashpoint Academy — won $10,000 in seed money in the Partnership for a Healthier America’s End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge, led by the first lady.

Ai presented in that T-shirt because, for him, this was personal. When he was younger, he would eat potato skins by the dozen and consume a bag of potato chips every night. When he reached fourth grade, he was the heaviest out of 400 students in the school.

“People were whispering behind my back, calling me names, so I’ve been there and I know what it feels like,” Ai says. “That’s why 10, 15 years later, it’s really motivating for me to go back and try to solve this problem.”

Last year Ai created another startup to connect people to movie and restaurant reviews. He learned that a successful startup needs to solve a problem and decided to solve the one that troubled him many years ago. After he spent a lot of time playing video games last summer, he realized that was the ideal medium.

Jungo, the first game from JiveHealth, is a role-playing game where players — 6 to 11 years old — guide their characters, including a bear called Hugo, through a series of challenges. To gain upgrades, they need to find healthful foods in the game world and in the real world. For example, a player might have to photograph an apple to gain an upgrade. The idea is to get healthful snacks into kids’ hands.

The team demonstrated Jungo at the PHA event in March and at the South by Southwest interactive festival in Austin, Texas, before going to California for startup boot camps run by entrepreneur Steve Blank and Microsoft. After Mashable and other sites featured JiveHealth, Matthew Corrin, founder and CEO of the healthful fast food chain Freshii, approached the team and joined the company’s board of advisers. The team plans to release its first game this June.

Ai, who left Northwestern early to devote time to the game’s release, spends 90 to 100 hours per week programming, producing the game and preparing pitches, and will continue these efforts with his team until the June release.