Ramen noodles, anyone? For most of us this poster child of nutrition, more specifically lack thereof, sparks memories of university days. For others it’s synonymous with startup lifestyle. What about calorie counting and fad diets? We’ve all heard of them and many of us have tried them.

From complex scientific information that requires a degree in nutrition to blatantly false information, navigating the landscape of dos and don’ts for healthy eating is a rocky ride. Healthy eating apps like Fooducate, Meal Snap, MealGuru, Menu Planner, and The Eatery offer disparate solutions to help people achieve healthier eating habits.

Childhood friends Jonathan Carr-Harris and Nima Gardideh struggled to keep up healthy lifestyles while they studied towards a business degree and a computer science degree, respectively. Taking inspiration from using personalized news websites and Twitter’s curated content relevant to them, Carr-Harris and Gardideh set out to build a go-to source of relevant and actionable information for people who wanted to eat healthier.

While at Extreme Startups, Carr-Harris and Gardideh created Venio, a meal planning app. When Venio first became available on the App Store in late October last year it aimed to inspire healthy eating by personalizing meal plans. This free iPhone app aggregates recipes from food bloggers and automatically creates personalized meal plans around dietary restrictions, daily activities, gender, age, height, and weight. Additionally, the app presents a nutritional breakdowns of each meal and generates grocery lists. The app learns users’ tastes and preferences and takes them into account when suggesting future meals.

Jonathan Carr-Harris, CEO and co-founder of Venio. Photos by Venio.

The Venio team has gone through a learning curve since launching their app. Venio is currently at over 25,000 users and most of these users are using it for food discovery rather than meal planning. “I talked to a customer recently who told me that her husband is using the app, her daughter is using the app, and she loves a specific blogger. We ask ourselves why is none of it connected and why is there no ecosystem?” said Jonathan Carr-Harris, CEO and co-founder of Venio.

“We’re not attached to what the product is going to become, we’re attached to the problem,” Carr-Harris said. In the new version of Venio that will become available on February 1, food discovery and social features will make up the new focus. Contributing bloggers will have profiles and users will be able to follow their favorite bloggers. The app will prompt new users to pick five meals that they’d like to eat and by tapping on five meals the new users automatically begin to follow the bloggers who contributed the meals.

Eating is a social behaviour and studies show that the eating habits of our families and friends correlate with how healthily we eat. “People who are in groups who eat healthier tend to eat healthier. If we can somehow make a group healthier then we can make an individual healthier,” said Jonathan Carr-Harris, CEO and co-founder of Venio.

Carr-Harris envisions a freemium model as a possible way to monetize Venio. Using the app for food discovery will be free but using the app as a meal planner for vegetarian, gluten-free or diabetic diets will be premium paid features. But for now the focus is on growing the user base.

Following in the footsteps of Dropbox’s marketing-built-into-product approach, Carr-Harris has a few ideas of marketing strategies that can be built into Venio. “We’re considering intrinsic motivations. One idea is a collective where a user invites four friends and sets a certain weight loss goal. If you collectively lose 50 pounds because you contributed to those 50 pounds by inviting four friends onto the platform and motivating them to stay healthy that’s powerful,” Carr-Harris said.

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Starting on February 1, new features will be added to Venio on a weekly basis. The general trend is to give users more options to personalize their profiles, select filters for certain food allergies or dietary preferences, follow their favorite food bloggers, and to connect with friends to reach common health goals. Among all this experimentation and fine-tuning, Venio has also been developing the V-score and is gearing up to submit it to peer reviewed journals. Creating a go-to standard for food labels that grocers and restaurants can use is ambitious but Carr-Harris is optimistic about the progress on this front.

“When professionals who have 20 or 30 years of experience in this industry look at the V-score and give us positive feedback it shows us that we’ve created something good. We’re taking the V-score and we’re putting it on every recipe and every ingredient. If you’re signed in with your profile the V-score is further personalized to your dietary preferences and other factors. For example, for pregnant women we can personalize the V-score specifically for their needs. I think that’s powerful because we’re starting to create a system that can cater to individuals. Health is personal and we want to personalize health,” said Carr-Harris.

To learn more about Venio, visit www.ven.io.

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