JiveHealth Fights Childhood Obesity With New App
Leveraging the often-addictive power of video games for good, Chicago-based JiveHealth is building an app that will help kids avoid obesity at an early age and learn what’s best for their diet.
As a child, JiveHealth creator Dennis Ai grew up eating unhealthy foods and suffered socially for his weight. Now in his twenties and maintaining a healthy physique, Ai has dedicated his first entrepreneurial effort to helping kids avoid the dieting mistakes he made throughout his elementary school career.
JiveHealth has just made its way through to the semifinals of the Partnership for a Healthier America: End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge. With just a week left to go, the new gaming app has been voted to second place by the public, and is on track to be one of three competitors to go on to the finals in Washington D.C. this Spring.
We sat down with Ai, who talked with us about Lucky Charms, a summer revelation in the Hamptons, and his parents’ background in China that continues drives his entrepreneurial efforts today.
What is the story behind JiveHealth?
It is actually really personal because when I was growing up I had one of the worst diets that you can possibly imagine. I was eating 20 potato skins, which are basically fried potatoes, cheese, and bacon -- I was eating 20 of them a night.
Every night, even though I was on the swim team, I would go to the grocery store and buy a huge bag of sour cream and onion chips and just eat it all, and I didn’t know any better. And before I knew it I was the fattest kid in my fourth grade class at 90 lbs.
What I realize was even though I never really experienced the health consequences -- heart disease or diabetes or anything like that -- I definitely experienced the social ones. Being picked last for teams at school, being called names, having parents whisper to my parents behind my back, things like that.
It hurts especially as a kid when your self-esteem and your confidence can be so fragile. I know that even though if you look at me now I don’t look like that anymore, at the same time there are so many kids that go through this every single day and I personally want to help make them healthier so that they never have to go through what I went through.
The idea itself came to me this past summer. I was between startups -- I was working at a different startup last year and that one didn’t quite work out. I took a break and started playing video games again. I started playing this game called Diablo 3 and I was stuck on it for eight hours a day, literally glued to my mouse and my keyboard.
At the same time I was brainstorming with my friend about what we wanted to do next. We both had an interest in health and we came up with this idea to apply the power of games, which is such a new and influential and powerful medium, to something that would actually make kids healthier.
You traditionally think about video games and you think about kids sitting on the computer, but just as games can be addictive to make kids sit in front of their TV, I think it has the potential to change a lot of behavior in kids.
Is there any significance to the name of your company?
If you look up “jive” it just means to play and have fun. I think that’s a thing that we really want to put forward. A lot of people think about health education as something mundane or boring or things like that.
We want to make it exciting and actually fun to do. Initially our core focus is going to be building out this game and future games. We think this is a great space to be. First we want to start out with healthy eating and maybe eventually we’ll move to exercise or something like that if we’re successful.
When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I’m actually still a senior at school right now at Northwestern University. I’m currently double majoring in Computer Science and Economics. At the end of my sophomore year I actually did an internship at Goldman Sachs. Before that I was convinced that I wanted to do finance and investment banking.
I did a summer in New York at Goldman and it was really on the last day -- they took us up to the Hamptons and it was as ridiculous as it is on the TV shows where there’s an infinity pool, they had a basketball court, a tennis court, they rolled in a coffee cart for us just to serve us coffee for the day that we were there.
It was really nice, but what I realized is that if I worked in finance for 20 years the pinnacle of what I would achieve in my lifetime would be just that -- it would be personal wealth, it might be this mansion in the Hamptons. I realized that at the end of the day what I wanted to do was that I really wanted to ultimately change the world.
Basically that’s when I resolved that I was never going to do finance again and I was going to become an entrepreneur no matter what it took.
The reason why I wanted to change the world goes back to my personal family history. My mom and my dad grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. What happened was they closed down all the schools in China so my mom never went to middle school and my dad dropped out of high school and they were sent to Inner Mongolia where they worked on farms picking up cow dung. That’s what they did all day.
Somehow, some way my mom borrowed books from her brothers. She never got through middle school and she studied on her own. When they finally reopened the schools she placed into college, got her masters, came to the United States, got her PhD. It really gave me the opportunity that I have today.
I think about it and I think in 99 out of 100 alternate realities I would be there still in Inner Mongolia, training the sheep and horses and things like that. So I think about my life and I see that I have this opportunity to do something amazing, to be able to help people that don’t have that same opportunity that I do.
That has become my life mission and that’s what drives me and is my guiding light as I think about any entrepreneurial endeavor I pursue.
What is the most gratuitous junkfood ad you’ve seen targeted to children?
I haven’t watched a lot of TV in the last couple of years. I remember as a kid the one thing that always sticks out for me is the Lucky Charms commercials. They did a really good job because I still remember them 15 years later.
It was always a magical world that you always want to project yourself into as a kid. I wanted to eat Lucky Charms but my parents would never buy them for me, but that was something that I always wanted.
From an advertising point of view I think they did a great job, but obviously from a health point of view it’s something not good for kids.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I’d have to go with telekinesis. I just feel like if you had telekinesis the world would be at your fingertips, that you could be able to control anything that you want. Not that I’m a control freak or anything.
I would basically never have to pick up anything, like a pen I could just bring it over with the snap of my fingers. I guess I could use telekinesis to fly too. I guess it’s one of those super powers that gives you other super powers.
What is your idea of happiness?
I think it goes back to doing the things that I love to do. I think about every single day in my life as an opportunity to do something. I could work at a job I don’t like or I could do things that I’m really passionate about.
For me, JiveHealth is something I love to do. I love doing what I do; it doesn’t even feel like work. That’s part of what makes me happy. I think the other part is knowing what I’m doing is benefitting the people. At the end of the day what I want to do is be able to give other people the opportunities that I’ve had, especially when it comes to health and the education that I’ve had.
Even if I’m just able to do that for one person, even if it’s just to make one person smile and to change their life, I think that would make me happy.
What are your hopes for JiveHealth going forward?
I think first and foremost I hope that our product really can help kids. I think just because the game itself has the ability to be distributed digitally via the App Store that makes it available internationally -- that’s something that makes it beautiful; it’s a game that’s on all these platforms.
Obesity is not just a problem in the US; Australia, France, and all these other countries are dealing with it too. I think that if we can be able to touch those people that would be a great accomplishment.
We’d love to expand on this and maybe tackle other things like fitness. Those are other areas that really help people get healthy. I think there are a lot of opportunities for us there as well.