App That Provides “Nutrition Receipts” For Groceries Wins IDEAS Global Challenge

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06 Apr 2016 --- ValueMe, co-founded by two MIT Sloan School of Management students, earned a US$15,000 award — and high praise from judges — for inventing an app that gives food shoppers “nutrition receipts” for their purchased groceries, and tells them if the foods in their cart are lacking in essential nutrients.  

This is the concept behind an innovation that won first place at the 15th annual IDEAS Global Challenge, recently held in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab.

IDEAS is an annual competition that provides MIT’s social entrepreneurs with mentorship and resources to launch commercial ventures centered on social impact and innovation. This year, 46 teams competed in nine categories: water and sanitation, education and training, agriculture and food, health and medical, emergency and disaster relief, housing and transportation, energy and environment, mobile devices and communication, and finance and entrepreneurship.

ValueMe team member Malena Gonzalez, a student in MIT’s Executive MBA Program, said the team’s app is powered by an algorithm that leverages data from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database. In so doing, the app can analyze groceries for missing vitamins, minerals, protein, and carbohydrates needed to fulfill a preset diet. By partnering with the American Association of Retired Persons, ValueMe also plans to incentivize buyers with discounts for buying healthier foods.

The team aims to partner with supermarkets to integrate their system at registers. At check-out, a person will swipe their insurance card, and the system will recognize the person and analyze all food items purchased for nutritional value. This information will be sent to the buyer’s app. “When they’re printing your receipt, [you] will receive a nutrition snapshot of everything that you purchased and it will analyze if there are components or nutrients that are missing in your diet,” Gonzalez said. “This provides, at the point of sale, education for consumers on how healthy they’re eating.”

In presenting the award to ValueMe, Ben Sanchez, co-founder of the Latin American Science Education Network, which won a US$7,500 prize at last year’s IDEAS competition, said judges called the concept “more innovative than anything they have seen in the history of the competition.” One judge noted that ValueMe “could trigger a systematic change in the food industry,” Sanchez said.

ValueMe will put the IDEAS prize money toward a pilot program with a grocery store in Philadelphia, according to Gonzalez. The other ValueMe team member is executive MBA student Tomasz Grzegorczyk, a former researcher in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, who has a background in data analytics.

In its 15-year history, IDEAS has awarded more than US$750,000 to 128 teams, more than half of which are still active in 44 countries as for-profit and nonprofit firms. Winners have gone on to secure more than US$40 million in additional funding.

In her welcoming remarks, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart praised the competing students’ ingenuity. “You’ve recognized some of humanity’s most pressing problems and you’ve gotten to work solving them,” Barnhart said. “Thank you for embodying the most important MIT tradition of all: using your knowledge to make the world better for this generation and the ones that follow.”

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