Digitizing healthy habits

Feb. 27, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

Between lectures, labs, problem sets and midterms, making well-informed food decisions can be a challenge for busy students. Add the constraints of location and time, and smart eating becomes even more difficult.

Digitizing healthy habits
Awardly, an application developed by Stanford graduate school alum Gülin Yilmaz, provides users with nutritional advice to build healthy eating habits. (SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)


Enter Awardly, a new location-based iPhone app founded by Stanford alumnus Gülin Yilmaz M.S. ’04 MBA ’11 and Claire McDonnell, a Bay Area resident and Fulbright Scholar. Awardly is an iPhone app that allows users to quickly make informed food choices in the hopes that it will encourage positive change in students’ food behavior.


The app uses GPS technology and menu information to guide user food choices based on nutritional goals such as maximizing academic performance or achieving a high level of fitness.


According to Yilmaz, she and McDonnell are entrepreneurs who want to “use technology to bring scalable solutions to people.”


The creators met in 2011 through an entrepreneurial incubation program created by Innovation Endeavors, a Palo Alto-based venture capital firm. The program connects entrepreneurs who are interested in addressing similar problems through their work, and the duo hit it off from the very beginning.


“We are lucky because we have aligned interests, diverse skill sets and similar values,” Yilmaz said. “[I am] interested in using technology as a platform to help people make behavioral changes. In this case, the interest is in food behavioral change.”


Yilmaz was inspired by her experience living in the United States. Before arriving at Stanford to attend graduate school, she lived in Turkey, the United Kingdom and France.


“I was shocked to see how people were eating in the U.S. and actually ended up putting on about 25 pounds in my first three months here,” she said. “I have a personal passion around understanding food decisions, especially for young people, and using technology to make an impact.”


McDonnell, Awardly co-founder and chief operating officer, also cites her personal experience as her impetus for starting the organization. McDonnell is a management consultant and certified yoga instructor who attributes her drive to bring healthy living to a broader audience to the goal-oriented nature of her career.


“As a yoga instructor, I think about achieving goals on a personal level,” McDonnell said. “That is really the animating spirit of our company — it’s all about helping individuals who have a goal. We’ve developed an application that helps them use food to accomplish that goal.”


McDonnell and Yilmaz did not set out to create an iPhone app when they began the project.


“We had no intention, initially, of building an iPhone app,” McDonnell said. “We had an intention of solving a problem, and the iPhone app is the way we are solving that problem.”


“Claire and I differ a little bit from the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,” Yilmaz said. “They may come up with an idea that is cool and say ‘Let us build this and see if people use it.’ Instead, we chose the need…and we went out and talked to people.”


“We spoke with about two hundred [people] in total…and let them design the solution for us,” she added. “What we realized is that they are all on their phones, so the solution must be mobile.”


In developing the specific nutritional options Awardly presents to its users, the creators consulted Tami Lyon, registered dietician and founder of Healthy Living Nutritional Counseling.


“I provided [Yilmaz and McDonnell] with guidance on the nutritional aspects of how to provide challenges to users in a way that is easy to understand and easy to apply,” Lyon said.


The scientific background that Lyon provided is embedded in the app’s design, and users are presented with simple choices that encourage healthier behavior.


When users decide to eat at a specific restaurant, they open Awardly and the app uses GPS to identify the restaurant. Then users choose their “goal” for their upcoming meal, and Awardly gives suggestions on choices they can make to help reach these goals based on available menu items. The app may identify a menu item that is best for brainpower or make generalized suggestions like choosing leafy green vegetables over potato chips.


Each time users successfully complete a challenge, they earn points within the app. Users can eventually save up enough points to get real-life rewards from the app, such as iTunes credit. Currently, the app is being beta tested by a group of Stanford students.


“What we have seen is that almost everyone using the product has made changes in the way they eat,” McDonnell said.

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