“India really needs to do something about belly fat! “- a first world problem, one would imagine.
But ask 27 year old Tushar Vashisht and you’d know why its more important to solve this problem in India than anywhere else.
“Three out of four employees and 82% of chief executives in India are overweight. There were more than 50 million diabetics in the country growing at 20% annually in 2004,” he says citing a study about cardiovascular diseases in developing countries.
Vashisht is ready with more data but that won’t be necessary if you look around. “Sedentary lifestyle,” is the problem he explains. As the country makes progress, its celebrated demographic dividend is at risk, he says.
Slowly, one India is moving away from an agrarian lifestyle to a state where there is little physical exertion. “But our eating habits haven’t changed. Its still high on carbs and fats,” he adds. As a result, abdominal adiposity or belly fat which has a strong correlation to cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various other health problems is prevalent.
The other India is fighting poverty and malnutrition.
Few months ago, he teamed up with Mathew Cherian solve the first problem.
Both Cherian, a computer science graduate from MIT and Vashisht, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who started out in investment banking, were looking to return to India. In 2009, they found the “perfect opportunity,” to do so.
The co-founder and former Chief Executive Officer of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani, had been asked by the Government to work on a massive technology project to give more than 1.2 billion Indians a unique, verifiable, online identification number. Nilekani was putting together some of the best minds in the country. Cherian and Vashisht were among the ones who volunteered.
As the core team started to pack up after putting in place the technology backbone consisting of a world’s largest biometric database, highly scalable authentication and payment mechanisms and massive computing capabilities for the identification project, Cherian and Vashisht began a interesting experiment– to try and live in India on Rs 100 a day. Towards the end of their experiment, they also came across a rather funny number– Rs 32.
Rupees 32 and Rupees 100 a day
In September last year, the planning commission of India redrew the poverty line. It said that anyone who spends more than Rs 32 a day in urban areas and Rs 26 a day in rural areas will not be eligible for below poverty line benefits. This led to widespread criticism of the government. Vashisht and Cherian wanted to bring some evidence to the scene and set out on their Rs 100 a day project.
“We started on this experiment to live on Rs 100 a day,” recalls Cherian. “Both of us lost a lot of weight and found that it was nearly impossible to sustain,” he added. Living on such a budget would leave people severely undernourished. The project drew attention to the duo and the fact that the Rs 32 a day poverty line, was a line drawn too low. “Our new startup came out of the lessons we learned during the project,” he said.
Healthifyme & Belly fat
While the experiment resulted in some great insights, the two came across a practical difficulty and discovered the problem of belly fat. “It was very hard to keep track of the calories we consumed,” Vashisht says. Soon, the two set up a company to build a simple app to keep track of calories. But wait a minute. That’s not easy.
Indian recipes have never been broken down to ingredients and digitized in a form which could be analysed for meaningful information. For the first few months, the team pieced together thousands of Indian recipes with complex ingredients and nutritive values. “You are talking of hundreds of thousands of data points. The database has thousands of dishes which is growing and being customised by users every day.”
Once the database was built, it was about creating a front facing app for users to interact with it. The app has many features which makes it easier for a user to live a healthier life. It tracks your calories, fitness activity, nutrition and weight. You can set goals, get advice and suggestions on lifestyle from expert dieticians and work on a systematic fitness plan.
The app alone can’t be the end to all, but it can greatly help, believes Vashisht. Last month on a Friday evening, Healthifyme went into private beta.
“We hired a great team, and we will be ready for launch sometime in January,” he said. Sachin Shenoy, an ex googler, and an entrepreneur himself, recently joined the startup as the third co-founder to head the engineering team.
Computer science graduates Ajish Balakrishnan and Rohit Jangid, Nivedita Arora a developer fresh out of college who has a few 100,000 app downloads to her credit, nutritionists Neha Jain and Kanika Agarwal, former journalist Shruti Gautham and Anshul Dhoundial are part of the team.
You can sign up here for an invite to try out the app.