Student Startup Fights Childhood Obesity with Video Games

Game wins top prize in End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge

JiveHealth, a video game startup founded by a McCormick student to promote healthy eating habits in kids, took first place this month in an anti-obesity competition hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama.

A prototype of JiveHealth’s first game impressed judges in Partnership for a Healthier America’s End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge, presented at the Building a Healthier Future Summit, held March 6 to 8 in Washington, D.C.

JiveHealth’s game, Jungo, is “a hybrid of Angry Birds and Temple Run” for 7- to 12-year-olds in which the player uses a slingshot to ward off enemies, said creator Dennis Ai, a senior studying computer science. In order to power up a character, the player must feed him simple, but healthy, recipes. 

But there’s a catch: some of the necessary ingredients aren’t in the character’s arsenal, so the player must locate them in the real world. For example, apples with peanut butter and raisins may give a character a boost, but to complete the recipe, the player must find a real apple and photograph it with his smartphone.

“Healthy eating starts with the environment, what foods you bring into the household,” Ai said. “Our goal is to get healthy, delicious foods from the supermarket, into the household, into the kids’ hands, and hopefully into their mouths.”

McCormick senior Dennis Ai is congratulated by Newark Mayor Corey Booker after winning the End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge.

Having struggled with his weight throughout his childhood, Ai is serious about fighting childhood obesity. “I know what it feels like, not only from a health perspective but a social perspective. People making fun of you, picking you last for sports teams,” he said. “For me, it’s really personal.”

The idea for Jungo originated after a previous entrepreneurship attempt by Ai failed. He found himself playing hours of video games to cheer himself up.

“I was completely addicted to Diablo 3,” Ai recalled. “I said, ‘Look how powerful this video game is, that it got me to sit at my computer for eight hours a day. Why can’t we apply this medium to something that’s actually beneficial to kids?’”

JiveHealth currently has five employees: Ai, its founder; Christian Yenko, a McCormick sophomore who is working on the game’s image recognition algorithm; Hailey Schmidt and Nathan Wangler, game design students from Chicago’s Tribeca Flashpoint Academy; and serial entrepreneur Tom Denison, the company’s chief revenue officer.

Among the team’s winnings: $10,000 cash; mentoring from executives at top public relations and consulting firms; a pitch meeting with Fortune magazine; and introductions to the First Lady and Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker. 

Ai expects the game to be available for free in app stores this June.

Read an Inc. magazine article about JiveHealth.