Most digital nutritional programs are geared toward young adults working to establish healthy eating patterns as they begin to navigate the world independently. But that doesn’t mean that older adults couldn’t benefit from some help, too.
That’s the thinking that led a team of Northeastern students to make geriatric nutrition the subject of this year’s Husky Health Innovation Challenge. In the case competition, put on by healthcare innovation club ViTAL, teams of students pitched original digital solutions to help geriatric patients meet their nutritional health needs over the span of just two weeks last month. It all culminated on March 27 in a single-day event—Pitch Day—which is reminiscent of the television show Shark Tank, with finalist teams presenting their business plans to a panel of judges who then rank the top proposals.
Among the top proposals this year were a Snapchat-style app to help users plan and track their meals, a voice assistant system to connect users with nutritional support, and a subscription snack box tailored to each customer’s individual nutritional needs.
“Nutrition is a major factor that plays into a lot of chronic health conditions as well as a lot of other conditions that people experience older in their lives that can significantly change their quality of life,” says Elisa Danthinne, a fifth-year industrial engineering student at Northeastern, who is the director of special events at the healthcare innovation club and led the planning team for the challenge.
This year, the Husky Health Innovation Challenge wasn’t just for Huskies. The student-organized competition was expanded to include undergraduate students from across the Boston area.
There aren’t opportunities like the Husky Health Innovation Challenge specifically for undergraduates in the Boston area, says Danthinne. “We wanted to model our competition off of what graduate institutions were doing,” and make the competition more collaborative and accessible for all undergraduates from the first competition in 2019, she says. But it wasn’t until this year, when university life moved online and her team had two previous competitions under their belts, that the challenge was expanded.
And it was quite the turnout. Representing eight different schools, 87 students entered the third Husky Health Innovation Challenge, up from 23 and 25 during the first two competitions.
“I think it pushed us a lot harder than if it was just at Northeastern,” says Eva Kuruvilla, a second-year student at Northeastern who studies cellular and molecular biology and healthcare systems engineering. “It also made the second place win feel more gratifying.”
Kuruvilla was part of a Northeastern team that proposed a business plan for a telehealth platform that the team called EatRight, which placed second in the competition. The app, which is designed with seniors in mind, offers users tailored nutrition recommendations, printable grocery plans that factor in local store options, personalized communication with a dietician, a personal food diary, and weekly health questionnaires.
The proposed company also would integrate partnerships with other organizations that provide food delivery, nutrition supplements, companionship, and volunteers to help with tasks such as grocery shopping. In order to best support the most vulnerable populations, EatRight’s funding model would be based in Medicare.
The team that placed first in the competition was made up of Boston University students. They pitched a voice-powered system to support older adults in nutrition and to fortify social connection for food accountability.
“It was a great experience,” says Ben Reydler, a junior studying business administration at B.U. “I thought it was hosted by some organization, it was so professional, all of the emails, all of the branding, and I get to the Pitch Day and it’s completely student-led and I thought, ‘this is awesome.’” The experience inspired him to start something similar at BU, he says.
The challenge didn’t only foster friendly rivalries between universities—it also served as a way to bring Boston-area college students together. “We tried to match people throughout schools so that we could foster collaborations and so that it wouldn’t feel like we were pitting schools against each other,” says Megha Gupta, a fourth-year student studying neuroscience at Northeastern who led the external communications and outreach effort on the organizing team for the challenge.
But for one team, that cross-collegiate collaboration came naturally. Elizabeth Si, a first-year student at Northeastern studying political science and economics, didn’t hear about the competition through her own, hosting university. Shreya Nair, a first-year student at Harvard University, spotted the advertisement and immediately thought of the opportunity to work with her longtime friend. The pair teamed up, recruited another classmate of Nair’s, and they placed third—as the only entirely freshman team among the finalists.
Their proposal, Sage Snacks, is a monthly delivery of snacks selected to serve individual customers’ nutritional needs. The box would contain a wide variety of snacks to help eaters broaden their own options and an informational card detailing the nutritional value and contextualizing that information in terms of how it benefits their bodies. But the service wouldn’t stop there. The company would also host monthly virtual group meals so that members could socialize with one another to alleviate loneliness and hold eaters accountable.
The top three teams all earned cash prizes that the challenge organizers hope will be put toward turning these ideas into a reality. But, says Christopher Han, a fourth-year neuroscience major at Northeastern and executive director of ViTAL, the point of the competition is just to get students thinking about geriatric nutrition and practicing putting together a business plan and pitch.
“You can’t solve geriatric nutrition in one case competition,” Han says. “But I think just being able to think big, and think forward, and understand that you definitely won’t have all the answers, but you should definitely try … And any effort toward improving healthcare is a good effort.”