ShopWell gives food buyers new tools for healthy eating

Silicon Valley start-up develops an algorithm that helps buyers match foods to their own individual health needs and eating preferences. And it doesn't let food manufacturers influence the "sacred" algorithm.

If you're going to try to help people figure out the best foods for their individual circumstances, why not bring a little Silicon Valley sensibility to the table?

That's the thinking of ShopWell, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based start-up that's hoping to become a major player in the ever-growing personal nutrition recommendation arena with a high-tech matching algorithm.

Founded by Brian Witlin, a former entrepreneur-in-residence at leading design consultancy IDEO, ShopWell is aiming to give individual shoppers Web- and mobile-based applications that offer the best possible suggestions about what groceries to buy based on their own personal needs.

ShopWell

And while the service is quick to suggest products from a wide range of manufacturers, its algorithm is designed to be independent of any kind of influence from those manufacturers. That's a crucial component to any nutrition service, since it means that the system is not hard-wired to steer users towards products that might not suit their needs just because of contractual obligations.

Rather, explained Marci Harnischfeger, Shopwell's head dietician, the service is intended to take stock of each user's personal preferences and health situation and build a set of recommendations tailored directly to that person, and then to provide an easy to understand score for any food.

And now, with the three-person company seeking to close a B round of funding and expand to about eight people, it is hoping one of its newest features, called "trading up," can help it separate itself from a host of competitors.

Essentially, Harnischfeger explained, the idea is to let shoppers enter a product they like or buy, and have the system run that product through its algorithm. It will then automatically score the food and also respond with a different product if there is one that it determines is a better match for the shopper's individual health profile.

So, for example, someone might enter a granola bar they like, and the system will evaluate it against a list of the person's health requirements--say, no gluten or low sugar--and come up with an alternative. And, Witlin said, users will benefit not just from getting a suggestion for something that better suits them, but also because ShopWell will spell out for them why it's supposed to be better.

This is a crucial element to ShopWell's approach to helping people eat better. Witlin said that the idea is that people will tend to eat what's in their pantry, and so a major goal of the company's system is to help shoppers get better food into their house. Yet because nutrition isn't a one-size-fits-all thing, any system that hopes to help people has to take into account their personal health and tastes. As a result, ShopWell's system is designed to get people to answer questions about the things they can and can't eat what they like and don't like, and so forth, and come up with scores for different products based on how well they match up.

Initially, ShopWell was working mainly on a mobile application that incorporated RedLaser's bar code scanning to help people get product suggestions while on the go. But now, Witlin said, the company is focusing much of its energy on its Web-based tools.

Algorithm

As a former IDEO entrepreneur-in-residence, Witlin said the idea for ShopWell came not from a newly developed technology, but rather from a question: "How do we make people more mindful of what they eat?"

From that beginning, Witlin and his small team have worked to develop its algorithm, which he calls "sacred," meaning that it's the heart of what the company does and that it's unavailable to undue influence from marketers. Users can hit a button and say that they don't agree with a product suggestion, and Witlin said he thinks that a lot of feedback will come from outside dieticians. And if someone's disagreement about a product match can be backed up with "evidence-based research," ShopWell may incorporate the feedback into the algorithm. But manufacturers won't be able to affect the algorithm without backing up their assertions, he said.

Still, ShopWell does plan on making money from the food industry. But its business model is built around doing so not by trading influence but simply as a research tool. "ShopWell plans to generate revenue through marketing services (e.g., coupons) and market research insights (e.g., people buy product X because it is low in fiber) that we will provide to companies interested in serving shoppers who want to eat better," the company's Web site reads. "By engaging food producers, we hope to close the loop between consumers and producers so that better food is created that actually meets consumers' needs. In doing so, we will never compromise your privacy or our integrity as an unbiased site. We will never sell personal information, and we guarantee that advertising will always be clearly identified/labeled as such and will never impact our product scores or recommendations, period."

Don't tell you not to eat something
One trick ShopWell is using to make users feel more comfortable is its color-coding system. As Harnischfeger put it, the service never tells users not to eat something. Instead, it comes up with a score (and an associated color--red, yellow, or green) that makes it easy to see at a glance whether a product is suitable for someone's diet.

So, for example, a product with a score of 50 will have a yellow code associated with it, making it easy to see that someone would probably want to eat it in moderation. A green score indicates a product or food fits well with their profile, while a red score is obviously a sign of something that doesn't mesh well at all.

Entering a profile takes just a couple of minutes, and then finding suggestions for products--either from lists of food categories, or entered individually--is easy.

Clearly, ShopWell would never position itself as providing infallible nutrition advice, despite its on-staff dietician. But for easy product comparisons, it seems like a simple to use system that has shoppers' health as its primary goal. In a world filled with misleading nutrition information and marketers who want to sell you whatever they can, it's refreshing to know that companies like ShopWell are springing up and applying technology to the age-old problem of how to eat well.

 

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