ShopWell, Ideo’s First Big Spinoff, Says Better Health Starts at the Supermarket

11/1/10Follow @wroush

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control shocked the nation two weeks ago with a study projecting that by the year 2050, as many as one fifth to one third of U.S. adults could have diabetes, up from just 10 percent today. Part of this increase is inevitable—a side effect of the swelling population of people at high risk for the disease, such as the elderly and Hispanics. It’s also a result of the fact that diabetics are living longer thanks to better treatments. But the CDC researchers also offered evidence that key “preventive interventions” could considerably reduce the future prevalance of diabetes and the resulting burden on the healthcare system.

It’s no mystery what those interventions might be, and they aren’t expensive or high-tech. The most effective way to prevent adult-onset diabetes, by far, is weight control through exercise and healthy eating. And diabetics aren’t the only ones who could benefit from a better diet: 34 percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to the CDC.

Unfortunately, choosing healthier foods is easier said than done. The huge stakes involved in those choices—and the opportunity to help simplify them—are among the reasons why team members at ShopWell, a recent spinoff of Palo Alto, CA-based design consultancy Ideo, are so passionate about their business: a Web-based service that helps consumers make smarter grocery buying decisions. As its name implies, ShopWell shows consumers which products on supermarket shelves mesh best with their health goals, and which are non-starters.

Nutrition Facts Label, personalized by ShopWell“Before I came on board here, I asked, ‘Is this just a Palo Alto problem that you’re trying to solve at Ideo?,’ because I really want to solve a big problem,” says Jasmine Kim, who joined the startup as CEO in September. “Well, when one in three children under 17 are overweight; when Americans don’t even recognize what overweight is now, because it’s the new normal; when you have Michelle Obama tackling childhood obesity on a national level; when Jamie Oliver is trying to get schools to go from chocolate milk to regular milk—that all tells you that this is a big problem, and that’s the kind of problem we want to solve.”

The first challenge ShopWell is biting off: the sorry state of nutrition labeling on food packaging. It’s been more than 70 years since Congress mandated that food makers list ingredients on their labels, and 20 years since the advent of the familiar “Nutrition Facts” chart. But while these labels are packed with information, it’s largely a contextless, one-size-fits-all deal—the percent daily values, for example, are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which may be more or less than you really need, depending on your age, weight, gender, and activity levels.

Using ShopWell is like getting a Nutrition Facts label made just for you. At the ShopWell website, you start by entering personal details like age and gender, along with information about your health goals and conditions—whether you have high blood pressure or diabetes, for example. That allows ShopWell’s behind-the-scenes algorithms to spit out personalized ratings for thousands of common products. If you’re trying to lose weight, foods with lots of added sugar will obviously score low (bye-bye, Betty Crocker Cookie Mix). But on a subtler level, ShopWell will also bump up the scores of high-calcium foods for people with osteoporosis, or those with high levels of fiber and potassium and low levels of fat and cholesterol for people with heart disease. Armed with this data, you can build a shopping list that speeds your trip through the nutrition minefield that is the typical supermarket.

ShopWell’s executives and investors see the service as the missing link between nutrition labeling and personal health. “There is a groundswell of interest in the connection between food and wellness,” says Robert Rosenberg, a partner at New Venture Partners, the San Mateo, CA-based venture firm that backed ShopWell’s launch. “But if you look at where the rubber meets the road, in the supermarket, day after day you are going to see a consumer holding a box of this in their right hand and a box of that in their left hand, trying to figure out, ‘What does this mean for me?’ The world needs a personalized food rating engine that can connect this impenetrable mound of scientific data about nutrition and ingredients with my personal preferences or medical needs as a consumer.”

Of course, Silicon Valley is humming these days with Web startups and apps promising to help consumers with one challenge or another, from monitoring their finances to keeping track of their kids to buying a car. What makes a food website with only a dozen employees so interesting? Quite a few things, actually.

One is the undeniable scale and importance of the problem: some 100 million Americans have food-related health problems, from annoyances like lactose intolerance to life-threatening conditions like … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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